U.S. Faces Surprise, Dilemma in Africa
By Lynne Duke
Following the 1994 civil war here, during which more than a half-million Rwandans were massacred, the United States had become increasingly close to the Rwandan government and the army that backed it. Rwanda's de facto leader, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, was regarded in Washington as a brilliant military strategist. Hoping to build stability in strife-torn central Africa, Washington pumped military aid into Kagame's army, and U.S. Army Special Forces and other military personnel trained hundreds of Rwandan troops.
But Kagame and his colleagues had designs of their own. While the Green Berets trained the Rwandan Patriotic Army, that army was itself secretly training Zairian rebels. Rwandan forces then crossed into Zaire and joined with the rebels to attack refugee camps where exiled Rwandan extremists were holed up. That touched off a war that eventually toppled Africa's longest-reigning dictator, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko.
Although the United States shared the goals of dismantling the refugee camps and replacing Mobutu, the invasion took Washington by surprise, sources in both countries say. And when the Rwandan forces became involved in massacres and other human rights abuses inside Zaire, now known as Congo, the United States faced a dilemma over how to react that persists to this day.
The story of the U.S. relationship with the Rwandan military illustrates the complications that have occurred when military ties -- and, in particular, hard-to-track training operations by the Pentagon's special operations forces -- have become a prime instrument of American policy. Since the early 1990s, deployments of special operations forces have been rapidly expanding around Africa, part of a worldwide increase in contacts that are not subject to the civilian and congressional oversight that applies to other foreign military aid programs.
Many of the exercises are funded through a 1991 law that allows deployments if the primary mission is to train U.S. troops. How U.S. troops benefit from this training is not readily apparent. But in many cases special operations troops, of which the Army's Special Forces are the largest element, have instructed foreign armies in how to combat their own domestic insurgencies, or pursued U.S. policy objectives ranging from stopping narcotics traffic to preventing genocide.
In the last two years alone, U.S. special operations troops -- mainly Green Berets from the 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- have taught light infantry or other military tactics to troops in Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. An initial exercise with South Africa is planned for the fourth quarter of this year.
U.S. special operations commanders say that among the purposes of the training, called the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, is to build contacts with foreign military leaders and encourage respect for human rights by foreign armies.
But U.S. access to military officials has not necessarily meant U.S. influence over their actions. In the case of Rwanda, U.S. officials publicly portrayed their engagement with the army as almost entirely devoted to human rights training. But the Special Forces exercises also covered other areas, including combat skills. As a result, U.S. promotion of human rights has been overshadowed by questions about whether Rwandan units trained by Americans later participated in atrocities during the war in Zaire.
A U.N. report released last month charged that elements of the Rwandan army were involved in abuses during the war that "constitute crimes against humanity," including the massacre of unarmed civilians and refugees. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House subcommittee on international operations and human rights, has questioned whether the Pentagon even has tried to find out if Rwandan troops trained by Special Forces were among those who committed the massacres.
In fact, according to Pentagon officials, no such review has been conducted, because none is required by the 1991 legislation. At Smith's request, the Pentagon will provide the names of Rwandan troops trained by Americans since 1994 and after-action reports from their missions. But a Pentagon spokeswoman, Col. Nancy Burt, said that "as a practical matter, it would not be feasible" to vet the Rwandan forces for human rights violations "due to the large number of persons with whom we conduct training."
Despite continued reports of human rights abuses by the Rwandan army, this time inside Rwanda, a new round of Joint Combined Exchange Training between Army Special Forces and Rwandan units is scheduled to begin July 15. It will be the second this year. The Pentagon also plans to send an assessment team to Rwanda in the coming weeks to see whether and how the military training should be further enhanced.
U.S. officials defend the collaboration by arguing that it is wiser to engage with Rwanda to help it develop a human rights culture than to step aside and risk a new descent by the country into chaos.
The effort to support and strengthen the Rwandan military is "a matter of practical policy interests and common sense," a Clinton administration official said. "Assuming diplomacy fails and [ethnic conflict] grows, somebody needs to be in a position to contain it."
Although Rwanda is an impoverished, shattered nation at the far fringes of U.S. national security interests, it is not the prototypical weak client state seeking military help from a powerful patron. Instead, its relationship with Washington is built on a complex mix of history, personal relationships, shared geopolitical objectives, and -- not least, some would say -- guilt.
The origins of the relationship lie in the Rwandan civil war, which began in 1990 when a rebel force led by minority Tutsi exiles invaded Rwanda from Uganda in an attempt to overthrow the government, led by ethnic Hutus. Kagame, a Tutsi who was then a colonel in Uganda's army, was in a training course at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when the war began. He dropped out of the course to take command of the rebel army, then later participated in talks that led to a 1993 peace accord.
The peace collapsed in April 1994, when an airplane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president was shot down near Kigali, killing all aboard. Extremist Hutus in the government and army subsequently orchestrated massacres of Tutsis around the country. At least 500,000 people were slaughtered while indecisive Western governments and the United Nations debated what to do.
Finally, a revived rebel movement led by Kagame defeated the government army and took power in Kigali in July. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus, fearing retribution, fled to eastern Zaire, and many of the Hutu soldiers and militiamen involved in the massacres took refuge in their midst.
U.S. officials were deeply relieved that the rebels had halted the massacres, thus ending pressure for a U.S.-led intervention. They also said they were greatly impressed by Kagame's leadership. By the end of the war, some U.S. officials had concluded that Kagame was "a brilliant commander, able to think outside the box," as one put it. "He was a fairly impressive guy," added the official, who met Kagame in the early 1990s. "He was more than a military man. He was politically attuned and knew what compromise was."
Immediately after the war, the United States helped mount a humanitarian operation to assist the refugees in Zaire. Then-Secretary of Defense William J. Perry visited the region, and he too was taken by the new Rwandan leaders.
"When Secretary Perry visited the American troops in Kigali, Goma and Entebbe, he was impressed by how, so close [after] the genocide, these people [the new Rwandan army] could be talking about reconstruction and reconciliation instead of revenge and retaliation," the defense official said.
Still, Rwanda's new civilian government was largely a facade. Kagame, who took the posts of vice president and defense minister, remained in charge. With democratic elections nowhere in sight, a diplomat said, the government was, in essence, a "disguised military dictatorship."
U.S. officials nevertheless focused on the Kagame leadership as one with which they could work to restore order in Rwanda, eastern Zaire and neighboring areas of central Africa.
For its part, the new Rwandan government felt it held the upper hand in its relations with Washington, because its army alone had put an end to the massacres while the West dithered. Analysts here say the Rwandans have played on Washington's sense of guilt about the genocide of 1994, and its stated objective of preventing a recurrence. In deciding how to deal with the lingering problem of the Rwandan refugees and militant exiles in Zaire, for example, "we were [diplomatically] stronger because nobody could argue against us," said Patrick Mazimhaka, a minister to Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company