Rep. Sanchez, Affleck butt heads over US mission in Congo

Affleck testified before the committee alongside Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jendayi Frazer and Jay Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, on the status of U.S. involvement in central Africa. 

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The exchange began when Affleck, who heads up the Eastern Congo Initiative, defended continued Pentagon investment in U.S.-led training operations with the Congolese military. 

The successful advise and assist missions by the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were "emblematic of what could happen" in the Congo, should Washington continue its efforts in the volatile African nation, Affleck said. 

"We take these signs" from combat operations in southwest Asia "and assume it can be done [successfully] in a larger scope" in Africa, Affleck added. 

U.S. trainers from Africa Command have been working hand in hand with Congolese forces, preparing several light infantry battalions to take on the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a violent separatist group led by infamous warlord Joseph Kony who have been operating in the region for decades. 

U.S. special operations units have been in east Africa for over a year, to assist local forces hunt down the dangerous LRA commander, providing intelligence and logistics support to armed forces in Uganda. 

Most recently, American-trained forces in eastern Congo have played a role in confronting armed militants from the March 23, or M23, movement. 

The band of former fighters with the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) split off from the group after CNDP leaders failed to integrate M23 members into the Congolese military after  reaching a peace deal with Kinshasa in 2009. 

However, Sanchez quickly took Affleck to task for basing his argument for continued military engagement in the Congo on the perceived successes in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

American efforts to train up the Afghan National Security Forces in preparation for the White House's 2014 withdrawal from the country has been an abject failure, according to Sanchez. 

The mission has been marred by insider attacks against U.S. and NATO troops, Taliban infiltration into the military's ranks and consistent desertions by ANSF troops, among other challenges facing American military trainers. 

To that end, Republican committee members noted that in light of the current fiscal difficulties facing the Pentagon, U.S. military decision makers needed to focus the department's limited resources on more near-term threats to national security, rather than continue to pump U.S. taxpayer dollars into the Congo and elsewhere in Africa. 

But Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) fired back against such criticism during Wednesday's hearing, noting the destabilizing effect groups like M23 and the LRA are having on the continent could open the door for terror groups like al Qaeda to gain a larger foothold in Africa. 

Insurgent fighters with ties to al Qaeda's Africa cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have already established a stronghold in the west African nation of Mali, in the wake of a successful coup in the country. 

Gen. Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, told reporters in July that AQIM has quietly emerged as the al Qaeda's strongest and best funded faction.

Despite those challenges, Affleck said the United States and the rest of the international community needed to "reject . . . the pervasive notion of hopelessness" in Africa. 

That type of mentality, according to Affleck, "has almost become fashionable" when discussing the political, economic and security challenges on the continent. 

Policy makers in Washington and elsewhere must first eschew that type of thinking before any real successes can be had by the U.S. or its allies in the Congo or other areas in Africa, he added. 

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