Four reasons military operations against the FDLR will have limited success

The deadline provided by the United Nations, the ICGLR and SADC for the FDLR to demobilize expired on Friday. Almost immediately, the UN and Congolese army launched military operations ––not against the FDLR, but against the FNL, Burundian rebels who have several small bases in the Rusizi Plain in South Kivu. The UN said that this attack was a way of clearing the ground for a broader offensive against the FDLR in the coming days.

It is not clear why the UN and the Congolese felt that it was necessary to get rid of the FNL bases first––the FDLR are located in the mountains overlooking the Rusizi Plain; there are ways to get to their positions without going through the FNL positions. Nonetheless, the Congolese army and its UN counterparts have been planning operations against the FDLR for several months, and we are likely to smell more gunpowder in coming days, probably after the meetings of regional heads of state, to be held in Luanda next week.

And yet, despite all this talk about military operations, here are some reasons why they are not––at least, not alone––going to produce a solution:

  1. The Congo is vast and the FDLR is no mood to fight: The FDLR is not like the M23 or other Congolese armed groups––it will not stand and fight, and has no sense of “homeland”, at least not in the Congo. The FDLR operates over an area roughly the size of Belgium or Maryland, and covered in impenetrable forests, marshes, and ragged mountains. Attacking the group is like squeezing a balloon: the FDLR will simply run;
  2. The United Nations peacekeeping force is divided internally: Yes, the mission has said on many occasions it will launch operations against the FDLR. But it recently moved the HQ of its Force Intervention Brigade––the South African, Tanzanian, and Malawian troops who have a more aggressive mandate––to Beni, where a string of massacres has killed more than 200 since October. A senior MONUSCO commander recently suggested, in private, that the situation of Beni is of much greater humanitarian concern than the FDLR. In addition, regional tensions between Rwanda on one side and Tanzania and South Africa on the other have complicated matters. The Tanzanian government has been reluctant to move against the FDLR, going so far as to call them “freedom fighters,” while the South African government has also dragged its feet;
  3. It’s the Congolese population that suffers from military operations against the FDLR: A lot. The UN uncovered evidence in 2009 that the FDLR used the massacre of civilians as a means of pressure against the international community. It could do so again. In 2009, almost a million people were displaced in the space of a year during ham-fisted operations by the Congolese and Rwandan armies. To minimize the backlash, operations would have to be extremely targeted, and it isn’t clear whether the UN and the Congolese army have that sort of special forces capability;
  4. There is no exit valve for FDLR commanders: Few are the rebellions that are defeated by military might alone. Almost all combine a carrot and stick. In this case, the only option that senior FDLR commanders have to fighting is to return to Rwanda, where they face a life of poverty and possible arrest. There is a well-oiled demobilization program for rank-and-file combatants, but only ad hoc arrangements for individual commanders.
This latter point is no longer written in stone. Over the past year, real momentum has finally built around the idea of providing a third country of exile to FDLR who are not war criminals (an idea that myself and others promoted as far back as 2005). The idea is to to facilitate the departure––without amnesty, of course––of FDLR commanders who are not on any list of génocidaires or war criminals, probably over 80-90% of all senior officers, to other African countries. Senior diplomats from the region have begun working on this, although the Rwandan government has insisted that military operations must precede progress on this. To my mind, it isn’t clear that Rwanda has the standing to block this option, especially if the people concerned are not on any representative list of war criminals––after all, it is Congolese citizens, not Rwandans, who are currently suffering under the FDLR occupation.
All of this is not to say military operations are not part of the solution. There most likely are, although they should be much better planned-out than in the past. But they are not the whole solution, and that should be recognized.