The ongoing peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest in the world numbering 20,000 operators, is about to get an increase in its total number of soldiers. Two thousand South African, Malawian, and Tanzanian soldiers will be deploying this summer with a mandate to seek out and engage militias operating in the restive eastern regions of Congo. The mission, already huge in size and scope, might not notice another 2-3,000 soldiers, except for a crucial detail: these soldiers have unanimously been given an offensive mandate.
Offensive peace enforcement is not unheard of; NATO undertook offensive operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s, Australia has been the lead force in missions in Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, and France is currently providing significant offensive capacity in the efforts to dislodge Islamists in northern Mali. For the United Nations though, this is a huge decision; even aggressive mandates, referred to as Chapter 7 operations, generally only allow peacekeepers to engage enemy forces in self-defense or in defense of civilians. Often these mission are hamstrung by a lack of equipment and organization, preventing them from being able to carry out their mission effectively.
This new deployment could herald a change in how the UN handles peace operations and how peacekeeping is viewed by the international community. Criticized for not being able to do their jobs, often unfairly given the politics of setting up and deploying a peacekeeping mission, we might be seeing a shift in how the international community chooses to make use of peacekeeping forces.
If this deployment is effective, it could signal a winding down of the era of giant, badly equipped, politically weak operations, and see an increasing use of small, aggressively mandated, politically solid (this operation got unanimous support from the Permanent 5!) peace enforcement deployments. The countries providing these soldiers aren’t jokes either; Malawi has the smallest military of the three but it is a reasonably professional group, Tanzania is currently undertaking a modernization phase with their armed forces, and South Africa has a robust professional military. None of the three are militarily comparable to a NATO country, but given proper equipment and aggressive rules of engagement should be able to control a combat theater.
The risk is that if this fails, it will be another embarrassing blow to the perceptions of peacekeeping – if the UN gets this one right though, it could indicate a much needed shift in how peacekeeping is conceptualized at the headquarters level and implemented in the field.