Feingold sees 'exciting potential' for UN combat force

President Obama's envoy to central Africa on Wednesday praised the “exciting potential” of a newly created U.N. combat force that could transform peace-keeping missions around the world.

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Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) credited the 3,000-strong Forward Intervention Brigade for helping deal a fatal blow to rebels in the resource-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo over the past few weeks. The rebel group M23 laid down its arms this week, an important development in a conflict that has left more than 5 million people dead since 1998.

“This may have long-term consequences for what people believe could happen if United Nations peace-keeping forces were given a stronger capacity to deal with violence and threats to civilians,” Feingold told reporters on a conference call. “This has an exciting potential and the initial signs are that this is a very successful operation.”

The U.N. Security Council created the force this year after its peace-keepers have been roundly criticized for failing to keep civilians safe over the past 14 years they've been in the Congo. Instead of a traditional neutral role, the brigade worked with the Congolese government to track down — and sometimes kill — rebel fighters.

“Most people believe this is an exceptional approach; some would say unprecedented,” Feingold said. “But in any event it's a very strong approach that stands in great contrast to, frankly, the often-criticized role of the U.N. forces in the region in the past, which did not have this capacity.”

He said the victory over M23 “certainly will be pointed to — either good or bad — as to whether this kind of an operation can work. The initial signs are that it is successful. It's a good concept and is working well, at least in this context.”

Feingold, however, cautioned that many hurdles remain to fully resolve a multination conflict that has dragged on for almost two decades. He expects a final settlement to be signed in the coming days between the Congolese government and M23 leaders in Kampala, Uganda, but said a broader agreement among countries in the region is needed in order for peace to prevail.

“This would only resolve one aspect of the issue: the very serious problem of the M23,” Feingold said. “It does not deal with all the other root causes of the problem, it does not deal with ... all the other armed groups and all the issues about what the Democratic Republic of the Congo has to do in order to reform itself.”

Obama has made resolving the Congolese crisis a top priority of his foreign policy in Africa. Secretary of State John Kerry nominated Feingold, a former leader on the Senate Foreign Relations panel on Africa, in June to serve as United States Special Representative for the African Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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