Can This War Ever Be Ended?

A year ago there were two wars in the world that seemed completely beyond hope. Each was being waged by a half-dozen or more warring parties, making negotiation seem next to impossible. Each was taking place in forbidding terrain that made forcible intervention appear impractical. Each was so geographically remote that it generally stayed off the radar screens of international policymakers.

The two wars were in Afghanistan and Congo. In the former case, the impossible has since become possible. Despite its failings and limitations, Western intervention there has vastly improved the stability as well as future prospects of that country. Could there also be hope for Congo, or does its war simply remain in the “too hard” category?

The war in Congo is very difficult to end. But leaving the country to its own fate is heartless as well as dangerous. It risks allowing that vast, mineral-rich territory to descend further into chaos and serve as the next sanctuary or source of income for terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. There is no way to bring lasting peace to Congo without the will and cooperation of the country’s major warring parties. But the outside world can do much more to push those parties toward a solution.

Congo’s war has taken tens of thousands of lives in combat since the mid-1990s. Far worse, it has accelerated the nearly complete breakdown of the state, begun under the kleptocratic rule of former president Mobutu Sese Seko. Death tolls have increased by over a half-million persons a year as a consequence.

Congo’s war is complex, but the main contours are not hard to understand. The current president, controlling western and southern parts of the country and the capital city of Kinshasa, is Joseph Kabila. Kabila’s father, Laurent, seized power from the regime of the late Mobutu in 1997 before being assassinated by a palace guard last year.

There are two main groupings of rebel forces. One is backed by Uganda and consists, in part, of former Mobutu followers; it is led by Jean-Pierre Bemba. The other is backed by Rwanda. Rwanda’s motives in the conflict are at least partially legitimate. Many of the Hutu extremists who conducted the 1994 genocide in Rwanda later fled into Congo. Rwanda’s government worries they will continue the killing and try to retake power in Rwanda if not suppressed. Less nobly, Rwanda and Uganda have also been motivated by their desires to get a share of Congo’s mineral wealth, as have rebel forces and Kinshasa’s external backers from Zimbabwe and Angola.

What can the international community really do in this situation? A U.S.-led military intervention like the one in Afghanistan is inconceivable; so too may be a muscular stability operation like those in Bosnia and Kosovo. Given Congo’s size and terrain, 100,000 or more troops would be required for either mission.

That said, more is possible. If Congo’s main parties can agree to implement fully and faithfully the Lusaka peace agreement signed in 1999, the international community should be willing to provide a more robust Chapter VII peacekeeping force (from Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the basis for the U.N.’s armed response to international aggression) of about 30,000 troops—ten times as numerous as the 3,000 observers now in place to observe a cease-fire that does not yet exist.

That larger force would not try to control the entire country or forcibly disarm combatants; it would be too small for such tasks. Rather, it would deploy primarily in the east of the country. Its missions would be to work with the government and rebel forces to arrest Rwanda’s war criminals, stabilize dividing lines between different rebel groups, facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and begin to allow for the restoration of normal commerce and law and order in the country.

This plan stands a real chance of success. It could provide greater security for Rwanda, greater control over the country for the authorities in Kinshasa, power-sharing and, ultimately, democratic elections for the first time in Congo’s history. If Congo’s main leaders care at all for their country, this plan may give them the confidence and greater incentive to finally move beyond their worst fears of each other and their all-out pursuits of power.

But getting to that point will also require much more high-level commitment from Washington, both the executive branch and Congress. In recent months the United States and other major Western powers have essentially delegated Congo’s peace talks to South Africa. But President Thabo Mbeki and his country cannot produce peace on their own. Despite noble South African efforts, recent talks in Sun City earlier this year resulted only in a sham side agreement between Kabila and the rebel groups led by Bemba, while Rwanda’s allies were dangerously left out. That will not do.

President Bush has pledged to do more for Africa in recent months. But as welcome as his promises have been, he has cut funding for training African militaries that might enable them to conduct missions of the kind that are needed in Congo. He has also failed to increase aid dollars to date, despite promises to do so eventually. And he has taken a hands-off approach to negotiating an end to Congo’s war, even as indifference and delay in Congo cause hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

We cannot stop Congo’s war on our own. But we can join with our European partners, the UN and key African players to give the parties to the conflict much clearer incentives to stop themselves, and the promise of substantially increased help if they decide to try.