Opinion

Time to pull out UN troops in Congo? Not so fast.

Congo’s President Kabila wants to pull out UN forces. But Congo is still at war and dealing with tremendous violence. The international community and the Congolese need to create a vision and strategy first.

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With a fledgling democratic government and a formal peace process finally in place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country will celebrate its 50th year of independence next month. The country’s path to democratic self-rule has been marred by a long dictatorship, two deadly regional wars, and the near-collapse of the state.

President Joseph Kabila has announced an incredibly risky way to mark the occasion: He wants to withdraw most of the United Nations peacekeepers before the big party, and the remainder by next summer.

It is not only a dangerous calculation for Mr. Kabila’s own regime and his people, but he risks squandering the billions of dollars invested in rebuilding Congo. He also risks destabilizing a fragile region in the heart of Africa.

Eastern Congo, notorious for shocking levels of sexual violence and widespread looting of the region’s natural resources, is still at war despite peace agreements and high-level reconciliation between Kabila and Rwanda’s President Kagame. Fighting between Congolese Army forces, led by commanders still tied to the ex-rebel movement Congrès National du Peuple (CNDP), and various armed groups, including the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), exacts a devastating toll on civilians and prevents state institutions from taking root, all against a background of growing ethnic tensions and land disputes.

In other parts of the country, the Congo’s military has failed to protect people from the Lord’s Resistance Army – a predatory group known for abducting children and ritual mutilations – that has wiped out villages in northern Congo for two years, almost unnoticed. Just last month UN peacekeepers had to help the Congo’s

Army fight off a rag-tag group of rebels who took control of a provincial capital in western DRC, an area the government and others have said is stable enough to merit immediate withdrawal of peacekeepers.

This environment is clearly perilous for the government, but it also poses serious risks for the UN mission established a decade ago to support the peace process that ended one of Congo’s most devastating wars. Unfortunately, the United Nations Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) faces its own credibility crisis as locals watch peacekeepers cooperate with abusive soldiers to fight against the FDLR while simultaneously failing to effectively protect them from violence. While MONUC and the UN Security Council might have believed their tactics would stabilize eastern Congo, so far they have failed to deter the FDLR threat, and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating.

However problematic MONUC’s recent performance, many Congolese see its presence as a powerful deterrent against even more violence by armed groups or the Congolese Army. For the government, MONUC has served as an important security guarantor in a region with meddling neighbors eager to access lucrative natural resources in Congo’s territory.

So why would Kabila think it wise to ask UN peacekeepers to leave? Surely good PR for the 50th anniversary isn’t reason enough to put his country at such risk. The proposed timetable for full withdrawal provides a hint for another possible motive: presidential elections scheduled for September 2011, just one month after the final pull-out date. A UN presence might not only dampen Kabila’s political campaign, but the ruling party is also likely keen to avoid too much outside scrutiny of the process.

The Security Council, which authorized the mission’s deployment, is already laying the groundwork for a gradual withdrawal of peacekeepers over the next few years if conditions improve. This is prudent; peacekeepers cannot stay in the country forever. Under the right conditions – as the secretary-general himself said in his last report on the situation – the UN should transition from peacekeeping to peace building, not least to improve state capacity and entrench democratic governance.

But the claims at UN headquarters and the insistence by the government that the country is ready for a drawdown does not match reality on the ground. The government has yet to prove it can fill the security vacuum that will inevitably be left if the UN leaves too early. History has shown there is no clear moment to leap from peacekeeping to peace building, and right now the Congo still needs both.

Security Council members and other major donors should immediately engage Kabila to carefully map out the conditions for a safe drawdown of MONUC, as the early departure of UN peacekeepers risks sparking a surge of local rebellions such as the recent one in western DRC. The council’s visit to DRC this month could help, but is not enough. Congo’s international partners, including those in Asia, should work with the government to achieve key security and peace building objectives before MONUC leaves.

Kabila is undoubtedly facing many difficult choices, but his decisions on MONUC, delayed elections, and stalled governance reforms prove the government is heading in the wrong direction. With the future of MONUC on the line and the government soon to be forgiven $10 billion of debt, the international community and the Congolese need to urgently create a vision and strategy for the DRC that extends beyond presidential elections to finally bring this country out of conflict.

Fabienne Hara is the vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group.

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