Why the U.S. Should Send Troops (and Spooks) to the Congo
DUNGU, Democratic Republic of Congo — They arrive in the night like monsters. In northeastern Congo, in a swath of thick forest the size of some European countries, the apocalyptic Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group is a constant, foreboding presence. The LRA’s fighters — many of them kidnapped teens — murder, abduct, rape and pillage while constantly eluding a half-heartedly pursuing Congolese army.
Suzane Fulale was just 15 when she was kidnapped last year and forced to “marry” an LRA fighter. Freed by a Ugandan army raid, today the slightly-built Fulale is mother to an eight-month-old “LRA baby.” When she recounts her months in captivity, she casts her dark eyes to the ground and speaks in a barely-audible whisper.
Fulale’s is the human face of an escalating but (in the West) rarely-reported crisis. In Sudan, in the Central African Republic, and especially in Congo, border-hopping LRA fighters drive before them thousands of refugees, disrupt agriculture and transportation, and undermine already-fragile governments. In short, the LRA is one of the greatest dangers in a part of the world that’s full of them. And there’s a possible, clear-cut American military solution — a rare thing in this era of seemingly endless counter-insurgency campaigns. But does Washington care enough to act?
I’m in Congo at the moment reporting and researching a new graphic novel. This is the refrain I’ve heard numerous times from U.S. government sources and the aid community, always off the record: Unlike insurgent groups such as the Taliban, Somalia’s Al Shabab or one of Congo’s other rebel armies, these days LRA doesn’t want anything except to survive and pillage. They don’t have political aims. There’s no hope of accommodating them as a group. What began in the 1980s as a Ugandan rebel movement with actual grievances is now just a roving tribe of killers. The LRA is organized around a half-dozen key chieftans answering to top man Joseph Kony, who loosely directs scattered bands of fighters by way of stolen satellite phones. If you want to destroy the LRA, sources say, you only need to kill or capture the leaders: there’s no grassroots support that would sustain the LRA while it rebuilds its leadership.
Problem is, Congo can’t handle the task of taking down the LRA. With just 300 miles of paved roads in the whole country and no air force to speak of, the Congolese military can’t move fast enough to keep up with the LRA. Besides, the Congolese army has been cobbled together from various former rebel groups plus troops inherited from the country’s previous regime. “There is very little discipline,” Marcel Stoessel, Congo director for the aid group Oxfam U.K., said of the Congolese army. To beat the LRA, Congo needs help from an army adept at locating elusive groups in rough terrain, and an air force trained to speed small, lethal teams to the battle zone. Sound like any military we know?
Two years ago, the U.S. formed a new command to handle most of the African continent. Africa Command — based in Germany to avoid accusations of colonialism — is by necessity a new kind of military organization. With most American forces devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Africom has to be pretty light. There are just a few thousand people permanently assigned, many of them civilian contractors. When Africom needs a couple hundred troops for a training exercise or some small-scale humanitarian operation, it borrows them from the National Guard or some other, bigger regional command.
Africom is not designed to mount Afghanistan-size wars. It’s all about brief, targeted intervention, influence and the Pentagon’s new favorite word, “partnership.” “Admittedly, this is an indirect and long-term approach,” Maj. Gen. William Garrett, then-commander of Africom’s land troops, told me earlier this year. Recently, U.S. Special Forces helped form a new “model” Congolese army battalion. And earlier this month in Kinshasa, Congo’s sprawling capital, a hundred U.S. Army doctors and medics teamed up with 250 Congolese personnel for a couple weeks of training. “The U.S. has determined it wants to be more involved in Africa,” explained Army Lt. Col. Todd Johnston, the exercise commander.
So why not get involved where it can really help? That’s what advocates of U.S. action in Congo are asking. After all, this is a mineral-rich country that takes millions and millions in foreign donations, mostly from America. So find the LRA, and kill or capture the chiefs before they make an already desperate country even worse.
But do it the Africom way. No massive troop deployment. No occupation. No drawn-out conflict. No headline news in the U.S. Just a few spooks, a few commandos, some airplanes and choppers and the permission of Congolese president Joseph Kabila. By American military standards, it wouldn’t take much. But it would make life a lot safer for millions of people in Central Africa — and might help reduce the cost to the world of keeping Congo on life support. Plus, it could show the way forward for a smarter, less expensive American way of war.
There are just two problems. First, the U.S. military has tried taking out the LRA before, albeit indirectly — and failed. Last year, Ugandan and U.N. forces acting on U.S.-provided intelligence launched an offensive aimed at taking out LRA leadership. But the rebels escaped … and killed hundreds of civilians as they hacked their way deeper into the forest.
Second, despite a growing body of legislation meant to define America’s role in Congo’s conflicts, at the moment there’s no clear U.S. policy regarding Congo and no prospect of one emerging anytime soon. The U.S. military might be the best solution to Congo’s LRA problem, but it’s a solution lacking one key component: political will.