I think you are absolutely right to insist that we need to do a better job of conceptually disaggregating the wars in the Congo. We speak of the First (96-97) and Second (98-99 or -03) Congo Wars, as if there were only two, when in fact hostilities of various kinds continued long after the second war could be said, by whatever criteria, to have ended. Lumping what is and has been a complicated mess of disparate events into discrete categories can seem like an academic exercise. But failing to do so can result in something between confusion and blindness. Lacking the right “label-concept” to speak about the ongoing hostilities, we don’t really know how to talk about them–with the result that oftentimes we simply don’t.
That said, I’m not convinced that it’s quite correct to speak of three wars, either, with the third ongoing since Lusaka. (And don’t most accounts mark the end of the second war with the formation of the all-inclusive transitional government?) Or if we do want to talk of three wars, I think we should add the caveat that the third war, to a greater extent than the first two, has been characterized by several distinct phase changes.
The first was from Lusaka in July 1999 to Laurent’s death, in January 2001. This was a period best described, I think, as a phony peace. None of the signatories believed (I don't think) that the Lusaka Agreement was anything other than a makeshift truce representing the realities of the current military impasse. The belligerents continued to probe the “frontlines” seeking weaknesses in the other sides and fought pitched battles to consolidate their position. (An example would be the fights between Rwandan and Ugandan forces over the gold mines of Kisangani of 1999 and 2000--an example that also gives lie to the contemporaneous claim, nauseatingly repeated, that the whole thing was about the FDLR.)
The second period was from Joseph’s accession to the Sun City Accords. This period was marked by a genuine search for peace, at least on Joseph’s part. (His quest for peace during that period is still, I think, the best thing that can be said about the man’s career, and is on its way to becoming the only good thing.) What I thought was odd about the Accords–which you rightly put your finger on–was the extent to which everyone pretended this was really all about domestic power-sharing, when, as we all knew, Rwanda and Uganda still had major stakes in the country directly and via their support for the RCD and MLC. In retrospect, the Accords did succeed in laying the groundwork for the departure of (most of) the “negative” elements and for the de jure and de facto re-incorporation of the break-away regions (excepting the Kivus and Maniema) back into the country.
The third period was from Sun City to November 2008, with the startling rapprochement of Kinshasa and Kigali. The hostilities during that period were confined largely to Ituri and the Kivus, and gradually devolved from opposing blocs of foreign-supported militia into something of a free-for-all. It was during this period that the proliferation of armed groups and the absence of a central governing authority combined to create a Hobbesian-like environment, akin to what we see in Somalia. Grievances formerly settled by local mechanisms or suppressed by the central government (Lendu-Hema or Banyamulenge-”authochtones”) predominated.
Rwandaphones continued to play an outsize role during this period. The FDLR was still the nastiest of the militia (as measured for example, by the number of rapes with excessive violence it committed). And the CNDP, which had legitimate interests that were being threatened, did what every group whose strength exceeds its wisdom does: Protect itself by seizing ever greater power, thereby exacerbating the very anger that it feels the need to protect itself from. (One of the murkiest (for me) questions in all this is the evolving nature of Kigali’s relationship with Rwandaphones in the Kivus.)
The fourth period was from the Kigali rapprochement and the Monuc-supported Operation Kimia II to date. At the time, a lot of us, me very much included, thought the idea of incorporating disparate armed groups into the Congolese army, and then using them to attack the FDLR, was criminally insane–one of the very worst ideas in the history of UN peacekeeping. The mass proliferation of human rights violations caused by the suddenly augmented Congolese army during its campaign against the FDLR seemed at first to vindicate that judgment.
In retrospect, I’m not as confident of my condemnation as I was. To be sure, the incorporated but not properly integrated militia continue to cause all sorts of grief. It’s not as if they stopped living off the population once they were given FARDC uniforms, and many "original" FARDC soldiers are understandably pissed that every semi-literate militia leader with a Kalashnikov was given the rank of colonel. It is also profoundly disappointing that the process rewarded violence entrepreneurs over the many people within the communities who worked for peace. And from time to time we continue to see army units defecting and going on frolics of their own, most recently for example Colonel Kifaru’s rampage in Fizi in June 2011.
On the other hand, my impression is that overall amount of inter-militia fighting has diminished significantly, that the central government’s control of formerly independent armed groups–very much excepting the CNDP–has significantly increased, and that operations against the FDLR have yielded some positive results. I could be wrong on all counts: These are provisional and impressionistic judgments, and the absence of good statistics makes it hard to know for sure.
So for what it’s worth, here’s my view of the four distinct phases within the Third war:
I) July 1998 (Lusaka) – January 2001 (Kabila assassination)
II) January 2001 – April 2002 (Sun City)
[IIa) Interregnum: April 2002 - July 2003 (Transitional Government)]
III) July 2003 – November 2008 (Kinshasa-Kigali rapprochement)
IV) November 2008 – date
I’m not profoundly invested in this particular agglomeration of the facts; the messiness of the period makes it something of a Rorschach test, without correct or incorrect answers. It’s still a useful exercise, however, because it can help us to see how fundamentally things have changed during the past decade. What had been an invasion became a war between proxies and devolved into a semi-interlocked set of internecine local conflicts; what had been government-sponsored plunder became local contests of much more complex origin and motivation; what had been a period marked by contesting governments became a period marked by the absence of government and then into a period marked by the presence of a government so lethargic and apathetic it constitutes a kind of failure. All of which could, but largely didn’t, inform what should have been the international response to the crises.
A few thoughts prompted by your specific statements: “If we are to believe mortality estimates . . .” The wording suggests you have your doubts. Fair enough: at least two mortality studies I’m aware of have come back with much lower estimates. But is that what you meant–to cast doubt on the IRC’s reports? It’s not entirely clear.
“By early 1998 it became increasingly clear that the leaders who had been most responsible for putting Kabila into power were dissatisfied . . .” To whom was that clear? What contemporaneous sources do we have regarding that dissatisfaction? I ask because I remember hearing dire warnings from sources in Bukavu, but people in DC to whom I related those concerns reacted dismissively. In fact, the people I spoke to in the USG remained ignorant of the gathering danger until the war broke out, whereupon they expressed complete surprise. And there’s at least some reason to believe they weren’t just pretending to be ignorant: USAID personnel in Bukavu and Goma, for example, weren’t evacuated until after the invasion began. (Had the US known Rwanda was about to launch a second war, wouldn’t it have withdrawn their personnel from what was the Kivus? The Congo's surely not worth pulling a Coventry over, is it?)
“The second war broke out on 2 August 1998 when Kabila broke relations with Kigali and expelled his former Rwandan backers out of the country.” Yes. As you know, there’s a huge debate about who started the war and who’s responsible for it. Gourevitch, in his role as
“The MLC was seen as an army of liberation from Chadian occupation. . .” I did not know that.
“These civilian militia groups–as with all other armed groups in the Congo both domestic and foreign–have never been disarmed and continue to fight, though now for control of territory, land, and lucrative resources.” That was definitely the case from 2003 to 2008, but I wonder to what extent you see these groups (excepting the CNDP), actually (slowly and incompletely) coming under the discipline of the army now that they have been incorporated into it. In other words, is mixage finally beginning to work?
“[T]here was equally little denouncement of the continued presence of Rwandan military officers in eastern Congo, and Rwanda’s growing influence over economic and other networks and the support of proxies in that part of the country.” Amen, sister. It didn’t seem to matter how many Congolese arch-bishops the Rwandan army killed, or how many Hutu refugees it slaughtered, Rwanda really had carte blanche there for a while. There’s an interesting article to be written about how US policymakers–spurred by the arrival of the Bush team–gradually changed their mind about Kigali, and someone needs to assign it to one of their graduate students asap, while the memories of key policymakers are still sharp.
“[T]he position of the international community (especially the U.S.) was that any attempt to negotiate an end the violence in the east would compromise progress made in establishing the Transitional Government of National Unity of 2003-2006 and risk destabilizing its delicate balance of power.” Not sure I understand that as well as I should. Can you elaborate?
“[F]ighters from over at least two dozen armed groups [must] be de-linked from military command and control structures that may transcend territorial boundaries, but the forces themselves must be de-linked from the political economies of war.” I agree, but how? Dr. Mukwege and others have suggested beating Kalashnikovs to ploughshares, for example by re-tooling much of DRC’s outsize army into workers to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. What other practical ideas are there?
Finally, a big question for you: What the hell does Kabila do every day? What's he waiting for? Why has he proven so remarkably uninterested in pushing for peace in eastern Congo? Is there a clever strategic reason for the inaction, or is it just sloth?
I apologize for the length of this response. I woke up early this morning with assignments I’m trying to avoid, and this was an interesting piece that I hope provokes, in these days of Kony mania, some deeper reflection by those people able to get things done about what, exactly, needs doing.
 I worked for a while at the US Institute of Peace, a Congressionally funded think-tank, as stuffed with sophisticated globe-watchers as any institution in DC. Hardly anyone there had any idea about the ongoing death toll in DRC. Partly that's because the USIP, as a government institution, defined its mission in terms consistent with the country's national security agenda, which meant that they never felt much need to pay attention to Africa. But I suspect that part of the reason there's so little attention being paid to the Congo is that there is no right word to talk about what has been happening there.
 I know no one takes Gourevitch seriously anymore, anymore than they do Walter Duranty or Edgar Snow, but he was the State Department's Rwanda guru at the time.