The UN is pretty good at some things, mediocre at most things, and pretty bad at certain things, such as "peace keeping." Yet, the UN is poised to begin a counterinsurgency operation in the Congo--one of the most difficult types of military operations to undertake. The Economist reports:
The Economist concludes that it is a risk worth taking. Perhaps. But before you answer the question of "should you be doing it," you need to answer the question of "can you do it." In this case, the answer will more than likely turn out to be "no."
The Rwandan government backed Congolese rebels until recently but, shamed by their cruelty and by international outrage, it has abandoned them. That presents an opportunity too good to waste, so the UN Security Council is trying a new tack (see article), deploying 3,000 troops to fight at least some of the rebels. Soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi wearing UN insignia will take on the irregulars who sow mayhem in Congo’s east.
This is the first time that the UN will send its own troops into battle. In the past the Security Council has authorised the use of “all necessary force” but has delegated the fighting to posses from willing nations. In the Korean war the Americans were in command. In Afghanistan and Libya NATO took charge. In Congo, however, the UN itself will be responsible for artillery fire, helicopter gunships—and the inevitable casualties. Should the UN really be doing this?
Successful counterinsurgencies rely on good intelligence and troops that can hunt insurgents down in their own territory. And it requires a lot of patience. The UN undoubtedly lacks all three prerequisites.
Good intelligence is dependent on local support. Does the UN have the support of the population in the areas they will be patrolling? Do they have enough troops to keep those areas secure so that populations feel safe to share information? 3,000 troops is going to be very thin to provide both security and offensive operations.
Can the troops hunt down the insurgents on their own terms, tracking them through the jungle and mountains and successfully engaging them? To a certain extent, aerial transport, such as helicopters, may give the UN troops a decisive edge in mobility, but they are still going to have to track the irregular Rebels through the bush.
Patience may be the biggest factor. Counterinsurgencies are long and expensive. Does the UN have the staying power? I doubt it. Instead of the support of just one government, deeply committed to prevailing, the UN contingent will depend instead on the goodwill of multiple governments, none of whom are deeply committed to the defeat of the rebels.