Few countries have exposed the limitations of peacekeeping as much as Congo. MONUC (the initials for the French translation of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) appears overwhelmed as rival military forces, from rebels to the nation's army, take turns ravaging parts of the country. Alan Doss is perhaps the world's foremost expert on peacekeeping. In a lifetime career at the U.N., he ran the peacekeeping operations in Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone before being transferred to Congo in October 2007. He spoke to TIME's Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, by telephone while en route to U.N. headquarters in Geneva and then the U.N. Security Council in New York.
TIME: Why are 11,000 of MONUC's 17,000 soldiers outside the area where the fighting is?
Doss: We are redeploying. As we speak, there are units being moved into the area. But we really are stretched to the limit. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul. South Kivu [a province of Congo] is tense. So is Ituri [another province in the country], and we have the LRA [Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that originated in northern Uganda] in the northeast. We are doing short-term reinforcements, but we simply do not have an effective rapid-reaction force.
How problematic is your support for the Congolese army, which seems to be one of the most destabilizing and brutal elements in the conflict?
We do not have an alliance with the Congolese army. We are a U.N. peacekeeping force [acting] in support of the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo). But it is clear that the FARDC is becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution. It's clear the army is disintegrating. That's one of the big dilemmas for us. We came out to Congo with a certain function to reinforce the authority of the state. But now the [U.N. Security] Council will have to reconsider this. Events of the last two months have just run over [our mission]. The Congolese army needs root and branch reform, but security-sector reform is a long-term project. So how do we deal with the situation in the meantime? Protection is our mission. But if those we are protecting are also involved, it's a very difficult situation.
How do you explain the attacks on U.N. compounds in Goma?
It's a combination of things. There is a huge amount of genuine frustration. Then there's the recent outbreak of fresh hostilities. Sometimes the popular frustration is manipulated by political forces to advance their own agenda. The problem is simply practical. There are 10 million people in North and South Kivu, and we have less than 10,000 soldiers there. In Liberia I had the same amount of troops as I have for Congo, and [Liberia] is less than one-hundredth of the size. Congo is the size of Western Europe, without roads. That's the scale of the problem. We cannot be everywhere all of the time. It's not indifference; far from it. We are there as part of a peace process that has collapsed. That's been made worse by the FARDC. It's a very difficult situation to manage. It's not indifference or unwillingness or inability. It's trying to be everywhere at the same time. I think it's also important to remember that the responsibility to protect is first and foremost a national responsibility. Armed groups who perpetrate violence need to be held to account. Look at what happened at Kiwanja [on Nov. 5, more than 50 people in that village were massacred in two waves, first by Mai Mai guerrillas, then by opposing soldiers from rebel Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda's forces.] These are war crimes.
But people living in the area say they just don't see MONUC, that MONUC is almost an irrelevance in their lives.
I would agree with that. We would like to be more present. You have situations where there is a population of 60,000, and we have 120 soldiers in a base. In those circumstances, they might well say that they have not seen us. North Kivu is twice the size of Belgium, and a third of our forces are there, though for obvious reasons, they are mostly in and around Goma. I can understand the frustration. But you can see the scale of the problem, and we're just trying to manage these realities and these operational dilemmas. The expectations of what we can do are a problem. We cannot meet them at this stage. I would be less than honest if I said we can guarantee the protection of every civilian. We were brought in as a peacekeeping force, and we have now had to take on some dimensions of peace enforcement. Self-protection is part of the soldiers' motivation and that's the right of every armed force. But [MONUC forces] don't just hunker down in their bases. They are out on patrol. Even so, if something bad is happening in a house a kilometer away, we cannot really prevent that.
What implications does the success or failure of MONUC have for other peacekeeping operations?
Every case is different. Darfur is very different. Every time a U.N. peacekeeping force deploys, it raises lots of questions. But yes, there are issues raised by our experience that will have a long-term effect. There is a very fine line between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Our mission was equipped for peacekeeping. And as one of my officers says, you don't go to war in blue helmets and white tanks. When we shift from a monitoring group to one that takes on military elements, we have to change the way we operate. We have to acquire different capabilities. We have to ask ourselves: To what extent are we ready? Were our assumptions wrong? Did we bank too much on the peace process? There will be lots of postmortems. But I think that one should not forget that there have been a lot of achievements. Three to four years ago, the country was dividing into three parts. That was overcome. Most of the country now has peace. This is a country that is literally back from the dead. There is progress.
The Responsibility to Protect [or R2P, a concept of humanitarian intervention] was only adopted by the U.N. in 2005. How much is MONUC feeling its way here? Is MONUC an experiment?
R2P is a huge step forward ... But the question remains: How do we actually do it? We have come up against the sharp end of R2P. We can claim that responsibility, but actually doing that in North Kivu, with a collapsing army, a resurgence of ethnic groups well, that raises fundamental questions. When we make these statements, we have to be careful that we have the means to match our mandate.
Is peacekeeping a stopgap solution rather than a long term one? If so, does that mean peacekeeping can never have great moments of achievement?
There are a number of peacekeeping missions. We try to be a help to the process of national political accommodation. We can never substitute for that, however; only bolster the forces taking part and help stabilize the nation. We assist the national process, but we do not replace it. We're not NATO. We're not an army of occupation. We're not a colonial army. We're never going to take on points of responsibility that a national power can do. That's our strength, but it also requires you to think: What can we expect of a peacekeeping force?