NAIROBI, Kenya -- When M23 rebels marched on the eastern Congolese city of Goma last month, the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping mission at first struck back like a force that costs $1.4 billion a year, pounding the advancing columns from the air. But as the Congolese army quickly dissolved, so did the U.N. resistance, and days later the rebels rolled into Goma with barely a fight.
Congo’s neighbors proposed a solution: If the United Nations was unwilling to put its 19,000 men more directly in the line of fire, African countries would send in 4,000 troops of their own to comb through the militia-ridden vacuum and eradicate the armed thugs.
The request is part of the latest trend in the oft-cited mantra "African solutions to African problems," but it has as much to do with a risk-averse international community as with Africa’s billowing assertiveness on the world stage. When one of the continent’s collapsed nations needs to be cleaned up, African troops will do the dirty work if the West picks up the tab.
"We don’t have the stomach for it anymore, so we have an indirect approach: Let’s let the Africans do it, and we’ll just pay for it," said Marco Wyss, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich.
This month, the U.N. Security Council is debating authorizing a West African force to intervene in Mali, the northern two-thirds of which fell into the hands of al Qaida-linked rebels earlier this year. The United States and Europe are preparing to heavily support the mission financially and logistically.
The lead example of this new approach is in Somalia, where Ugandan, Burundian and Kenyan soldiers have pushed back the Islamist extremist group al Shabab through intense direct combat. The United States and other Western allies provided the regional force, known as AMISOM, with weaponry, training and a budget.
The African Union says the U.N. peacekeeping model needs to be upgraded to stay relevant in an age when conflicts are less and less between two formalized armed groups and more a proliferation of elusive militias.
"The practice that the United Nations can only engage where there is peace to keep translates into the United Nations’ abandonment of some of the most challenging crisis situations," Moses Wetangula, Kenya’s foreign minister, told the Security Council earlier this year.
African institutions are better suited to conduct missions, given the international community’s hesitance to put its own soldiers in harm’s way, argued Marsden Momanyi, a spokesman for the African Union’s Peace and Security Council.
"Rarely does the U.N. give their forces a mandate under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which would essentially give them the authorization to engage the rebels using military force," Momanyi said.
The United Nations isn’t set up to deploy peacekeepers into situations where there isn’t yet any peace to keep and where regular combat is required, said Alan Doss, who was the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo until 2010.
"I don’t see the kind of mission that AMISOM has conducted being done through U.N. peacekeeping," Doss said. "AMISOM has lost 3,000. That’s more than all the peacekeepers combined in 40-plus years."
The Security Council at times sets up the peacekeepers for failure when it deploys troops into political vacuums, he said.