In February 2006, an army of rapists descended on Duru, a farming community of 5,000 in eastern Congo. They called themselves, without a trace of irony, the "Lord's Resistance Army."
Twenty-three years ago in neighboring Uganda, under firebrand founder Joseph Kony, the LRA fought to establish a bizarre voodoo-Christian theocracy in the country's impoverished, neglected north. Soundly defeated by the Ugandan army in 2006, the LRA fled westward into the thickly forested, poorly governed border region of Congo, Sudan, and Central African Republic. There, the rebels have lost all touch with their politics and fight only to survive. To eat, they murder farmers and pillage their fields. To keep up their numbers, they kidnap and brainwash little boys. For recreation, they catch and keep girls.
The first LRA attack on Duru in 2006 was a near miss. The rebels raided a few outlying farms, taking what they could carry and leaving behind several traumatized women. A month later, the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) arrived to "protect" the town from LRA attacks. That's when the real trouble started. As they often do when they garrison in a new town, the Congolese soldiers began raping Duru's women and girls. It was the beginning of another episode in Congo's long history of mass sexual violence. The army and police, rebel groups such as the LRA, and, increasingly, private citizens, commit tens of thousands of violent rapes every year -- though in fact, no one knows the exact number, as most victims cannot or do not seek treatment or justice from Congo's dilapidated hospitals and corrupt courts.
Congo is the "rape capital of the world," according to the United Nations. The problem has gotten so bad that it might very well result in the ground-up "reversal of a society's norms and values," according to a recent report from Harvard University and the aid group Oxfam International. As bad as life is now for Congo's 35 million women and girls, it would be worse if the country totally collapsed. Such a breakdown would also be a disaster for a region struggling to emerge from 50 years of war and, frankly, for the developed world -- the U.S. included. Congo isn't just some jungle backwater; it's roughly the size of Western Europe, sharing borders with 10 other countries. Underneath its tropical forest lie substantial reserves of uranium, tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold, and other valuable minerals.
The Obama administration also has a strong emotional connection to Congo. Over a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to bring American power to bear in helping reform the country's culture of rape. The tools she favors fall into a category known in Beltway circles as "smart power" -- military intervention that focuses on training, construction, and humanitarian work while taking pains to avoid violence. After all, many of Congo's modern-day problems are due, in part, to decades of armed intervention by the Belgians and other colonial powers that undermined the development of functional and accountable government.
Barack Obama seems to grasp that violence can't be fixed with threats of violence. During the 2008 election, he made smart power a cornerstone of his national-security platform. Once in office, though, Obama faced the demands of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which sucked the air out of all the smart-power talk. In those conflicts, it was arguably too late to fix security problems with anything short of full-on armed force. In Congo, Obama has a fresh chance to prove that American intervention can be kind and strong -- and look after America's vital interests while also improving the lives of millions of Congolese.
Any attempt to end rape in Congo must start with the FARDC, by far the worst perpetrator of sexual violence. In December 2009, a team of 25 U.S. Special Forces, with the help of State Department contractors, began the difficult task of training up a new "model battalion" of 750 Congolese soldiers, emphasizing human rights and international law. The plan is for the new battalion to "seed" the rest of the Congolese army with new attitudes about sexual violence and the army's duty to civilians. "We seek ... to develop a professional force that respects civilian authority and that provides security to all citizens of this country," said William Garvelink, the U.S. ambassador to Congo, in an Army press release this February.
The administration seeks to first get the Congolese army itself to stop raping and then to have it protect civilians from groups such as the LRA. The effort is a test of the administration's ideas about smart power and its evolving philosophy of nonviolent military intervention. Reform is a long-term project, and early results can be hard to measure, but the State Department and Pentagon -- not to mention the Congolese government -- are optimistic.
To be sure, the Congolese army has a long way to go. In fact, the FARDC is barely an army at all. It's mostly a repository for former enemies of the Congolese president. Every time President Joseph Kabila signs a ceasefire with a different band of militants, he offers to forgive their war crimes and employ them in the FARDC. In 2009 alone, some 12,000 former rebels joined the FARDC, according to Human Rights Watch. "In Congo, peace must come before justice," Kabila told the U.K. Telegraph in 2009.
"There's been over 59 insurgent groups that have been integrated into this force over the years," said Maj. Gen. David Hogg, the U.S. Army's top officer for Africa, in an Army press release. The result is an unreliable, ill-disciplined hodge-podge of competing interests, and the pay is so poor and erratic that starvation has driven some otherwise well-behaved units to pillage. In the FARDC, "everyone will look after his own personal gain," says Ferruccio Gobbi, an Italian priest in Duru.
Four years ago, the Congolese army arrived ostensibly to defend Gobbi's parish against the LRA but, in fact, ended up out-pillaging and out-raping the rebels, without even making an effort to protect the town from other threats. "The LRA was only a danger when they passed through, but with the FARDC, it was the same story every day," Gobbi recalls. "They raped, they stole, and when they saw the LRA, they ran away."
After they'd taken all they wanted, the FARDC moved on, leaving Duru wide open to rebel attack. The LRA returned in September 2008, burning, killing and kidnapping across a wide swath of Duru. Most of the town's residents grabbed what they could carry and fled. Hundreds died. Hundreds more were taken. Thousands stumbled into neighboring towns penniless, exhausted, and traumatized.
Fidel Mboligikpele, a teacher in Duru, lost his entire school that day: 70 students, kidnapped by the LRA. Along with hundreds of his neighbors, he headed toward Dungu, a town 40 miles away. "On the road, we saw the bodies of our friends, our parents, our kids," he says. In a Dungu refugee camp, Mboligikpele organized a makeshift school for Duru survivors. By late 2010 he had managed to enroll 103 boys -- but only 68 girls. He grimaces when asked why there are so few girls. Most are still enslaved by the LRA, he says.
Mboligikpele doesn't have books for his classroom. He survives on grain handouts from the U.N.'s World Food Program. In Dungu, though, Mboligikpele is something of a celebrity. On June 18 -- two days before World Refugee Day -- U.N. media specialists transformed the mud hut the teacher shares with his aged father into a makeshift television studio, linking Mboligikpele via satellite to Washington, D.C., and Ecuador. Through an interpreter, he had a three-way conversation with Clinton in D.C. and U.N. goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie in Ecuador that was streamed live on the Internet. All around Mboligikpele's hut, scores of curious refugees looked on.
From afar, the production might have seemed rather mercenary. The Americans nodded gravely to their respective cameras, promised to do all they could to help and, minutes later, disappeared into the electronic ether, leaving Mboligikpele and his neighbors no less hungry and his former students no less enslaved.
In August, after The New York Times reported that rebels had raped more than 200 women, girls, and babies in a single Congolese village over a four-day period beginning in late July, Clinton repeated a pledge she had made a year earlier during a landmark trip to Congo: "The United States will do everything we can to work with the U.N. and the [Democratic Republic of Congo's] government to hold the perpetrators of these acts accountable."
Clinton had first visited Congo as secretary of state in August 2009, as part of an 11-day, seven-nation tour of Africa. Her goal in Congo, she said on arrival in the capital of Kinshasa, was to pressure Kabila to prosecute those responsible for the country's epidemic of sexual violence. Before meeting with Kabila, Clinton dropped by a hospital and, after that, a university. "We are now in the 21st century," she told the audience of mostly students. "It is no longer acceptable for there to be violence against women in the home, in the community. And people need to stand together against it. And so I hope that here in the DRC, there will be a concerted effort to demand justice for women who are violently attacked and to make sure that their attackers are punished."
The day after her sit-down with Kabila, Clinton flew east to the border town of Goma, where she met with a woman who had been gang-raped while eight months pregnant. The fetus died. The woman only survived because someone stuffed grass into her wounds to stop the bleeding. Leaving that meeting, Clinton was visibly shaken, according to press reports. "I've been in a lot of very difficult and terrible settings," she said later. "And I was just overwhelmed by what I saw. It is almost impossible to describe the level of suffering."
The New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman was in the press pool for Clinton's trip and described the emotional weight that seemed to settle on her. "After meeting Congolese rape victims and touring a squalid refugee camp where thousands of people lived cheek by sunken cheek, Mrs. Clinton seemed drained," Gettleman wrote. "She said a few words on the plane ride back from Congo. But her language wasn't as emotional or urgent as it had been."
Her dejection belied the depth of her feeling. Clinton came away with a serious commitment to doing something about Congo's rape problem. During the trip she had unveiled a $17 million plan to build health clinics and supply rape victims with video cameras to help them document the violence. The cameras were an obvious throwaway notion, and even the promise of health clinics also left sexual-health professionals in Congo's aid community unimpressed. "That just treats the symptoms," one Kinshasa-based U.N. worker lamented.
Clinton seems to understand this. Tucked between the promises of cameras and clinics was a vow to send American soldiers to work alongside the Congolese military. So-called security-sector reform, or security-sector development, is the process of rebuilding the army and police forces of a conflict-wracked country. Such reform is a key facet of smart power. "We feel that assistance in security-sector development will help support our foreign-policy goals," says Marc Dillard, a State Department spokesperson in Kinshasa.
Underappreciated outside certain Washington, D.C., policy circles, security reform lies at the heart of American strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the years since the invasion of Iraq, it has fast become a major strength of the U.S. military despite frequent setbacks training Iraqi and Afghan troops. In Afghanistan, several incidents occurred in the past year involving Afghan trainees turning on and killing their Western trainers. Afghan troops and trainees are themselves prime targets for insurgent attacks: Some 5,500 Afghan security forces died in the first eight years of the war. Still, as part of the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, the military is confident it can build up Afghan forces to 305,000 troops and police -- an effort that will cost an estimated $6 billion per year to maintain. "We now see an army that is meeting its growth objectives," U.S. Army senior trainer Brig. Gen. Gary Patton said in June. In 2009, several components of the Afghan military began fully independent operations. Today in Iraq, entire U.S. Army "advise and assist" brigades are assigned, as their name implies, to occasionally offer advice to the mostly self-sufficient Iraqi brigades that the Americans spent years forming.
Clinton promised to bring this training experience to bear in Congo -- not an insignificant commitment. Congo is remote, both geographically and in the minds of American voters; the domestic political payoff for the administration honoring Clinton's pledge would be minimal. Yet in the year since Clinton first vowed to help, U.S. Africa Command has maintained a small permanent presence on the ground, with various military personnel, contractors, and aid workers coming and going. Few Americans seem to know it, but at Clinton's urging, the Obama administration has declared a small-scale war on sexual violence in Congo.
The administration's involvement says something about its vision for American power and influence that has been lost in the din over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Obama campaigned on a promise to end America's involvement in Iraq, and today, fewer than 50,000 troops remain in that country, down from more than 100,000 when he took office. Of course, the opposite has happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Obama has added some 30,000 troops and thousands of contractors. He did so, according to Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, as a compromise with his generals' demands for more troops. At the same time the president announced this "surge," he also announced that the combat troops would begin coming home from Afghanistan in July 2011.
Obama is no pacifist, but nonmilitary interventions like diplomacy and sanctions are more his style. In 1990, Harvard professor Joseph Nye gave a name to this approach. He called it "soft power," as opposed to the "hard power" of pure military force. "In individuals, soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision and communication that Obama possesses in abundance," Nye wrote in the run-up to the 2008 election. But Obama's administration hasn't completely taken up this approach. In her confirmation hearings, Clinton proposed blending soft and hard power into the hybrid "smart power." In doing so, she echoed an idea that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a George W. Bush appointee, had first floated two years earlier.
Obama and Clinton have been serious about channeling more military resources into smart-power initiatives: dealing with rape in Congo, for instance, or human slavery and fisheries protection in West Africa and childhood illness in Latin America. The Obama administration has continued to send the Navy on humanitarian missions to the developing world. Through the Continuing Promise program, the Marines have built schools, medical facilities, and other infrastructure in countries like Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panama. The administration has backed up the deployments with serious spending: for example, almost $4 billion for new Navy catamarans optimized for delivering people and supplies to underdeveloped ports.
Many of Obama's smart-power initiatives are expanded versions of programs that began during Bush's second term. But while Bush may have opened the door to smart power, Obama gave it a seat near the head of the table. He retained Gates as secretary of defense and also tapped smart-power advocates for key Pentagon posts: Ray Mabus as Navy secretary, Robert Work as his undersecretary, and Gen. Norton Schwartz as Air Force chief of staff. Hogg, the former deputy of the sprawling training command for Afghanistan, took over the Army component of the new U.S. Africa Command.
If Obama sticks to the announced timetable for ending the Afghanistan War and also wins a second term, it's likely that smart power will be the dominant U.S. military strategy beginning around 2012. By then, depending on how things go in Congo, we might even know whether it works.
The U.S.-led training began in Kinshasa in December 2009 with a small contingent of FARDC officers. The idea was to create a new battalion around a core of officers steeped in human rights and international law, without disbanding the entire army -- a major flaw in American security-reform efforts in Iraq. In February, the training shifted to a base in Kisangani, in central Congo. There, the American instructors focused their attention on the new battalion's rank and file. Much of the training was in such traditional military tasks as shooting, patrolling, and communications. The soldiers also got agricultural training and a lot of the same human-rights instruction as the officers. Lessons in farming and fishing were supposed to ensure that the model battalion would never need to pillage civilian farms for its own survival. The human-rights curriculum was oriented toward preventing sexual violence.
Rape-prevention was a tricky subject for the American instructors. "That's something that we didn't know how to do. We don't have those textbooks," one officer told Stars and Stripes. Indeed, the American military itself has long been marred by a rate of sexual assault twice that of the civilian population. As a curriculum for foreign students, rape-prevention was new to the American trainers.
The command, based in Germany, is taking the sexual violence in Congo seriously. Using information gathered on the ground, U.S. Command Africa is developing an anti-sexual violence program to integrate into the training of forces in the Congo.
A third of the battalion also received training in how to be an instructor -- "training the trainer," the U.S. Army calls it. While the model battalion will ideally set an example of how the rest of the FARDC should behave, the instructors are meant to fan out across the Congolese military to deliberately seed other units with their way of thinking. "Hopefully, that's a platform from which additional training of Congolese troops can be done by very well-trained Congolese troops," Garvelink said at the battalion's activation ceremony in February.
As the commandos in Kisangani were wrapping up their courses, a fresh contingent of American troops flew into Kinshasa. The roughly 100 medics and doctors from the North Dakota National Guard spent two weeks working to improve a FARDC medical unit. The "final exam" was a free health clinic, supervised by the Americans, where Congolese medics, doctors, and dentists conducted physicals, pulled rotten teeth, and handed out medicine to some 2,000 Kinshasa residents.
Obama's vision of a smarter, gentler military strategy enabled Clinton to act on her personal commitment to addressing Congo's rape problem. Clinton's commitment propelled the U.S. military's expanding involvement in Congolese security reform. It's likely a preview of how American power will look after the shooting wars begun by the Bush administration have finally ended.
Yet for all its growing importance, no one knows exactly how to measure success over the few short years that smart power has been a Pentagon priority. Some European armies have overseen their own, comparatively modest smart-power initiatives, but there are few precedents for the more ambitious American model.
No one expects the Congolese Army to transform overnight. Marcel Stossel at Oxfam estimates meaningful reform in Congo might take at least a decade, but Washington is likely to expect proof of progress before then. There's certainly a chance that the U.S. could end up mired in another seemingly endless conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan. All the same, the administration clearly believes the benefits of intervening in Congo justify the dangers. To mitigate the risk of another military quagmire, Obama is keeping the Congo intervention small and as indirect as possible.
In 2009, Navy Capt. Cynthia Thebaud, leading a training mission in West Africa, agreed that clear evidence of smart power's success can be elusive. She proposed surveying the population after an American deployment and asking if they'd like the Americans to return someday. "If people say, 'Thanks for stopping by, appreciate your interest, but we don't want to see you again,' clearly, we're not succeeding."
By that modest standard, America's initial efforts in Congo are succeeding. "I'm glad you've come," says Martin Moungi, standing by the registration table for the Kinshasa clinic. Col. Gilbert Kabanda, the Congolese army's top medical officer, watched the American and Congolese soldiers working together at the clinic, then spoke with American reporters. "This is not a onetime thing," he said.