RPCVs Write: U.S. Must Step Forward To Stabilize Congo

By: Michael O’Hanlon and Tony Gambino
December 11, 2012

[Tony Gambino and Michael O’Hanlon were PCVs in the Congo in the 1970s and ’80s; Tony was also the  USAID mission director there from 2001-04. Today he teaches at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This article appeared on December 12, 2012 in Politico. It was entitled “U.S. Must Step Forward in Effort to Stabilize Congo.” Larry Lesser, a PCV in Nigeria, 1963-65, and later served at the Embassy in Kigali 1977-79 drew my attention to it. Larry also commented, “Personally I found the article somewhat idealistic but not persuasive.  I don’t think it is within the power of the U.S. to stabilize Congo — not even in concert with other African nations or other nations globally.  I don’t think Congo can be stabilized.  It isn’t a viable nation-state and eastern Congo historically has never benefited from being part of the larger entity of Congo governed from Kinshasa.  The cities of Goma and Bukavu are disconnected from the rest of the country and look further east — through Rwanda and Uganda — for their economic lifeline.  So the first practical question is what if anything the U.S. can do in the current situation.  I would hope we can play a constructive role in stopping the violence inflicted by M23 and the Congolese military.  And what then?  That is the harder question.”]

Here is what O’Hanlon and Gambino have to say:congo_ap_605

The troubled country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo again has come into the headlines as a new rebellion in eastern Congo shakes the center of Africa. The present situation has already displaced hundreds of thousands, with unknown numbers dead – and, as before, it could easily widen, threatening the safety of millions and stability across the middle of Africa.

Earlier this month, M23 rebels fighting the Congolese army withdrew from the eastern regional capital city of Goma, which they had seized 10 days earlier. Their withdrawal occurred after intense international activity, negotiations between M23 officials and Congo President Joseph Kabila in Kampala, Uganda, and an agreement signed there on Nov. 24 by the leaders of a regional African organization, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the chairwoman of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, endorsed this agreement. However, the Kampala Accords and ICGLR role are grossly insufficient to respond to the underlying, interlinked crises in Congo and the wider region.

Congo is plagued by three interlocking crises. First, a local crisis in eastern Congo involving multiple groups has turned violent many times since 1991. Second, a national crisis of poor governance and state failure has stymied Congo for decades. Failed national elections in 2011 added an even deeper crisis of political legitimacy. Finally, an international crisis has existed between Congo and Rwanda since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It remains unresolved, with Rwanda’s clear military support to the M23 rebels its most recent manifestation. All three intertwined crises must be tackled and resolved.

Ground zero of Congo’s three crises is found in its incompetent, brutal, corrupt army. Neither Congo’s leaders nor the international community have been willing to effectively confront this issue. The inability of the Congolese state to secure its own territory is embodied by rapacious, abusive commanders in senior positions, many of whom cycle in and out between the Congolese army and various militias, sometimes allied with the army, sometimes fighting it. For example, all the senior commanders now leading the M23 rebellion, including Bosco Ntaganda, an indicted international war criminal, were officers in good standing in the Congolese army just a few months ago.

Many senior international diplomats, including Clinton, have been willing to visit Congo and speak out strongly about the suffering of Congo’s civilians, particularly girls and women. However, in early 2009, after an outbreak of a remarkably similar round of fighting, Clinton and other leaders acquiesced in Congo’s decision to name Ntaganda as the key commander in the relevant theater of conflict in eastern Congo. The infamous formula articulated publicly by Congolese leaders at the time was that it was necessary to choose “stability over justice.” The flawed, weak March 23 agreement, from which the M23 rebels take their name, dates from this sad time. Diplomats, anxious for an easy fix to the deep problems of Congo, ignored the obvious and accepted Ntaganda, consigning hundreds of thousands of Congolese civilians to continued brutalization, suffering and, in too many cases, injury and death.

The world grows too easily weary of Congo. Diplomats flail during Congo’s crises for quick fixes. Since Congo remains a poorly governed, failed state, the international community must engage much more deeply with Congo and its neighbors to support essential institutions and defeat political and military spoilers. To do this, the United States should lead the international community in a new strategy to move Congo away from consistent crises and toward democratic stability.

The addition of high-profile international envoys may prove useful, but it is insufficient to solve Congo’s three crises. Success in Congo requires day-to-day, on-the-ground, longer-term engagement by international actors. During the 2003-06 period of transition, the international community was organized in a formal International Committee to Support the Transition (known by its French acronym, CIAT). CIAT, chaired by the head of the U.N. Mission in the Congo, included ambassadors from the United States, Africa, Europe and China. It met regularly and, most importantly, used its influence frequently and effectively to maintain the integrity of the fragile transition. The world tired of Congo after the 2006 elections. Multiple crises since have not yet led to any fundamental change in this self-defeating posture.

A new CIAT is now needed. The U.S. should work immediately for it to be reconstituted and formally blessed by both the U.N. Security Council and the African Union. As before, it should include representatives from the U.N. Permanent Five and key African and European states. CIAT II should be given a mandate to:

Work with Congolese civilian leaders at both the national and local levels to establish a constitutional process for legal and political reform in eastern Congo. Central to this must be the early organization of provincial elections, for eastern Congo and the rest of Congo. Without heavy pressure and involvement of CIAT II, the European Union and others, reform in eastern Congo and provincial elections alike will fail.

Work with Congolese civilian and military leaders to establish a credible process for reform of Congo’s military. This must include, among initial actions, the exclusion – and arrest – of indicted war criminals like Bosco Ntaganda and the removal of other well-known top Congolese military leaders already deeply implicated in abuses and/or proven incompetent. This will not be easy, but successful reform has occurred in difficult places elsewhere when international actors provided the necessary incentives and support to key domestic reformers while disempowering the many spoilers.

Once the new CIAT is established and initial discussions started on political and military reform, the U.S. should lay out conditions under which its military – not contractors in support, but the U.S. armed forces themselves – would consider joining the U.N. mission. U.S. expertise gained in training and mentoring the Iraqi and Afghan security forces would be welcome in Congo. While a major step for America, no huge U.S. troop totals are required. As Afghanistan winds down, sending several thousand troops (primarily a training brigade and support) could make a dramatic difference, giving Congolese reformers a major boost of confidence and increasing American leverage on key issues with the Kinshasa government.

The U.S. should also push for a stronger U.N. force. Although that force is today the U.N.’s largest, it is a miserly 18,000 strong for a country twice the population of either Iraq or Afghanistan. (Under radically different circumstances, more than 100,000 international troops were needed for a stretch in each of those countries. No such huge expansion is necessary here.) The purpose of this modest expansion – a few thousand additional troops and various enhanced capabilities – is for the U.N. to better help stabilize Congo while Congolese forces are trained and mentored ultimately to do this on their own.

Finally, the U.S. and others must bring heavy diplomatic pressure, including sanctions if necessary, on Rwanda to cease its destructive interventions. Although Rwanda has legitimate security interests along its borders with Congo, it is not defending those interests using legitimate means. However, unless Congo’s army is reformed so that it can protect its own citizens and secure its territory, no combination of threats and aid cutoffs will dissuade Rwanda from taking actions across its own border areas for economic and security reasons.

By the standards of what the U.S. has done to date in Congo, this agenda will appear radical. By the standards of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is minimal. By the standard of what works, it is painfully apparent that the episodic, on-off engagement by the U.S. and others has failed. What we propose – done with energy, skill and perseverance – could help Congo finally turn the same corner toward democracy and stability that other countries in Africa have succesfully navigated in recent years. The cost to us would be small. The benefits for the people of Congo and the entire region would be incalculable.

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