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American Forces Press Service

Official: DOD Aid to Congolese Army Bolsters U.S. Security

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2012 – The Defense Department plays a critical role in building security capacity in the central African Democratic Republic of the Congo, officials from the departments of Defense and State told the House Armed Services Committee today.

Aiding the armies of DRC and nearby nations such as Uganda can help to disrupt growing links between instability in central Africa and the global terrorist threat, the officials said, and push back against nonstate actors and regimes, such as those in Syria, Iran and North Korea, that directly threaten the United States and its allies.

Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, testified before the full committee.

"The U.S. has many competing security priorities in Africa, from Somalia to Sudan to Libya to Nigeria to Mali," Chollet said.

"But the DRC also remains important because of the potential opportunity lasting stability would bring and because of the imperative to prevent mass atrocities, which is a priority for this administration," he added.

The DRC's army, and the state military organization responsible for defending the nation, is called the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its acronym, FARDC, stands for the French version of the name -- Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo.

"The security and humanitarian situation in the DRC is the most volatile and violent in Africa today," Carson said. "An estimated 5 million people have lost their lives since 1998, and millions more have been uprooted and displaced."

A key threat facing Congolese civilians, particularly in the eastern DRC, is an array of violent armed groups, most notoriously including the March 23 Movement, called M23, the Lord's Resistance Army, and the remnants of genocidal militias that now call themselves the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, the assistant secretary noted.

Another danger to civilians is an undisciplined state security force, Chollet said, "particularly when the forces are not well supported, have absorbed armed groups without vetting them for human rights abuses, operate under a separate chain of command or have not been trained in their legal obligations."

This confluence of security concerns, he added, "is prompting the Defense Department to closely follow security developments of DRC in the Great Lakes region and is actively involved along with our State Department colleagues to address them."

Chollet said the unfolding crisis highlights the Congolese government's failure to provide effective security, governance and services in the eastern provinces.

"It also highlights continued political and economic tensions between the DRC and its eastern neighbors, especially Rwanda," the assistant secretary said.

Outside support, particularly from Rwanda, has helped to make the M23 a significant threat that seriously challenges efforts to stabilize eastern DRC and protect civilians, Chollet said. President Barack Obama told Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a telephone call yesterday that "any support to M23 is inconsistent with Rwanda's desire for stability and peace," he added.

The Rwandan military is a capable partner in peacekeeping operations outside the immediate region, but their support for M23 prompted the Obama administration to suspend Rwanda's foreign military financing, Chollet told the panel.

"As the situation in eastern Congo develops," he said, "we will continue to monitor reports of external support closely and respond appropriately, including by reviewing our assistance."

Inside the DRC, the United States is prioritizing private-sector reform.

"This means working with our partners and the DRC to develop a comprehensive approach that addresses all three elements of [the] security sector -- the Congolese defense forces, military justice and the police," the assistant secretary said.

"We must work to develop more professional forces that respect human rights and protect both DRC's territorial integrity and population," he added.

DOD has provided training to the Congolese military, including a light-infantry battalion in 2010, incorporating sexual and gender-based violence protection and human rights training into every aspect of the effort, Chollet said.

"In addition to ongoing training on human rights and law, Defense Department engagements with the FARDC have included logistics, exercise participation, basic military intelligence training, military medicine, humanitarian assistance and humanitarian mine action," the assistant secretary said.

Moving forward, he added, DOD stands ready to work with its State colleagues to determine the best way ahead and support security-sector reform, including by providing more infantry training for the FARDC.

The scale of the need is significant, Chollet said.

"Today we have trained one battalion of 500 soldiers [out of] a military that numbers approximately 150,000. Other European and African partners have also provided training but the FARDC's absorptive capacity for assistance is limited," he said.

"The Congolese defense ministry has been slow to respond to our requests [to provide] appropriate personnel for training and information needed for congressionally mandated human rights vetting. The lack of English-language capacity further inhibits training opportunities," Chollet added.

While the DRC works to develop its own security capabilities, the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation, called MONUSCO, is essential for providing security for the DRC civilian population.

"MONUSCO has a challenging mandate in a very fluid security climate. We are reviewing options for improving MONUSCO's ability to meet the civilian protection requirements in the DRC," Chollet said.

"To help MONUSCO," he added, "DOD has seconded three U.S. military officers who are hoping to support operational efforts in ensuring an efficient flow of information between MONUSCO headquarters and field components."

Despite many challenges, the assistant secretary said, DOD has "an enduring interest in helping develop a more capable Congolese military, and this fits within [Defense] Secretary [Leon E.] Panetta's broader policy emphasis on building partner capacity."

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