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.