STUTTGART, Germany — At a remote military base in the jungle city of Kisangani, an elite team of U.S. troops is attempting to retrain a battalion of Congolese infantrymen to serve as a model for an unruly force that has a reputation for using rape as a weapon of war.

In a region where intimidation is used by soldiers and the rebels they fight, the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa troops offer plenty of traditional soldiering instruction. For now, the team of about 25 Americans is focused on small-unit tactics, medical care, logistics support and communications. Soon they also will enlist alternative methods to reform a military in disarray.

U.S. Africa Command is drafting curriculum for dealing with the sexual violence issues that plague the Congolese military and will incorporate those findings into training this summer.

"That’s something that we didn’t know how to do. We don’t have those textbooks," said a Special Forces officer at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart.

The new sex- and gender-based violence-prevention programs will likely be integrated into missions in other parts of the continent, the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

AFRICOM has deployed an expert in sexual violence to the Congo to conduct interviews and help develop the sexual violence program for military leaders who are untrained in this area, according to Special Operations Command Africa.

AFRICOM, along with contractors hired by the U.S. State Department, began working with the Congolese battalion in March as part of an evolving six-month program. The hope is to field more than 700 Congolese troops capable of deploying as part of a quick-reaction force to protect the country’s borders and the people who call those volatile regions home.

Vital to U.S. national security

The effort to establish an elite Congolese unit is the latest push by the U.S. to professionalize armed forces in this strategically important region, where problems persist despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid over the years.

There are economic and strategic incentives to bringing more security to the Congo, which is rich in natural resources such as cobalt, a key component in the manufacturing of cell phones and other electronics. The country contains 80 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves.

An April 2009 report to Congress by the National Defense Stockpile Center made clear that ensuring access to mineral markets around the world is of vital interest to national security.

"The global growth in demand for scarce raw materials and the industrial surges in China, India, Russia, Brazil and other developing countries require that the U.S. employ a new, integrated and responsive strategy for identifying and ensuring, on a continual basis, an adequate supply of strategic and critical materials required for U.S. security needs," the report stated.

The Democratic Republic of Congo also possesses 50 percent of Africa’s forests and a river system that could provide hydro-electric power to the entire continent, according to a U.N. report on the country’s strategic significance and its potential role as an economic power in central Africa.

However, the land’s development has lagged while the country of 67 million people has struggled in a near-constant state of war and crisis since 1998, resulting in more than 5 million deaths — making it the deadliest documented conflict zone since World War II, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The magnitude of the problem was captured in a study released April 15 by the British aid group Oxfam. Of the 4,000 rape victims surveyed between 2004 and 2008, more than half were assaulted by soldiers or members of other armed militia groups. Acts of civilian rape in eastern Congo also increased 17-fold during that time, which raises concerns about the population becoming desensitized to such acts of violence, according to the report.

"The mind-set of an entire society will have to be reset to recognize rape as morally unacceptable," the report stated.

Corruption stalling reform

Thierry Vircoulon, the International Crisis Group’s director of Central African affairs, is skeptical about the effort to reform the Congolese armed forces.

In a country with a long history of conflict, this attempt to transform the military will likely have little impact unless there are changes in the country’s political leadership, he said. Corruption at the highest levels of the government and military is impeding attempts at reform.

"If we get involved in restructuring, we should make sure the government also is willing to restructure in a professional sense," he said. "Otherwise, I don’t think human rights instruction by the U.S. or anyone else is going to make a big difference."

One of those structural obstacles: In remote parts of the country, troops frequently go unpaid or commanders take an unfair cut as the money moves down the chain. Such mismanagement has led to disgruntled troops lashing out in villages, stealing food and brutalizing the population.

Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, AFRICOM’s director of strategy, plans and programs, said the political leadership has given assurances that the new battalion being trained will be paid and better equipped than other units, avoiding some of these ripple effects. But solving those problems will take time, Sherlock said, adding that the U.S. is only one player in an international effort to reform the country’s security sector.

Because soldiers in the Congolese army often are not properly paid by the government, they are unable to take care of family members, which results in a train of dependents tagging along on missions, Sherlock said.

"And instead of being able to focus on what their mission is and what they’re supposed to do, the soldiers’ principal focus has been ‘How do I care for the people that I have to care for?’ And that causes a variety of problems," he said.

While the U.S. works on new logistical, recruitment, military health and justice programs, pressure is being applied to the political leadership in the country to take stronger steps toward instituting reforms, State Department officials said.

Sherlock said the next phase of the partnership is in development.

"But what we do next, whether it’s a continued relationship with this one unit or something different, is part of a much larger overall international effort that we need to contribute to and be supportive of."

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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