Soldiers ‘unequipped, ill-thought-out’ sent to DRC

Henry

It seems easy for South African politicians to send troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to play peacemaker. However, military experts warn army chiefs that even the most competent soldier will not be able to accomplish anything – or may even return in a body bag – if they are not properly equipped.

Kobus Marais, the DA’s spokesperson on defence, believes that the replacement of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in the DRC with troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), led by the South African army, is a “reckless decision” that will potentially endanger the lives of troops.

Prof. Theo Neethling from the Department of Political Studies and Government at the University of the Free State (UF), calls it a “futile effort”.

“If a UN force of thousands of troops could not settle the matter, how is a force with soldiers from poor Southern African countries going to do it… bring about peace? I think it’s a huge mistake.”

RNews previously reported that South African troops were deployed in December as part of a SADC military mission to the east of the DRC, as the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in the DRC, Monusco, this year after 20 years finally ended up come to an end

The UN’s peacekeeping forces will now gradually be withdrawn and the South Africans are expected to work together with the DRC’s national security forces to fight the dreaded M23 rebels.

However, the DA is concerned that the troops are not equipped to take on the task. The party now appeals to Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, to withdraw South African troops from the east of the DRC as soon as his Monusco commitments came to an end.

“It is clear that Ramaphosa made a political decision to put members of the SANS at risk without even considering the technical capabilities that are currently available in our military value chain.

“Whether Ramaphosa likes it or not, the SANS is in no position to continue an effective counter-insurgency campaign, due to limited equipment and resources to provide sufficient support to the ground troops.

“The DA makes a valid point,” says Neethling.

However, he does not believe that South African troops are incompetent. However, it is going “struggle-struggle” in Mozambique where troops have been deployed in the north of the country to help bring about peace.

“Our troops there do not receive the necessary support and they do not receive anything,” explains Neethling.

Marais and Neethling say air support is a particularly big problem. In truth, the SANW does not have any Rooivalk helicopter available in the DRC at this stage and the five Oryx helicopters in the DRC will probably be reduced to two.

However, these military experts’ biggest concern is the troops’ adversaries, the M23 rebels, who have been doing business in the eastern DRC for many years and are familiar with the terrain.

“Unless the intervention force led by the SANW is well composed in terms of size and rapid mobility, they will be left at the mercy of the M23 rebels, who have become adept at using guerrilla tactics,” warns Marais.

“They are difficult fellows,” says Neethling. “They are dug in and control those areas.”

UN withdraws

Prof. Thomas Mandrup, associate professor at the Security Institute for Management and Leadership in Africa (SIGLA) at Stellenbosch University (SU), told RNews this week that the UN’s gradual withdrawal from the DRC was “purely a political decision”.

“The Congolese president knew that he would be re-elected and then still would not be able to fulfill his promise for peace. Asking the UN to withdraw and calling them a failure made him look better.

“It was easy to blame the UN instead of taking responsibility.”

Mandrup says, however, that this does not mean at all that the UN is “innocent”. “They were passive. They didn’t do enough. They couldn’t stop atrocities from happening.”

According to Mandrup, some ground troops even began to wonder why they were still there. “They realized that the Congolese president is not prepared to stop the conflict.”

When asked whether South African troops should still be deployed abroad, Mandrup replied that it is not the SANS’s job to stay at home and carry out the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) task.

Neethling says it is also extremely unreasonable of the South African government to expect the army at home to help with anything from demonstrations to a pandemic.

“They are actually supposed to keep the peace abroad, but now they have to help with policing here. They must help arrest the Zama Zamas and look after Eskom. They had to go and clean all the way to the Vaal River. The list goes on… and the money is not there.”

Mandrup says it is a “democratic and practical problem” when an army is used for police work. “The army is ultimately an instrument to fight and defeat the enemy with force. They are not there to suppress political protests.”

Mandrup says it is also worrying that the ANC does not have a clear foreign policy strategy.

“Now their soldiers are starving and underfunded… It is highly problematic that politicians do not accept responsibility for these soldiers,” agrees Mandrup.

Marais says the government’s priorities are clearly misplaced as they prefer to pursue politically effective military interventions in the DRC, at the expense of the welfare of the troops and ordinary South Africans at home.