With the Force Intervention Brigade now fully involved in operations alongside FARDC forces against M23 (and theoretically other rebel groups), a lot has happened in their first week or so of activity.
Goma is secure
A clear focal point of any conflict against M23 was always going to be Goma. Much to the UN’s disgrace, when M23 rebels marched past peacekeepers earlier this year and seized Goma, along with the war crimes that are normally committed with this, the impotence of UN peacekeeping was brought to the fore. Not so with the FIB, however. Within days of announcing its commencement of operations, South African and Tanzanian forces (it’s not clear what the Malawian contingent are doing within this) successfully cleared M23 forces out of Goma’s surrounding areas, achieving a remarkably-quick security net around the Eastern city and, more importantly, maintaining this perimeter.
One immediate payoff of this has been the perception of UN troops within Goma. As FIB troops deployed out against M23, locals jeered and threw stones at FIB vehicles moving out. Upon their return, however, they were greeted with cheers. For the first time in over a decade, there is a clear sense of faith in local security forces. For more on the impact within Goma, listen to ADR’s Richard Stupart discussing Goma’s situation with local expert Joseph Kay.
South African soldiers are acquitting themselves well
Fighting a constant pessimism in South Africa on the fighting abilities of SANDF soldiers, the country’s battalion of soldiers involved in fighting have by all accounts fought with a high level of professionalism and expertise. With snipers unofficially scoring one of the longest-range kills against an M23 machine gun position, it is difficult to argue against the capabilities of South Africa’s soldiers. Beyond this, the direction of counter-mortar fire against M23 positions and the general conduct whilst being attacked themselves cannot be faulted.
Unofficial reports from the region indicate that FARDC officers are specifically requesting SANDF units to conduct operations alongside them rather than general FIB support. The faith in the South Africans’ fighting ability by Congolese soldiers themselves, if proven true, is a positive indication of a cash-strapped South African military doing well with very little.
M23 is struggling to counter
For M23, their defeat against the FIB this past few days must come as a shock. Accustomed to ineffective UN forces and a brittle FARDC security presence, the rebel organisation had likely anticipated an easy time of pushing out the FIB. Although M23’s twitter feed remains abuzz with healthy rhetoric promising retribution and serious counter-attack, tangible evidence of this is scarce for now.
One granule of substance from the rebels’ press machine has indicated a desire to inflict casualties on the South African contingent, hoping to trigger a CAR-esque reaction, where the deaths of 15 South Africans preceded a hasty withdrawal from Bangui. Although casualties within the FIB are to be expected, the SANDF, and indeed the South African government, need to decide at what point lives are being lost at an unacceptable level. For now, though, the light casualties (one South African mortarman wounded) are not a major concern.
For a breakdown of the FIB’s presence in the Eastern DRC, consult the African Defence Review’s FIB info-graphic here.