Reflections from a Cold War Navy SEAL: I fought in Congo 50 years ago – Today it's still plagued by problems

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is scheduled to hold a presidential election Dec. 30,  bringing back my memories of fighting in the African nation more than 50 years ago as a Navy SEAL, recruited by the CIA to help execute a clandestine paramilitary operation.

If the election goes smoothly – despite a suspicious fire at an election commission warehouse last week that destroyed about 7,000 voting machines – it will be the first democratic transfer of power in the nation since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

The vote had been scheduled for Sunday, but the nation’s electoral commission announced the postponement until Dec. 30 on Thursday, telling candidates it was “technically incapable” of holding the election Sunday due to violence and other problems. The presidential election has been postponed numerous times since 2016.

While much has changed – including the name of the country, known as the Republic of Congo when I fought there – the nation’s challenges still abound.

And as improbable as it sounds, many of the elements and circumstances I encountered in Congo decades ago are nearly identical today.

In the 1960s the U.S. was supporting the fledgling Congo government. Our mission was to defeat the Simba rebels, who were proxies for the Soviet Union and China. The two communist nations were backing the Simba rebellion in Eastern Congo.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had stated that “the key to the control of Africa, is control of the Congo.”

In 1965 I was sent to the combat zone alone, with cash stuffed in my socks and a bag full of morphine syringes. Supplied by the CIA, these were determined to be essential combat assets for the inevitable casualties in an area with no medical facilities.

The Simba rebels we opposed were a ragtag group that enjoyed support not just from the Soviets and the Chinese, but from beyond. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was making his first attempt at exporting the Cuban Revolution, sending Che Guevara and his Cuban communist thugs covertly to Congo to motivate, propagandize and lead the rebel movement.

The rebels were trained in Eastern Europe and China. Both the Soviet Union and China provided weapons, materials and supplies out of the Tanganyikan (now Tanzanian) Port of Kigoma and transported them across Lake Tanganyika to communist fortifications along the Congolese side of the lake. These were also the bases from which Guevara and his men provided on-the-ground leadership and strategy.

The goal of Guevara and the Cubans was to spark global revolution. But the goal of the Chinese and Soviets was more pragmatic. Uranium, cobalt, rare earth minerals and industrial diamonds were their prizes.

Those minerals were the critical elements required in the manufacture of Cold War weaponry, and their strategic value was even more dangerous because they are the building blocks of nuclear weapons.

In the intervening years the range of rare earth minerals has expanded. The major source of those minerals is in Congo.

The CIA’s strategy to combat the rebels was limited, but lethal. The agency sponsored clandestine air and maritime operations that were ultimately successful.

The war was kept deliberately small, conducted by a few highly capable and courageous operators. Together, we successfully defeated the communist efforts in Congo.

In current times, the Chinese have introduced their “Belt and Road” initiative in Africa. The strategy entails buying access across the continent with China’s vast foreign exchange reserves.

The Chinese government is willing to corrupt any official in any country in order to gain control of collateralized resources. The influence of the Chinese is further entrenched via loans under terms that assure the money can never be repaid.

The extent of the Chinese incursion includes importing a Chinese labor force, not even training and employing locals. This strategy is also a natural start for a longer term, fifth column throughout Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an indispensable cobalt supplier for China, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer and the nation with the largest electrical vehicle market.

The current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, has led the country since 2001, refusing to relinquish office since his term expired in 2016. However, he has agreed to leave office after the upcoming election and is not a candidate.

But it’s still not certain that the election will be held on the new date of Dec. 30. If it takes place we don’t know if Kabila’s handpicked successor – former Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary – will prevail. It’s impossible to know if Kabila will fulfill his pledge to leave office.

There already has been violence leading up to the election now scheduled for Dec. 30, including a crackdown by security forces on Kabila’s opponents that claimed seven lives last week. The governor of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, ordered a halt to campaign in the city Wednesday for security reasons.

A civil war is still a tragic possibility.

Kabila is the legacy leader of the country. He is the son of Laurent Kabila, who led the Simba rebels when I fought in Congo.

Laurent Kabila was also Che Guevara’s “boss” during the Simba rebellion – a murderous, misguided attempt at revolution that failed for a period. The opening of Guevara’s own book “The African Dream,” begins by saying: “This is the story of a failure.”

Guevara notes that Laurent Kabila preferred the high life and nightlife of capitals in Europe and Dar es Salaam, far from the hardships and danger of leading Simba troops in the Congo’s jungles and Savannahs.

In 1997 Laurent Kabila succeeded in overthrowing Congo’s brutal dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who had ruled Congo for 30 years and was a world-class practitioner of corruption and greed in his impoverished country.

Laurent Kabila continued the systematic corruption and national looting. He was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph was named president. Joseph has been supported by the Chinese, as they’ve moved into the mining sector.

Russia, without China’s financing abilities, has reasserted its interest in Africa. The Russian carrot is “assistance” in the form of weapons packages and mercenary instructors who are forming an established presence in Central African Republic, Guinea and Mozambique.

A recent Newsweek article headlined “Battle for Africa” reported that “President Vladimir Putin is pushing into Africa, forging new partnerships and rekindling Cold War–era alliances. ‘There will be a battle for Africa,’ says Evgeny Korendyasov, head of Russian-African studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, ‘and it will grow.’”

Sadly, in 50-plus years, not even the names have changed. And in the most cynical exploitation, Congo is still the victim of international tyranny.

The Democratic Republic of Congo remains the resource and political target that China and the Soviet Union identified more than 50 years ago. This time, Russia and China have a more willing and compliant dictator to work with and less U.S. deterrence.

The U.S. is overextended financially and militarily in the Middle East and is having to overcome the negligence camouflaged by the slogan “pivot to Asia,” which allowed China to further legitimize it territorial claims on the South China Sea.

The wheel has turned full circle and the U.S. has fewer options, and maybe less resolve. Woe be to the Africans