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Africa in focus

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: The Case for Doing More in Congo

Michael E. O’Hanlon


Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit blog series is a collection of posts discussing efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Africa ahead of the first continent-wide summit. On August 4, Brookings will host “The Game Has Changed: The New Landscape for Innovation and Business in Africa,” at which these themes and more will be explored by prominent experts. Click here to register for the event.

As leaders prepare to gather for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next week in Washington, there is welcome news from the forgotten continent:  While there remains considerable turbulence and a more dispersed threat from Islamic extremists than ever before—from Nigeria to Mali, Libya to Somalia, and now even Kenya—overall security trends on the continent are in fact favorable. Mortality rates from all kinds of warfare have been approximately cut in half in recent years. The African Union is playing a more constructive and unified role in addressing regional and intra-state conflicts than was previously the case. Flashy terrorist attacks are more frequent than before, but, at least at present, the old-fashioned and highly brutal civil wars are fewer in number and more restrained in intensity than at almost any time in Africa’s roughly half century of independence.

The United States and like-minded states should build on this positive momentum with two new initiatives at the summit.  One is a proposal to send a brigade of American combat forces to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in support of the U.N. peacekeeping mission there and to reinforce the progress that the DRC has begun to experience over the last couple of years, in terms of disarming and concluding peace agreements between the government and the various rebel groups.  That progress is very fragile and far from adequate for the well-being of the nation’s people or the prospects for future stability within the DRC.  But it is real, and hopeful, and provides a rare opportunity for the United States to support and strengthen local solutions to the conflict. The United States should focus its security agenda in Africa foremost on the DRC because, while the entire continent deserves attention, the country is one of the continent’s two or three “pivotal states” given its size and location—and also the place where the prospects for near-term progress appear most real. Second, the United States and partner nations should seek to rescue an earlier victory in Libya from the current jaws of defeat, mayhem and anarchy with a much more robust train-and-equip effort to get Libyan security forces on their feet so they may establish control over the various militias and criminal gangs.

There would be much resistance in America to any such ideas, of course, underpinned by the nation’s war fatigue in general, and its desire to do less abroad. With the broader Middle East in such turmoil, the moment may seem strange for a big proposal on a greater military role in Africa. And, of course, as I mentioned in a piece earlier this year, “America’s military role and experiences in Africa have been generally unhappy. The 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ tragedy in Somalia was the most notorious case and contributed to President Clinton’s decision to stay out of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994, with much regret.”

While insecurity remains a major challenge for the continent, still, there is an opportunity to support the momentum of a growing number of countries that are moving toward peace. And there is a significant group of international actors helping to consolidate this peace. Beyond the French role in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and the Central African Republic, African states are stepping up to the plate, as the efforts by Ugandan and Kenyan forces in Somalia demonstrate. China has also increased its direct involvement in African security affairs, dispatching combat troops to Mali, engaging in mediation in South Sudan, carrying out naval escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, and contributing financially and militarily to the African Union, as noted by my colleague Yun Sun. Additionally, Japan has provided 400 self-defense forces personnel as part of the U.N. mission in South Sudan.

The United States has already deployed a small contingent to help Uganda pursue the Lord’s Resistance Army while maintaining special operations forces in Djibouti to pursue al-Qaida. It is also trying to help Nigeria in a targeted way with the rescue of the missing schoolgirls, kidnapped by the Boko Haram extremist movement.

Most recent U.S. efforts have worked through Africa Command to build capacity in African states through programs such as the Global Peace Operations Initiative and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.  These efforts, aimed at helping to set up an architecture that allows well-equipped African-led troops to be deployed rapidly are worthy, if generally small-scale, and should continue.

But there is a case for doing even more, and it is strongest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Libya. In the DRC, despite the creation of a rapid reaction brigade in recent months to strengthen the U.N. presence and take on militias such as the M23 group, Congolese forces remain weak. In addition, health care, education and other national institutions remain dysfunctional or simply absent in the country’s east. The general absence of the state will continue to compromise the quality of life and very survivability of vulnerable groups such as the young, women having children, the elderly and the sick. The best path towards a more hopeful future is a systematic effort by the United States and other outside powers to strengthen and reform Congolese security forces. Given the enormous distances and logistical challenges involved, this requires more than a few dozen trainers in traditional missions, but a deployed force on the ground such as an advise-and-assist brigade or Security Force Assistance Brigade to complement the nearly 20,000 U.N. forces, mostly from other African states, now in place.

In Libya, the real strategic loss has been a missed opportunity to help strengthen and stabilize the new Libyan government. The new proposed mission need not be large or costly. But the minimalist approach that the international community has followed to date has left the country worse off than it was under Moammar Gadhafi. Militias roam the streets; oil production and national GDP are way down; and institutions, including those providing education and health care, are barely functional. As part of a larger international effort, several hundred American troops in a training role could make a major difference. In so doing, they could also help reduce the spillover risks posed by renegade and extremist groups to neighboring countries like Mali, Tunisia and Algeria.

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There are, of course, risks from any such increased American role in African conflict zones. But this country’s general casualty aversion is not what it was in 1993, when tragedy in Somalia led to the rapid end of a U.S. military role there. Going forward, the political stakes in such a mission would appear to
be less—as, admittedly, would the political reward for any successes that U.S. forces helped achieve. In a broader historic sense, helping transform Africa from a zone of conflict to a zone of hope could prove a durable and notable accomplishment.