In 1995, after the Rwandan genocide, western leaders discussed plans for an armed force for Africa's Great Lakes region to suppress the remnant of the extremist Hutu movement that had fled across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I asked a British military planner how many men it might need. About half a million was his reply.
He had studied the vast landscape, the size of France; thick forest, huge mountains, no roads or boundaries, only a few airstrips and little idea of how many people lived there or who they were. It is perfect guerrilla country; a few thousand fighters with nothing to lose can move unimpeded throughout the area, living off the land and recruiting as they go.
And they also found they could generate exceedingly profitable businesses using forced labour to mine the gold, coltan, diamonds and tin that lie beneath this land and find buyers in neighbouring capitals such as Kampala and Kigali. Instead of dwindling, the surviving perpetrators of the genocide formed themselves into the FDLR, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, and have grown in strength and numbers. The Rwandan army crossed the border in pursuit and tried to set up a proxy army to suppress them, but its leader, Laurent Nkunda, is now facing charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). And it was never clear whether the Rwandan leadership wanted the FDLR completely eliminated. As long as it lived under their threat, it could claim sympathy and aid from western governments.
The west's strategy for Congo through the United Nations was to establish a central government in Kinshasa that they could recognise and supply with aid, so they spent $500m on an election. That gave legitimacy to Joseph Kabila. His opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was sent to the ICC. Had Kabila lost, no doubt he would be in the ICC. The UN assisted in attempts to construct and train a Congolese army to deal with the "rebels" in the east. But the officers stole the payrolls and found more profit in resource extraction than fighting, the units lacked discipline and coherence and soon the national army was behaving towards civilians as badly or worse than the FDLR and the other militias that have sprung up in the region. The UN has found it increasingly difficult to work with the army it trained.
So it was left to a weak UN force with a strong mandate but without the capacity to fulfil it to try to bring peace to the region. Its headquarters in Kinshasa, the capital – almost as far away from this war as London is from Moscow – has little idea what is happening on the ground. After nine years its troops just try to stay out of harm's way. There have been signs that elements of the UN force are going local and also taking to trading minerals and abusing local people. Its attempt at using a strike force, Guatemalan Special Forces, against the Lord's Resistance Army, the rebel movement that had wandered into the area from Northern Uganda, ended in disaster with nine of them killed. It no longer has an effective sharp end.
Bringing peace and development to eastern Congo will require a force 10 or 20 times the size of the present one which could take over and hold the area until all armed movements have been eliminated – or better – talked into a new peace process. (That means persuading Kabila to accept some power-sharing. That maybe difficult too.)
This is politically remote but in the meantime the UN could at least enforce the ban on mineral purchases, the supply of weapons and the flow of money to and from the warlords from their allies in the rest of the world. That would not end the war but it would at least reduce the ability of the combatants to wage it.
Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society.