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Defense expert calls for thousands of US troops in Africa

In 2011, the U.S. military trained a battalion of roughly 700 Congolese troops as part of an effort to professionalize a force that has a reputation for lawlessness. U.S. efforts in Congo have been limited mainly to training.

STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. should send a 5,000-strong security assistance brigade to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help stabilize a country ravaged by more than a decade of war, a prominent U.S. military analyst recommends.

In a “memorandum” to President Barack Obama, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution also urges the White House to send several hundred military advisers to Libya to help train that country’s fledgling armed forces.

“The United States should, with a focused effort and in partnership with other states, make a significant push to improve security in Africa,” O’Hanlon wrote in his Jan. 23 memo, which was posted on the Brookings website. “No massive deployments of U.S. troops would be needed, and in fact no role for American main combat units is required. But we should step up our game from the current very modest training efforts coordinated through Africa Command (AFRICOM).”

The recommendation comes at a time of increased concern about instability in certain parts of Africa. The list of hotspots is long: Mali, Somalia and across ungoverned spaces in the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa, where extremists have taken root, armed in large part with weapons looted from Libyan armories during NATO’s air assault on Moammer Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.

In addition, ethnic divisions have exploded into bloody violence in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC.

AFRICOM has engaged in many of those hotspots, though U.S. military action generally takes the form of modestly sized training missions, intelligence gathering operations and logistical support to French forces on the ground in places like Mali.

It seems unlikely that the Obama administration would follow O’Hanlon’s recommendation.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama emphasized that as the war in Afghanistan winds down, he would send U.S. forces into conflict zones only as a last resort.

“I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary. Nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts,” Obama said.

In the case of lawless eastern Congo, where thousands of people have been killed in the past decade, despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, there are no clear national security risks at stake for the U.S. While the U.S. has provided some military training to support DRC troops in the past, sending a 5,000-striong brigade would be an unprecedented move in the region.

Asked about O’Hanlon’s recommendation, Maj. Fred Harrell, an AFRICOM spokesman, said it would be “innappropriate” for the command to comment on any potential policy decision.

Thierry Vircoulon, the International Crisis Group’s director for Central Africa, was skeptical that the U.S. military is capable of helping to bring stability to the Congo.

“I believe that, unfortunately, the problems of Congo are not the type of problems that can be addressed by the U.S. Army,” Vircoulon said.

The DRC’s problem, Vircoulon said, is “bad governance, bad governance, bad governance.”

O’Hanlon also recommended that the U.S. send several hundred troops to Libya to train that country’s military. Since Gaddafi’S fall, Libya has been in a state of virtual anarchy. The U.S. and European partners are drawing up plans to train government forces, but that will likely occur outside of the country.

O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, acknowledges that increasing the U.S. military’s profile in Africa could be a hard sell.

“At a time of national war fatigue and fiscal austerity, it may be counterintuitive to propose increasing American involvement, particularly if it involves military commitment, abroad. But, for a modest investment, the United States and other countries may be able to make major strides towards improving the prospects for peace and stability on the continent.”

O’Hanlon’s full memorandum can be read here.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
 

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