The EU cannot accept defeat in Congo

If the EU or the UN send in substantial reinforcements, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda might pre-empt them by seizing Goma and take peacekeepers hostage

This article originally appeared on the European Voice website.

Congo has been the second most important testing ground for the European Security and Defence Policy; like the Congolese, the EU needs a long-lasting peacekeeping presence in the country.

The script is familiar. A crisis explodes in central Africa. UN troops are unequal to the challenge. Civilians flee in tens, even hundreds, of thousands. NGOs and the press warn of another Rwanda. But there is hope: a crack EU force is on its way to restore order.

The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has been built on scenarios like these. In 2003, the EU averted a major crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by deploying a largely French force to reinforce the beleaguered UN mission there.

That operation, Artemis, became the gold standard for ESDP missions in Africa. But now, with eastern Congo close to anarchy again, EU forces are notable by their absence.

Last week, events around Goma – a hub on Congo’s border with Rwanda – gripped world attention. Rebels allied with Rwanda inflicted a massive defeat on the Congolese army.

That has happened before, as the army is as useless as it is corrupt. In the past UN peacekeepers protected Goma. This time, they appear unable to do so. The rebels have so far refrained from seizing Goma itself, but reportedly have it surrounded.

With refugee camps burning and up to 100,000 newly displaced civilians (to add to the one million already in the region), there was soon talk of a new EU intervention. But while France and Belgium are said to be keen, other European governments – such as Germany, involved in a lower-risk mission to Congo in 2006 – have been sceptical.

After ministerial discussions in Marseilles on Monday, Bernard Kouchner told reporters that an ESDP mission was “still to be decided”, instead urging more “offensive capability” for the UN. But with Indian and Pakistani troops in eastern Congo still vulnerable to the rebels, the UN Security Council has yet to authorise any new brigades.

Both the EU and the UN have reason to be cautious. If either sends substantial reinforcements, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda might pre-empt them by seizing Goma, taking the peacekeepers there hostage. Rwanda could get involved directly – especially if it perceives meddling by France, which it believes was complicit in the 1994 genocide.

Conscious of these risks, European officials have considered sending troops to deliver aid rather than fight. But no country would send units without serious force protection. The rebels might doubt the mission’s motivations, just as opposition forces in Chad believe that the current EU ‘humanitarian’ mission there is designed to defend the government.

But the EU should stand up a battle group to deploy immediately to the eastern Congo if the situation deteriorates. And it should ask why it has let the situation get as bad as it is.

Since Artemis, the Congo has arguably been the second most important testing ground for ESDP – surpassed only by Bosnia. In addition to its occasional military deployments, it has sent missions to train the police and reform its dreadful (and dread-causing) army. It has also poured money into the aid and security efforts of the UN, which has 18,000 personnel there.

So if it all falls apart now, it will be a signal defeat for the EU as a foreign-policy force. No wonder that Javier Solana, Louis Michel, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband have been engaged in frantic diplomacy with the Congolese and Rwandan leaderships.

With luck this diplomatic surge will provide an opening for broader discussions about central Africa’s security. There is a need for a new regional security framework to allow mistrustful governments to resolve their disputes peacefully – the Dutch EU presidency funded significant research into how this would work and how the EU could help. France should dust off these plans and convene a donor conference to raise the necessary cash.

But this initiative will still need to be backed by a long-lasting peacekeeping presence with (as Kouchner noted in Marseilles) greater capabilities than the UN currently enjoys.

Easier said than done. The UN mission in Congo is already among its best-equipped. It has the types of attack helicopters and armoured vehicles notoriously missing in Darfur.

But it still lacks effective intelligence and will need some sort of boost to restore its credibility after the present crisis. If the EU is not ready to send ground troops, its members could send an air component of surveillance and ground support aircraft. This would not have to be very large to make a significant impact on a very low-tech war.

And the EU should also be better prepared for future crises where ground forces are an option – while Goma has grabbed headlines, there are other trouble-spots emerging in Congo. The EU cannot afford to repeat its response to this crisis: waiting until the battle has already been lost to rebels before launching into political wrangling about what to do.

The EU should deploy a planning team to the Congo, based in Kinshasa to collaborate with the UN and act as the core for a European field headquarters in any future crisis – the EU sent a similar team to Kosovo in 2006. If Europe is not prepared to deepen its commitment to the Congo, its previous investments there will have all been for nothing.

Richard Gowan is associate director for policy at the NYU Center on International Cooperation and UN policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Benjamin Tortolani coordinates the Center on International Cooperations’s “Annual Review of Global Peace Operations”.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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