It took billions of dollars and 14 years of experimentation, but the United Nations may have finally figured out a formula for defeating the rebel groups that have devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The formula is this: A robust offensive military force, plus modern weaponry and aircraft, plus a strong UN mandate for pursuing the rebels, plus aggressive diplomacy, plus a crucial dose of painful sanctions against the sponsors of the rebels. It has added up to a smashing victory and a potential new model for resolving African conflicts.
The collapse of the rebellion by the M23 group this week is a major triumph for the UN intervention brigade and its Congolese allies. Analysts are still cautious about whether the victory will be permanent, but if the peace holds, it could help the war-torn heart of Africa to enter a new era of economic growth and humanitarian progress.
Eastern Congo, endowed with enormous mineral resources, has always been pivotal to the fate of central Africa, one of the most strategically important zones of the continent. Investors have been hungry to enter the region for decades, but its natural wealth has also attracted waves of adventurers, mercenaries, rebels and covert military incursions from its African neighbours.
The region's chaotic mining sector has generated a tainted flow of "conflict minerals" for the world's cellphones and computers. As long as the armed militias kept killing people in eastern Congo, corrupt soldiers and rebels had an excuse to seize control of the mines that produce gold, coltan, tin and other minerals.
Now this might finally be changing. On Tuesday, after a string of humiliating military defeats, the leaders of the M23 rebel movement announced that its fighters will lay down their arms immediately and prepare to demobilize. A peace accord could emerge soon.
A year ago, M23 was so powerful that it captured a huge swathe of eastern Congo, even marching into the biggest city, Goma, and controlling the city for weeks, while UN troops stood idly by. Other rebel groups have marauded across eastern Congo, keeping the region in chaos, even though the UN has been spending $1.4-billion annually to finance a peacekeeping force of nearly 20,000 soldiers.
Two crucial factors have changed. First, the UN Security Council authorized a new "intervention brigade" of 3,000 soldiers this year, giving them a strong mandate to conduct offensive operations to chase and destroy the rebel militias. The brigade – including soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi – has attacked M23 positions remorselessly in recent weeks, forcing them to retreat from all of their key strongholds. "We have teeth and we are using those teeth," said Martin Kobler, head of the UN military mission in Congo.
Darren Olivier, an analyst for African Defence Review, has documented how the new brigade collaborated with Congo's national army to create a three-front war against the rebels, forcing M23 to split its forces.
Using its superior logistical capacity and equipment, including attack helicopters and multiple-launch rocket systems, the combined UN and Congo force was able to encircle M23 and form a pincer movement to squeeze the rebels from their strongholds, inflicting a "massive defeat" on the rebels, Mr. Olivier said. Most of the rebels soon surrendered or fled.
Equally important, however, was the second element of the strategy: a diplomatic push to force Rwanda to stop supporting the rebels. In the past, Rwanda's covert aid has boosted the M23 rebels in key battles, enabling them to defeat the Congolese army and resist any UN pressure. This time, according to many reports, Rwanda halted its aid.
Rwanda has always denied backing the rebels, but a UN group of experts investigated the links last year and found overwhelming evidence of Rwanda's role. The evidence was so strong that the United States and Britain have delayed or suspended some of their aid to Rwanda over the past year, including U.S. military aid. Senior Western diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have been phoning Rwandan president Paul Kagame to pressure him into cooperating.
"The Rwandan government may have concluded that its support to the M23 had become too damaging to its public image," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. "In the recent fighting, the M23 rebels did not get the military support from Rwanda that they had depended on in earlier operations."
The UN intervention brigade can now turn its attention to the many other militia groups that have murdered and raped their way across the villages of eastern Congo. The defeat of M23 could have a "domino effect" on the other rebels, according to Russell Feingold, the U.S. special envoy in the region.
The intervention brigade has been reinforced by modern South African attack helicopters that have just arrived in the region – a crucial advantage that the UN forces have never enjoyed before. The choppers will be a key weapon for pursuing the remaining rebels.
Destroying the rebel militias could unlock a new era of humanitarian and economic development in a potentially rich land. Relief agencies such as Oxfam are hailing the defeat of M23 as a major milestone. It could bring food and peace to a war-weary region where millions of people have died in the past two decades.
Peace and stability could allow long-delayed work to reduce the isolation of Congo's people, including repairs to crumbling roads that have disintegrated into muddy trails and potholed paths.
This, in turn, would finally pave the way for investment and growth. Toronto-based Banro Corp., which produces gold at a mine near Bukavu in eastern Congo, is among the few foreign investors in the region, although other Canadian mining companies – including Lundin and Ivanhoe – are active further south in Katanga province. The defeat of the rebels across eastern Congo could open the door for the investors who have been eyeing the region for years.