The politics of the fait accompli

As the M23 engages in urban warfare in Goma (the latest news is that they have taken the town) one wonders what their strategy could be. While unfolding of the M23 rebellion has involved a lot of shooting from the hip––from all sides, including Kigali, the M23, and Kinshasa––one would imagine that by now, a strategy would have coalesced. So what is it?

In the past, I have speculated that it will be difficult for the M23 to conquer and hold territory, mostly due to their lack of manpower, which started off at around 400-700 and is probably around 1,500-2,500 now. They have been able to rely on Rwandan (and, to a lesser degree, Ugandan) firepower for operations close to the border (in particular Bunagana and Rutshuru, allegedly also this recent offensive), the farther into the interior they get, they harder it will be to mask outside involvement.

Alliances with other groups­­––Sheka, Raia Mutomboki, FDC, etc.––have acted as force multipliers, but have been very fickle, as the surrender of Col Albert Kahasha last week proved. From this perspective, the M23 strategy could well be more to nettle the government, underscore its ineptitude, and hope that it will collapse from within.

However, the recent offensive on Goma has made me consider another, bolder alternative. If the rebels take Goma, thereby humiliating the UN and the Congolese army, they will present the international community with a fait accompli. Yes, it will shine a sharp light on Rwandan involvement, but Kigali has been undeterred by donor pressure thus far, and has been emboldened by its seat on the Security Council. Also, as the looting by the Congolese army and their distribution of weapons to youths in Goma has shown, the battle for Goma is as much of a PR disaster for Kinshasa as for Kigali.

In any case, at least in the short term, if Goma falls, donors––and probably the Congolese government––will have no choice but to deal with the rebels and call on Rwanda to help. Already, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on President Kagame to “use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack.”

This is the magical and perverse logic of the fait accompli. Of course, this assumes that donors do not change tack and permanently cut aid to Rwanda. But this would not only go against entrenched aid bureaucracies, but also antagonize the only government that can quickly bring an end to the conflict.

This is just speculation for now. And it leaves many questions in suspense. Such as: take Goma as a stepping stone for what? Genuine talks or as an interlude to a further push (as the M23 have suggested) toward Bukavu? Although a Congolese delegation has reportedly flown to Kampala to negotiate discretely, I still have a hard time envisioning a compromise between the two sides. Just try to imagine Sultani Makenga and Bosco Ntaganda integrated back into the army as generals and you will know what I mean.

Thoughts are welcome.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 1:48 AM