MASISI, Democratic Republic of Congo—The massive peacekeeping effort undertaken here over the past 18 months hasn't done much to slow the bloodshed in this central African nation. But it just might have destroyed a bold and hopeful new idea about how much the United Nations can accomplish.
Since Congo's civil war broke out in 1994, it has become the world's deadliest conflict, pitting neighboring governments and dozens of local warlords in a free-for-all over the prodigious profits to be made in eastern Congo's mines. According to demographers, 5.4 million Congolese died during just one stretch from 1998 to 2006.
Fed up with the ineffectiveness of its traditional approach to peacekeeping, the United Nations Security Council decided last year to scrap its policy of firing only in self-defense. Instead, it launched a remarkable experiment: its first-ever "force intervention brigade," a fully armed fighting unit to hunt down and stop predatory militias.
The goal was to put teeth in the UN's promise to protect civilians in war zones. But after one early success routing the largest antigovernment militia, the brigade's promise has faltered. The remaining militias have proved far harder to suppress, with foreign backers and sympathetic local supporters. And to some observers, the brigade has turned the United Nations into just another army in a war with too many armies already, helping hand territory over to a Congolese government that behaves just as badly as the militias it replaces.
For Congo, the failure of this experiment would mark a tragedy in a region already exhausted by tragedy. For the world at large, the test comes at a pivotal moment for the idea of international peacekeeping itself—a concept that is under increasing scrutiny from the nations upon whose money, troops, and political support its existence depends.
This year, the UN is taking a hard look at all its peacekeeping operations, trying to rethink how, and when, it should try to intervene in violent conflicts. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who normally has a reputation for avoiding conflict even within his own bureaucracy, called this summer for a formal review of peacekeeping, describing a crisis brought on by interventions in complex civil wars "where there is no peace to keep." Congo is being watched closely, and observers are skeptical that the outcome there will be encouraging.
"Is this the future? I'd say no," says retired Major General Patrick Cammaert, who commanded UN peacekeepers for decades, including in Congo, and who now writes about the endemic problems of peacekeeping. "What more can the international community do?" Cammaert asks. "That's the frustrating question."
He’s contributing to a debate that has erupted among experts who want the UN to do better in the world’s bleakest war zones. Some are convinced it only requires more resources and effort. Others, however, have come to believe that the best we can do is to drastically reduce expectations of how much the international community can help.
In a sense, the experiment in Congo exposes a contradiction wound into the UN’s very DNA. One founding principle of the UN was neutrality: that it could be an outside arbiter, swooping in to resolve regional conflicts without preference for one side or the other. Another principle was humanitarianism—helping vulnerable civilians and children, through intervention if necessary.
Its architects, determined to prevent another global conflict like World War II, gave the UN the power to dispatch peacekeepers who could monitor cease-fires and truce lines, protect refugees, even end wars. They didn't imagine how profoundly the principles of neutrality and humanitarianism might start to conflict, as states and nonstate actors fought complex multiplayer wars that blurred traditional categories.
Ironically, it was Congo that handed the UN its first major peacekeeping defeat in 1960. After a skirmish between UN troops and secessionists left hundreds of civilians dead, Western superpowers claimed the UN soldiers had acted beyond their orders, while the Soviet Union angrily accused the United States of supporting the assassination of Congo's pro-independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Compromised by political rivalries, the mission was effectively put into deep freeze until its official closure in 1964.
The UN stayed away from such controversial engagements until the Cold War had ended. In the 1990s, it began to venture again into complex civil wars. Peacekeepers were armed, often with top-of-the-line military equipment, but usually stayed out of the fray, like referees during a hockey brawl.
The failures of this approach mounted quickly and painfully. International peacekeepers were humiliatingly sidelined during the 1990s genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. Hundreds of lightly armed UN peacekeepers were even taken hostage in Bosnia and used as bargaining chips by warlords. In Rwanda, the UN commander presciently warned of the coming genocide—and was ordered not to take any action to try to prevent it. Peacekeepers proved equally ineffective in Somalia.
Spurred by those failures, thinkers and policy makers began to push for a more muscular approach, giving rise to the somewhat paradoxical idea of "humanitarian intervention," an anodyne term for the use of military force to help people and restore peace. Its supporters believed that in some wars, especially when governments or militias weren't directly fighting each other but were instead killing civilians, neutrality no longer made sense. To end a civil war, it might be necessary to pick a side and help it prevail.
Congo became the lab for this new vision in 2012. After a relative calm of several years, the civil war had ramped up once again. The Rwandan-backed M23 militia was sweeping through the eastern provinces; warlords engaged in mass rape and murder while seizing control of the diamond trade and eastern Congo's profitable coltan mines. Millions of civilians were displaced, again and again, in a shockingly poor and undeveloped state where it sometimes takes an entire day over rutted muddy tracks, on foot or motorcycle, to reach a nearby clinic or market town. Hundreds of militias vied for control of sometimes tiny areas. In what looked like a replay of past humiliations in Bosnia and Rwanda, M23 conquered even the city of Goma, where the UN had a headquarters and massive operation.
The embarrassment this time was a catalyst. The major powers at the UN and in Africa agreed they had to do more, and came up with the force intervention brigade, approved in March 2013.
The peacekeepers in the UN stabilization mission—known by the acronym MONUSCO—wear the standard UN blue helmets and insignia, but there the resemblance to previous UN missions ends. Its highly trained infantry troops, from a variety of African states, are led by South African soldiers. They track Congolese militias using drones and the kind of surveillance technology that US special forces use to pursue Al Qaeda, swooping in the from the air to disarm or kill them. When civilians seek protection on UN bases, the peacekeepers go after the militias who threaten them. They pursue enemy fighters deep into the jungle.
In certain respects, the effort is working. During its first year, MONUSCO's crack intervention brigade successfully routed M23, driving its leaders into exile or arresting them, and helping the Congolese government disarm or absorb most of its gunmen. It has presided over the restoration of a tenuous calm in places like Masisi, where farmers have resumed grazing profitable herds in the grassy hills after decades when violence made agriculture impossible. Motorcycle taxis ply roads that just a year ago were too dangerous to traverse. Commerce is haltingly returning to many villages, and some of the millions of displaced people are returning home.
But that's where the first problem arises. The UN has chosen sides, which means supporting Congo's current government. When the UN troops finish, they turn the cleared areas over the Congolese Army. Local residents frequently complain that these forces subject them to another wave of the same violence they experienced under militia rule. For residents mugged and shot by marauding gunmen, it makes no difference whether the overlords wear the insignia of a warlord's militia or of the government. The government pressures the UN to criticize only the rebels; in October, it expelled the UN mission's top human rights official after he released a report on the national police force's abuses.
Meanwhile, dozens of militias are proving harder to dislodge. Local supporters of one formidable militia, backed by Uganda, staged demonstrations outside UN facilities this month against international efforts to drive it out of the northeast Congo. And there are policy thinkers who believe that the UN’s new approach makes it a legitimate military target. A report released this month by the International Peace Institute, a New York think tank, argues that the UN Congo mission’s aggressive mandate means that under international law, its “peacekeepers” no longer enjoy the legal protections that normally cover UN personnel.
The new approach has also split the UN and the peacekeeping world by creating fears that it might endanger humanitarian aid workers, from both the UN and unrelated nongovernmental organizations, who normally rely on the protection of neutrality. My own trip to Masisi in September took place under the auspices of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, whose volunteers and local staff expressed exactly this worry. So far, it appears that local antigovernment warlords haven't turned against the group. But as I interviewed villagers, it became clear that plenty of them mistakenly believed that Doctors Without Borders was part of the UN.
As with most of the UN’s most difficult missions, there is no end game for the Congo intervention. Peacekeepers were first deployed in 1999, and since then there have been many rounds of political negotiations involving the government, the rebels, and neighboring African countries. MONUSCO’s intervention brigade was deployed to support this vague and open-ended negotiation process, and thus has no stated timetable to leave the country.
To many, its failure would represent a particular disappointment. In a certain light, the brigade represents the UN and the Western powers at their most flexible and creative, trying to combine military might with a genuine commitment to the relief of suffering.
Chastened or emboldened by the lessons of Congo, UN leaders, the nations that pay for peacekeeping missions (led by the United States and Japan), and experts in the field are scrambling for new ideas for interventions that work—or whose failure or success can even be determined. Some experts now suggest that it would be wiser to embrace something more like "conflict management" than "conflict resolution," an acceptance that outside powers can help save lives, but never actually end a civil war. Others argue for more investment on the political side, to force peace accords.
Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert at New York University, believes the international community should pick its shots—"Go big or go home," he says—and stay away from incremental interventions that prolong conflict without resolving it.
Retired UN official Michael von den Schulenburg has worked with UN peacekeeping missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and other hot spots and emerged as one of the system's biggest critics, believing that Western powers have gotten addicted to the notion that there are military shortcuts to peace. "Peacebuilding is essentially cheating history. Look at our own states—our borders, what language we speak, which ethnic community predominates—it was always a bloody affair that went on for hundreds of years," he says. "Now we want to solve these conflicts in 10 years." He suggests dispensing with most peacekeeping altogether, and instead sending civilians to complicated war zones, in the full knowledge that they might be able to address small problems but not the big ones.
Slightly more optimistic is Severine Autesserre, a Barnard College political scientist who has spent years analyzing the dynamics and history of the Congo conflict. She embarked on a field study of all the reasons why foreign peacekeepers were destined to failure, and emerged with the opposite conclusion. In the book "Peaceland," published this summer, she argues that through hundreds of minor, incremental improvements, the international community could dramatically boost the quality of life in conflict zones like those in Congo, thereby getting better value out of the troops it dispatches as peacekeepers.
If there is a lesson in the UN's sporadic attempts to put weight behind its peacekeeping, it comes down to this: No outside power, not even an international mission blessed with moral authority and big guns, can unilaterally impose peace on a fractious war zone. An intractable stew of warlords, propped up by foreign states or nefarious funding networks, and a corrupt, authoritarian government prone to human rights abuses: This could easily describe Congo today, or Sudan, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The West has tried all manner of approaches, from containment to invasion and occupation to staying out of it. That none of these tactics has reliably worked doesn't mean that we should do nothing. But it does mean that whatever we do try is unlikely to bring a prompt end to the violence. It might, at best, save a few lives.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of the forthcoming "Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story." He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.