Axe in Congo: The Army’s Training Dilemma

by DAVID AXE

Kinshasa — Colonel Gilbert Kabanda, the surgeon general of the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo — the Congolese army — is a tiny man, barely more than five feet tall. But he has a big speaking voice. On September 6, he took the stage at the opening ceremony for the combined U.S. Army-FARDC medical training event "Medflag." The audience included hundreds of Congolese and American doctors and medics.

Medical training, Kabanda explained, lies at the heart of the army’s relevance. For a modern army should be more than a killing machine, he insisted. "In addition to the principal mission of defense of the national territory, the other mission of the army is to participate in the economic, social and cultural development and protection of the people."

American assistance will, in theory, help the FARDC help the Congolese people. Everyone’s a winner. "There’s nothing bad about this story," U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Johnston, Medflag commander, told me before Kabanda’s speech.

Not so. For as Kabanda repeatedly stressed, the army’s primary mission is defense — that is, combat. And military medics’ first job is to support the combat troops. Especially in Congo’s rugged east, FARDC combat brigades represent one of the greatest threats to the population and the country’s nascent democracy. "Since its creation in 2003, the FARDC has been one of the main perpetrators of documented sexual violence in Congo," Human Rights Watch reported. The FARDC also oversees illegal mining operations that keep the land’s wealth out of the people’s hands. In helping improve the FARDC — even its medical capabilities — the U.S. risks making the FARDC a more powerful enemy of the Congolese people.

At the opening ceremony, Samuel Laeuchli, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, described FARDC personnel racing to help out in the aftermath of a tragic July tanker explosion that killed some 300 people in remote Kivu. After Medflag, Congolese medics might be better equipped to assist survivors of such disasters. But they will also be better equipped to patch up and keep healthy the tens of thousands of Congolese troops raping and pillaging across this Texas-size jungle nation.

By David Axe

David Axe is freelance war correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan,Lebanon, East Timor and Somalia. His books include War Fix and Army 101. His personal blog is called War is Boring. He can be reached at david_axe@hotmail.com.

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