By Lynne Duke
JOHANNESBURG, Aug. 15˜U.S. involvement with Rwanda's military has been far more extensive than previously disclosed, including psychological operations and tactical Special Forces exercises that occurred a few weeks before the start of last fall's Rwanda-led insurgency in neighboring Congo, an internal Defense Department chronology shows.
The ongoing training in Rwanda has occurred over the last three years and involved hundreds of Rwandan participants. Their training, most often by U.S. military personnel in battle dress uniform, has included combat, military management, disaster relief, soldier team development, land-mine removal, and military and civilian justice, according to the Defense chronology draft, which is being prepared -- but has not yet been released -- in response to congressional questions about the U.S. military role in Rwanda.
U.S. officials have offered various descriptions of the nature of this training, sometimes calling it classroom-style, and generally suggesting it is intended simply to professionalize the Rwandan military and inculcate it with respect for human rights. But the chronology indicates the training was extensive and included combat training, and it shows a near-continuous presence of U.S. military personnel in Rwanda since early 1995.
"The program has not been as innocuous as it is being made out to be," said a policy official familiar with the eight-page draft document, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
The training came amid a more widespread U.S. effort to seek greater military involvement with a number of African nations. The regular U.S. presence in Rwanda and the training that was offered occurred as the small, poverty-stricken, war-torn Central African nation, with tacit U.S. support, was suddenly emerging as a regional power broker.
The Rwandan military, dominated by members of the Tutsi ethnic minority, was mounting a campaign against armed, ethnic Hutu militia groups that were attacking Rwanda from refugee camps in neighboring Congo, then known as Zaire. That campaign evolved into a broader offensive that eventually toppled the autocratic Zairian president, Mobutu Sese Seko.
While being trained by the United States, Rwanda's military was itself training Zairians to participate in the ultimately successful anti-Mobutu forces. A high-level Pentagon official this week acknowledged the possibility that, inadvertently, the United States may have trained some of the fighters who ousted Mobutu.
The Pentagon official, who is familiar with the draft chronology, said the Special Forces training that Rwanda received in July and August of 1996 was "of course" designed in part to help Rwandan Vice President and Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame meet the militia threat from the refugee camps. The official denied that this was counterinsurgency training, as has been alleged in a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights.
Kathi Austin, a Human Rights Watch investigator, told the House Committee on International Affairs last month that U.S. military personnel in Rwanda told her in 1996 that U.S. counterinsurgency training was underway there.
U.S. officials have maintained since the beginning of the Zairian conflict last fall that Washington was not informed of Rwanda's plan to go after Mobutu. What Washington did fear, the Pentagon official said, was that Rwanda's army would publicly launch a cross-border strike into Zaire to thwart the Hutu militias in the refugee camps. Kagame had discussed that "strike" option with U.S. officials, "but we counseled him several times not to do that," the Pentagon official said.
Kagame struck in a broader manner, deploying Tutsi fighters from Rwanda and Zaire to break up the camps, overrun Mobutu's military and push westward toward Kinshasa, the Zairian capital. Last month, for the first time, Kagame publicly acknowledged his military's lead role in the Zairian insurgency.
U.S. Special Forces training is now underway in Rwanda again -- the second round of such training in a year -- while humanitarian groups raise questions about the intent and effect of U.S. involvement there.
Although the Pentagon credits the Rwandan military for its professional, committed leadership, international human rights groups have accused Rwanda's army of committing or fomenting widespread human rights abuses both at home and across the border in Congo.
Amid the continuing instability following Mobutu's ouster in May, the victorious Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi fighters in Congo are widely accused of killing large numbers of Hutu refugee civilians as part of their campaign against the Hutu refugee militiamen, who fought on Mobutu's side. The United Nations has been attempting to investigate these abuses but has been thwarted thus far by Congo's new president, Laurent Kabila.
More than a million Hutu refugees fled into what was then Zaire three years ago in fear of reprisals after Rwandan Hutu extremists slaughtered at least 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. Their U.N.-operated camps were largely controlled by Hutu militiamen posing as refugees who are suspected as perpetrators of the bloodletting, which is widely called a genocide.
In early October, Kagame's military and its Zairian allies began attacking the camps and succeeded in driving most of the Hutus home to Rwanda. Included among those returnees were some militiamen, and human rights groups have alleged that the Rwandan armed forces, in fighting against these repatriated Hutus, have killed large numbers of civilians.
Physicians for Human Rights has called for a full disclosure of U.S. military assistance to Rwanda and for future assistance to be conditioned on an improved human rights record.
The Pentagon official said the United States is always concerned about human rights abuses in countries with which it has relations, but that the training in Rwanda has not been linked to that country's human rights performance.
He characterized Rwanda's human rights record as "surprisingly good" in view of the 1994 slaughter, which ended when Kagame's Tutsi rebel forces took over the country and installed a new government. "It could have been a natural tendency on the part of the new government to be vengeful," the Pentagon official said. Instead, Rwandan Tutsi officials have welcomed the repatriation of civilian Hutu refugees and tried to foster national reconciliation, the official said. Several Hutu officials are in the civilian government.
U.S. policy in Rwanda is aimed at stabilizing the military. Although Rwanda is small and of no direct strategic value to the United States, recent events have demonstrated that "if Rwanda is unstable, that's going to lead to instability throughout Central Africa," the Pentagon official said. Indeed, Hutu refugees and militiamen have turned up not only in the former Zaire, but also in Tanzania, the Central African Republic, the neighboring Republic of Congo and on the Angolan border.
But another Washington official involved with Africa policy contended that the United States is focusing disproportionate military assistance on Rwanda as part of the creation of a "zone of influence" in East Africa, where Rwanda -- because of its troubles -- emerged as "a target of opportunity." The United States also has close relations with Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea -- each of which also played a key role in the Zairian insurgency, as did Angola.
Many of the U.S. training missions were aimed at establishing a Rwandan national office to remove land mines; the training focused on its operation and equipment required. There have been 12 missions to remove land mines, each involving small numbers of personnel, since January 1995. They trained four platoons of local people in land-mine removal and conducted several assessment, refresher or land-mine awareness visits. The U.S. government also has contracted a private firm to supply mine-sniffing dogs and to train Rwandans in their handling.
Some critics question whether the high level of attention to mines is proportionate to the problem.
Of more concern to critics are the Special Forces sessions, which are joint military exercises. From July 17 to Aug. 30, 1996, a U.S. Special Forces team from Fort Bragg, N.C., trained 30 Rwandan army soldiers in small-unit leader training, rifle marksmanship, first aid, land navigation and tactical skills, such as patroling.
It is not known whether those 30 soldiers were among the estimated 1,000 Rwandan army fighters believed to have entered Zaire during the rebellion that began in early October.
In addition to Special Forces training, a U.S. Joint Psychological Operations Task Force mounted a training program for Rwandan soldiers that culminated in a propaganda campaign in November to encourage the hundreds of thousands of refugees camped in Zaire to return home to Rwanda.
The Pentagon official said that at no time did any U.S. military personnel enter Zaire, with the exception of an Army colonel on loan to the State Department to help assess the humanitarian situation. The Pentagon official also said no U.S. military personnel fought in the Zairian conflict.
In addition to the training sessions in Rwanda, several Rwandan army officers have been trained in military justice at institutions in the United States. Before the 1994 civil war, Kagame received U.S. training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The current round of Special Forces training for at least 90 Rwandan soldiers began on July 15 and runs through this month. It is focused on the law of war, human rights, military leadership, soldier team development and instructor training, with 20 of the participants also slated to receive instruction in rough-terrain tactics such as mountaineering, rappelling and building rope bridges.
Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company