Speak Softly and Let Others Carry the Big Stick

Speak Softly and Let Others Carry the Big Stick

Facing smaller defense budgets and a public tired of massive military interventions, the Obama administration has declared an end to big-footprint wars. That is welcome news to many, but as the United States pulls its own troops back, it will increasingly rely on allies and partner states to serve as military proxies — a situation that begs complex practical and moral questions. And at the moment, we don’t seem to have good answers to them.

On February 14, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, told Congress, "Building Partnership Capacity (BPC) is a fundamental aspect of our strategy…. BPC permeates the Department of Defense’s activities, and is a critical enabler to every [emphasis mine] primary military mission." In the same hearing, Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, director of strategic plans for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that BPC is "integral" to the "U.S. security strategy" and will be "a key component in how the United States will structure and employ military resources going forward."

Both men cited notable successes. U.S.-trained African Union forces have turned the tide against al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, which previously controlled much of Somalia. And America’s deep support for Colombian forces has — over decades — helped decimate the FARC rebellion and restore stability to our closest South American ally. But not all such projects are so successful. Moreover, often prospective partners — including the Colombians and the African Union states — have less than ideal human rights records.

Consider the case of the rebel group known as M23. Over the past year, M23, a Rwandan proxy militia, has committed large-scale atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last November, in response, the United Kingdom suspended all assistance, military and civilian, to neighboring Rwanda. Fifteen major human rights groups called upon the U.S. government to "cut all military assistance and suspend other non-humanitarian aid" as well. Instead, President Obama chastised Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame by phone, but only scaled back U.S. security cooperation by a mere $200,000 (out of $200 million) — hoping that mild displeasure would allow it to maintain Rwandan support for U.S. interests and coax changes in Rwandan policy.

On December 1 of last year, as I was flying into the capital of Rwanda, M23 rebels were withdrawing from Goma, which hugs Rwanda’s border. M23’s key leader, Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Twice, the DRC government offered him both forgiveness for his atrocities and the rank of general to lay down his arms. Most recently, Ntaganda — having accepted the second amnesty offer — had been serving in Congo’s army. But he broke ranks in April 2012, accusing Congo’s government of marginalizing his fellow ethnic Tutsis within Congo’s military. He then launched another of his blood-soaked campaigns across eastern Congo, displacing almost a quarter of a million people by late November 2012.

Such horrors have become almost routine over the past 20 years in Congo. Nonetheless, M23’s depravity is notable. According to a Human Rights Watch report, on July 7, 2012, in one village M23 fighters broke down one woman’s door, "beat her 15-year-old son to death, and abducted her husband. Before leaving, the M23 fighters gang-raped her, poured fuel between her legs, and set the fuel on fire." Despite these abuses, the Rwandan government remains patron to Ntaganda and M23, providing more than just supplies and weapons. Reports indicate that as many as 1,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border into Congo at different points to help M23 seize Goma.

Ironically, I was going to Rwanda to train Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) officers in conflict resolution and civilian protection skill sets for peacekeeping in Darfur. This State Department-funded African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program is the same program used to train African Union forces for Somalia. In early February, my RDF students led 3,200 soldiers in a "relief-in-place," sustaining Rwanda’s contribution to United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and providing an essential minimum of peace and security to the victims of wanton violence there. In part, their Darfur mission is to prevent the rape and killing of civilians in possibly the only corner of Africa that can rival Congo’s violence and misery over the past decade.

In 2010, in response to U.N. criticisms of its DRC policies, Rwanda threatened to extract its troops from Darfur, where they play a critical role. Rwandan soldiers conduct themselves with far more professionalism than their African neighbors. RDF troops are disciplined and detail-oriented. Their American marksmanship instructors told me RDF troops significantly outperform their previous Afghan and Iraqi students. I served as a U.S. Marine Corps embedded trainer with the Iraqi Army, and I thoroughly agreed. Going into combat, I’d willingly trade two or three Iraqi infantry battalions for one from the RDF.

This discipline and combat effectiveness arguably constitutes UNAMID’s backbone. But the RDF’s continued high-level performance and deployment capacity significantly depend on foreign — particularly U.S. — assistance. ACOTA’s three months of essential training is similar to that of Marine Corps Reserve battalions deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is also why other ACOTA-trained forces are defeating al-Shabab in Somalia. So by withdrawing American funding, the United States would likely hinder the most effective component of one of the world’s most important humanitarian peacekeeping missions — particularly if Rwanda pulled its troops in retaliation.

RDF officers told me that defending human rights is central to their mission in Darfur. They repeatedly asked questions about how they can protect civilians within their rules of engagement. They seemed to recognize that these values applied in Congo as well. One officer asked me if it was true that "French trainers told the Congolese Army that they can take sex from any women in the territory they liberate as payment for liberating the territory." When I responded that such conduct was rape, and so unacceptable, illegal, and forbidden, none of his classmates pushed back.

Nonetheless, M23 forces routinely commit such crimes within kilometers of RDF troops. Thus the human rights community wants the U.S. government to impose conditionality, withdrawing security assistance if the Rwandan government doesn’t comply with international human rights standards. These groups want the United States to sanction Rwanda until it either forces changes in M23’s conduct in Congo or renounces all support for Ntaganda and his men. These groups have an unambiguous moral case, but punishing human rights violations in Rwanda could exacerbate them in Darfur. What’s more, it is unclear if cutting off Kagame and the RDF will induce behavioral change. Rwanda and its conduct are significantly driven by deeply-held fears drawn from the 1994 genocide.

Rwanda fears — not unreasonably — the return of extremist Hutu militias, particularly the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, and their descendants. Rwanda argues that, by volition or omission, Congo’s government has permitted the FDLR’s continued operations. Thus Rwandans increasingly view Congo’s government as aligned with these malevolent forces. RDF officers consistently asked me, "Do you know the atrocities the Congolese military has committed?" In courses on negotiation, RDF officers repeatedly asked me: "What should the Rwandan government do when Congo refuses to negotiate, and insists on the unilateral withdrawal of M23 from Goma?" These questions implied a justification for their own country’s "defensive" actions.

Ironically, the fear of a Hutu-extremist threat has become a self-fulfilling prophecy over the past few months. In response to Rwanda supporting M23’s Tutsi-dominated forces, the Congolese government apparently has turned a blind eye to the FDLR’s reconstitution. The United Nations reported on December 17, 2012 that 4,000 new troops had joined the FDLR from neighboring countries, tripling its strength in Congo.

Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope. On February 6, the DRC and M23 signed a Ugandan-mediated agreement, in which both sides accepted responsibility for itemized violations of the previous peace agreements. Much work remains and current negotiations, that include many other parties, are wrestling over a number of key issues: passing a U.N. Security Council resolution establishing a combat-ready, peace-enforcement mission; vetting M23 troops and re-integrating them into Congo’s military, and bringing leaders guilty of the worst of M23’s crimes to justice. Resolving this issue will require international pressure on the Rwandan government, to force concessions from their client, M23.

Ideally, the Obama administration will retain ties with Rwanda precisely so that it has leverage at moments like this. The State Department is urging "a final settlement that includes a permanent cessation of hostilities, disarmament and demobilization of the M23, and accountability for human rights abusers." This then, can be a test-case — on the human rights front — of continued engagement with such abusive regimes.

Even if these talks fall through, though, terminating U.S. security support to Rwanda is still not a clear call. If Rwandan elites believe the world is abandoning them again — just like in 1994 — with Hutu-extremist militias rising next door, it will only entrench defiance of the international community. This could empower Kagame and encourage even greater support of Ntaganda and M23, and prompt him to withdraw from UNAMID. Thus, if the U.S. conditions its assistance on Rwanda’s pressuring or abandoning M23, the consequence could be more suffering in Darfur, but no less suffering under the terrors of Bosco Ntaganda.

The United States regularly points to Colombia as a replicable example of security assistance success. The U.S. government has argued that, particularly through the advent of "Leahy human rights vetting," security cooperation can drive reform in partner-state security forces. This law, authored by Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, bars U.S. funding for training of a foreign security force if there exists "credible evidence that [the] unit has committed gross violations of human rights." Supposedly, partner states will ensure proper behavior to receive U.S. training and funds. However, reports indicate that in Colombia and elsewhere Leahy vetting has drastic shortcomings and has not driven human rights reforms as well as its author had hoped.

Sometimes security assistance doesn’t even improve security — or worse, it backfires. Over the past decade the United States has sought to strengthen forces across northwestern Africa through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. However, the militaries in three of the 11 participating countries have executed coups since 2008. And the United States invested tens of millions of dollars in the Malian military, but as Assistant Secretary Sheehan testified, they "got their butts kicked in northern Mali by the Tuareg rebellion…. Mali is clearly our biggest failure."

With looming budget austerity and zero domestic appetite for deploying troops abroad, often the United States will depend on allies and partner states to carry the combat load for our security. To ensure that is done right, foreign security assistance is becoming a core component of America’s national security doctrine. But one thing is as clear now as it was the morning I flew out of Rwanda last December: There will be a long learning curve in how to effectively wield security cooperation to best guard American values and maintain our global leadership.