SANDF’s DRC deployment an unfair imposition on the military – expert

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The deaths of four South African soldiers at the hands of M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this year have raised questions about the viability of committing troops to the SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC). Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman examines the deployment in terms of South Africa’s peacekeeping policy.

While there are strategic and economic arguments for it, the decision to deploy 2 900 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission goes against several principles set out in the 2008 Revised White Paper on South African Participation in International Peace Missions.

That argues that “values enshrined” in the Constitution “underpin South Africa’s national interest and its participation in international peace missions”. The values relevant here are “encouraging global peace and stability” and “participating in the processes to ensure regional peace, stability and development”. Both clearly apply.

But the deployment falls short of meeting the “guiding principles” set out in that White Paper:

  1. Clear mandate: the mandate for a peace mission must be clear and achievable. It must also be agreed to amongst the United Nations, continental and regional bodies, the host country, parties to the conflict and contributing countries.
  • The mandate is not achievable by only 5 000 SADC troops with minimal or no air support.
  1. Consent: entails commitment by parties to the conflict to a political process and their acceptance of a peace mission mandate that supports the process.
  • M23 has clearly not consented, and it is unlikely that any of the other armed groups have done so.
  1. Impartiality: refers to implementation of the mandate without favour or prejudice to any party to the conflict.
  • The mandate is clearly not impartial towards M23.
  1. Minimum use of force: refers to the use of force as a measure of last resort, when other methods of persuasion have been exhausted.
  • This may be so.
  1. Credibility: this is a direct reflection of the international and local communities’ belief in the mission’s ability to achieve its mandate.
  • It is difficult to believe that anyone thinks this small force can succeed.
  1. Legitimacy: this is premised on the basis of the UN, African Union and SADC mandate for purposes of an understanding amongst the parties to the conflict and the population that the peace mission is not only justified, but also seen to be representative of the determination and aspirations of the international community.
  • M23 certainly does not share this understanding.
  1. Promotion of national and local ownership: every effort should be made to promote national and local (host country) ownership and to foster trust and co-operation between national and international actors.
  • This may well be the case.
  1. Entry, transition and exit strategy: entrance into the mission area of any multinational peace mission should be preceded by an assessment of the situation and objectives of the mission within which the peace mission will be deployed. There should be clear transition and exit strategy before committing a national contingent to any peace mission.
  • It is not at all clear that there is a credible exit strategy. There is certainly no capacity for an emergency extraction of troops should the situation demand.
  1. Adequate means: the commitment of adequate resources to peace missions shall be informed by a clear and achievable mandate to attain the stated goals and objectives.
  • The means are patently not adequate the force is far too small and seems to lack any effective air support.
  1. Transparency: communication is key in the success of a peace operation. The parties to the conflict as well as the local population must be fully aware of the mandate of the peace mission, its functions and responsibilities, and how the different components will be conducting their duties.
  • This is probably so.
  1. Unity of effort and multilateral and regional cooperation: the various components of the peace mission must cooperate towards the achievement of the mandate.
  • This is likely to be the case.

Thus, this deployment fails to meet six of the eleven guiding principles (1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9), and probably also fails a seventh (8), at least in respect of an exit strategy.

It fails even more clearly to meet the “principles for participation set out in the original 1999 White Paper which, among others, required that:

  • The mandate be “linked to concrete political solutions” (6.2): It is not clear that any concrete political solution has been developed.
  • “South Africa will not commit itself to participating in any peace mission which is patently under-resourced and which does not have sufficient means to achieve the set mandate” (6.3): The envisaged force is patently under-resourced; it is too small, lacks effective air support and so far seems to lack any budget.
  • The possible expansion of the SANDF’s other secondary roles – for instance, support to the South African Police Service and border protection – should be considered prior to any agreement to participate in a particular peace support operation “(6.3). The Army already lacks the troops and funds to fully cover the border, and the decision to exit Cabo Delgado as part of the SADC Mission in Mozambique just as the insurgency flares up again is also open to question.
  • South African contingents will be…adequately structured and equipped to carry out the tasks they are assigned” (6.3): That will not be the case unless a way is found to provide effective air support for reconnaissance, mobility and combat.
  • A domestic mandate and budget” (6.4): It is not clear that there is in fact any domestic mandate for this mission, nor has the funding been confirmed.
  • South Africa should also be assured of clear exit criteria before committing a national contingent to any peace mission. This aspect refers to the achievement of a desirable political end state to the involvement within an acceptable period of time” (6.6): It is not clear that any exit criteria have been established and the means to extricate troops under pressure do not exist.
  • “Foreign Assistance” (6.8): It is not clear whether any foreign assistance in the form of funding or practical support has been obtained.

Nor is this deployment in line with the principles set out in the 1998 Defence Review, which specified in Chapter 5 that any peace support operation:

  • Should “have a clear mandate, mission and objectives” (5.4);
  • Should have “realistic criteria for terminating the operation” (5.5); and
  • That “there must be a realistic appreciation of the extent of the SANDF’s involvement in the light of its capabilities and other commitments”.

Finally, it fails to meet the government undertaking set out in the 1996 White Paper on Defence, which specified that government will not endanger the lives of military personnel through improper deployment or the provision of inadequate or inferior weapons and equipment” (Chapter 3, Paragraph 43.6). Nor, of course, did the deployment to the Central African Republic or that to Cabo Delgado meet that undertaking.

But then, that same White Paper committed to government to “request from Parliament sufficient funds to enable the SANDF to perform its tasks effectively and efficiently” (Chapter 3, Paragraph 43.4).

One could, of course, argue that the deployment to the DRC is not a peace mission, given that there is no agreement by the parties to the conflict, but is instead a war fighting mission in terms of the SADC Mutual Defence Pact. Then, however, deployment of too weak a force with inadequate air support is even less excusable.

Our soldiers will do their best, but we are being deeply unfair to them. That is the politest way it can be put.