U.S. AFRICOM Troops to Congo? To attack the LRA?

Wired has a piece on their Danger Room blog suggesting “why the US should send troops (and spooks)” to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to pursue the Lords Resistance Army, on the theory that what is missing is military capability and we are the ones that have it:

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.

It’s a bit hard for me to understand how you can present an argument for sending US troops into the Congo, with the permission of President Joseph Kabila, to hunt down the LRA, without any serious discussion of the ramifications of this in relation to all of the other conflicts and issues in Eastern Congo involving foreign-supported militias, ethnic groups, etc. Or how you address the issues involving the fact that the LRA ranges across four different countries and originates in Uganda rather than the DRC. If you don’t cross borders, you fail and you have to stay indefinitely in the DRC to have any hope of keeping the LRA elsewhere–do you follow them into Sudan, for instance, based on permission from Joseph Kabila? Do we have US troops fighting in Uganda during the February elections?

Conceptually, I fully appreciate the impulse to act directly instead of just through training others to try to put a stop to the LRA–however, I just don’t buy this as a legitimate assessment. Part of the reason is that reading carefully, you see that what Axe is describing is not just  a lack of capability by the DRC, but also a lack of will. This makes the whole thing a bit disingenuous.

Robert Kaplan waxed poetic in the Atlantic back in 2007 at the inception of AFRICOM about the nature of the combatant command as a new “under one roof” State Department, USAID and military entity for “nation building”. Based on the GAO report issued in July on the status of AFRICOM (h/t Dr. Carl LeVan) any such ambitions are at an embryonic stage as AFRICOM has yet to formalize its own basic planning documents and at least at that time still had not really worked out how to handle the role of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa in Djibouti, which is the actual on-continent U.S. base. Likewise, AFRICOM as of July had only 29 people at headquarters from State and USAID and did not use any methodology to actually measure or evaluate its various programs in civil affairs, rule of law, etc., etc., which might or might not complement other things done by others from the U.S. government.

Does this piece in Wired represent the “tip of the spear” in the search for an alternative role for AFRICOM–more “rapid strike force” and less “nation building”?

When someone floats an idea and says “plus, it could show the way forward for a smarter, less expensive American way of war”, start by being afraid for your children and your wallet. And suggest that they may want to experiment on this in Afghanistan and/or Iraq first.

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