U.S. Boots NOT on Congo Ground

Michael O’Hanlon has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post that proposes we create a volunteer “peace operations division” to deploy to third-world crisis spots, particularly to stabilize Congo. O’Hanlon spent time in Congo a generation ago in the Peace Corps, and believes that there is a moral imperative to fix the situation.

O’Hanlon probably realizes that the significant number of American troops still in Iraq and increasing commitments in Afghanistan mean that Congo is far down on the Obama administration’s list of priorities. He probably expects someone to respond in impolite terms that this is an unnecessary and unwise deployment of Americans into harms way in a potential quagmire with no discernable national security interest, allowing him to take the moral high ground and speak of how our military should make the world a better place for everyone.

Okay, I’ll bite. I haven’t spent any time in the Congo or in the Peace Corps, but my time in the Infantry and Special Forces tells me that this is exactly the kind of idea we should avoid.

Let’s go by the numbers.

The notion is this: Ask for volunteers to join a peace operations division for two years. They would begin their service with, say, 12 weeks of boot camp and 12 weeks of specialized training and then would be deployable. They would receive the same compensation and health benefits as regular troops, given their age and experience. Out of a division of 15,000 troops, one brigade, or about 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, could be sustained in the field at a time.

Creating a force of amateurs trained at a level far below that of the all-volunteer force is asking for American blood to be spilt unnecessarily. The career officers and NCO’s in today’s force mean that experienced leaders keep troops alive and doing their job. Military service isn’t service in the Peace Corps; let’s not confuse the two. Either you are in for following the lawful orders of the Commander-in-Chief and the officers appointed above you, or you aren’t. Don’t sign up for politically correct missions. Sign up because you want to be in the military – or not at all.

This type of training would be modeled after standard practices in today’s Army and Marine Corps. To be sure, soldiers and Marines in regular units usually go beyond this regimen to have many months of additional practice and exercise before being deployed.

That’s because peacekeeping missions inevitably favor a government or faction that faces opposition from some of the populace and/or other factions. Troops supporting that government or faction will eventually engage in combat. This involves training that revolves around things like “close with and destroy the enemy” or “find, fix, and finish.” This might be related to the Peace Corps’ “toughest job you’ll ever love,” but I’m not sure how.

The dangers of deploying such units to missions such as the one in Congo, would be real, but the risks would be acceptable. First, those volunteering would understand the risks and accept them. Second, in most civil conflicts such as Congo’s, possible adversarial forces are not sophisticated. Soldiers in the new division would not need to execute complex operations akin to those carried out during the invasion of Iraq or current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would largely monitor villages and refugee camps, inspect individuals to make sure they did not have illicit weapons, and call for help if they came under concerted attack. Their jobs could be somewhat dangerous and would require discipline and reasonable knowledge of some basic infantry skills – but they would not be extremely complex.

I’m not certain any soldier or senior leader can understand the risks and accept them. The last time we deployed troops in such an open-ended peacekeeping mission in Africa (Somalia), it was draped in humanitarian aid language until we found that a goodly portion of the populace didn’t appreciate our presence or assistance. “Possible adversarial forces” do not start out sophisticated, but repetitive tasks such as monitoring villages and refugee camps and searching for illicit weapons create opportunities for insurgents that conduct pattern analysis of what we are doing over and over at static security positions and on predictable routes, creating opportunities for ambushes and attacks when we least expect them.

Troops may be able to “call for help if they came under concerted attack,” but more likely they will have to fight pitched battles. Basic infantry combat quickly becomes extremely complex. Whole books have been written about the fog of war and the difficulties of command in a combat zone. The messy business of identifying insurgents amongst a sheltering populace continues to plague our efforts in Afghanistan. It is not solved by goodwill, and is not easily performed by a token force that will surely get its nose bloodied and become a rallying cry for reinforcements.

Eastern Congo may be the most magical place on the planet; I remember thinking it did not even belong on this planet, so surreal were its mountains, lakes, volcanoes, and lush forests and farmland.

Mountains and lush forests make great places for staging an insurgency. Take combat power or stay home.

O’Hanlon is not blind to these realities, having previously written that nation building is “not for the fainthearted.”

The truth is that we are engaged in an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan that is consuming resources as fast as we can commit them. This is a place where nation building is being done not by Provincial Reconstruction Teams, but as Michael Yon notes, Provincial Construction Teams. It wasn’t constructed to begin with. Secretary of Defense Gates says that accomplishing our stated goals will take years of combat, and I have no reason to doubt him. Perhaps those goals should be re-examined.

O’Hanlon expresses optimism that “the peace operations units could be led by a cadre of experienced officers and NCOs – perhaps some of whom would be drawn back to military service after leaving.” If called back to service in a mission implicating a legitimate national security interest, I would pack up and go. But Task Force Best of Intentions has little allure for me and, I suspect, the vast majority of veterans he envisions willing to sign up for such a mission.