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The Counterinsurgency Debate: A Tale of Two Countries

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How do you defeat a dangerous insurgent group that has embedded itself within a civilian population? This vexing question is at the center of the ongoing debate over the counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan -- a conversation that plays itself out at the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, on Capitol Hill, and through a seemingly endless herd of pundits on cable news shows, op-ed pages, and in the blogosphere. And there is a good reason for such a considered and public discussion. Beyond the direct involvement of U.S. forces, success in Afghanistan, however that is ultimately defined, has clear implications for international peace and security. Failure, says the cliché, is not an option.

While we discuss the way forward in Afghanistan, a calamitous counterinsurgency operation is unfolding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo without the benefit of the same kind of thoughtful debate. In the forested terrain of Congo's eastern provinces, the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeeping forces are waging a campaign that has little chance to succeed and has deepened what was already one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies. As in Afghanistan, the strategy in Congo demands a rethink.

The motivation for the Congolese-U.N. offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR -- a Rwandan rebel group led by some of the architects of the 1994 genocide -- is generally sound. It appears to represent a legitimate effort by the Congolese government to address this regional security threat as part of a broader diplomatic initiative to mend its turbulent relations with Rwanda.

Rwanda has twice invaded Congo (first in 1996 and again in 1998), in both instances citing the FDLR's continued presence as justification. The second invasion sparked the conflict that became known as 'Africa's World War,' which pitted at least seven national armies and scores of armed groups against each other and, deplorably, Congolese civilians. A staggering 5.4 million people have died as a result of the war--the highest body count of any conflict since World War II.

There is no dispute that the FDLR must be removed from eastern Congo; they are responsible for horrific atrocities against civilians and have stifled regional peacemaking efforts for several years. But while the ongoing military operation has forced the rebels to abandon a number of the lucrative mining areas that help sustain their insurgency, the operation's terrible human cost badly outweighs its benefits. Since military operations against the FDLR began in January 2009, 800,000 people have fled their homes--the largest number of newly displaced in any African conflict. At least 600 civilians have been killed, and thousands of women and girls raped.

The military strategy has floundered for two main reasons. First, Congo's abusive army lacks the discipline and professionalism necessary for this type of combat. Second, the United Nations peacekeeping force lacks the capacity to provide adequate operational support or to protect the civilians affected by the fighting. Senior U.N. officials continue to argue that their support is essential to the success of the mission, but the current counterinsurgency approach will almost certainly fail. The U.N. Security Council has tasked peacekeepers to "protect civilians...under imminent threat of physical violence." However, the force lacks the troop strength and mobility to meet this challenge across a large area with very poor infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Congolese civilians are caught in a vice grip: they face predatory behavior from their own army and are not protected from predictable and devastating reprisal attacks from the FDLR.

The sad truth is that a much-needed debate over what an effective counterinsurgency strategy would look like in eastern Congo -- similar to what is going on regarding Afghanistan -- is virtually non-existent. U.N. member states and the Security Council are fully aware of the obvious deficiencies of the Congolese army, and have repeatedly seen fit to renew the peacekeeping mission's mandate while consistently failing to provide the troops and resources it needs to carry out its extraordinarily difficult work effectively. Moreover, military operations have not been pursued in tandem with a more aggressive and better resourced effort to encourage rank-and-file FDLR to disarm and repatriate to Rwanda. Military strategy is, after all, only one element of counterinsurgency.

To prevent the crisis in eastern Congo from deepening, and to ensure that the military gains that have been achieved can be secured, the Congolese government should take two immediate steps. First, it should suspend offensive operations and work with the U.N. to consolidate control over those areas that have already been cleared of insurgents. Second, it should work with the U.N. and international donors to put in place a counterinsurgency approach that targets FDLR leadership militarily while ramping up efforts to induce FDLR rank-and-file militia members to lay down their arms and repatriate to Rwanda. The effectiveness of demobilization would be greatly enhanced if the Rwandan government relaxes restrictions on press freedoms and political activity.

Whereas the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has put protection of Afghan civilians at the forefront of his strategy, Congolese civilians have borne the corrosive brunt of counterinsurgency efforts in eastern Congo. Given the comparatively diminutive impact that Congo's fate has on our collective security, a cynic might suggest that, for policymakers in Washington, London, Paris, Beijing, and Moscow, failure in eastern Congo is an option. The longer this crisis drags on, the easier that shameful notion is to believe.