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.
When civilians are killed in the presence of peacekeepers and "you respond and say it’s not in my mandate, you get absolutely pilloried," Doss said. If U.N. troops step outside their orders and peacekeepers die, "then governments (of the U.N. troops) who are accountable to their parliaments say, ‘What is this?’ ”
Some caution that the relative success of the African Union in Somalia isn’t a precedent with much spreading power, and that, like it or not, the African Union’s hopes for an open wallet from the West for its own security operations are unrealistic.
For one, regional neighbors such as Uganda and Kenya had a strong incentive to quell the al Shabab revolt, and they had sizable armies willing to take on the task. The West, fearful of al Shabab’s links to al Qaida, was eager to help.
In the case of Mali, the United States and Europe similarly see the situation as a threat to global security, but it remains to be seen whether West Africa can pull together a military force strong enough to represent a credible threat to the entrenched rebels in the north.
The prospect for the proposed Congo force is even less sure. According to the African Union, Tanzania pledged troops but it hasn’t indicated how many, South Africa promised logistical support but hasn’t specified what form it would take and the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc of countries, offered only vague backing.
The real test, however, is whether African leaders can convince the richer West to fund interventions into messy conflicts that – unlike Somalia and Mali – don’t threaten to descend into transnational breeding grounds for terrorism. So far, the United States and United Nations have expressed hearty skepticism.
“We do not believe there is a military solution to this crisis and urge all stakeholders to support the existing cease-fire," said Tula Orum, a spokeswoman for the State Department. "We have concerns about how effective any new force might be in the absence of a political settlement."
The United States also said it agreed that the United Nations should review the mandate for the peacekeepers who are in the Congo, given that none of its ground forces engaged in combat against the advancing rebels.
"That wasn’t their role. They were there to protect civilians. They maintained that role," said a senior State Department official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity under common State Department protocol.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues. Twitter: @alanboswell