August 19, 2009

Congolese Minerals: Implications for U.S. National Security

Last week, Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) shed fresh light on the exploitation of the country’s vast mineral resources which has helped fuel civil conflict and aggravate international tensions for the last decade. Urging reform, Secretary Clinton emphasized the need for all Congolese people to benefit from its vast resource wealth rather than just a few, and called for an end to exploitation from “outside corporations or countries that extract the riches and leave with them without really putting back the commensurate investment in the country.” And for the Department of Defense (DoD), understanding the illegal minerals trade and ensuing conflict will help the military prepare for strategic challenges that lie ahead in this volatile region of Africa.

The most recent violence in the DRC is directly linked to competition for natural resources, though regional ethnic grievances outline the contours of conflict. According to a report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, approximately 1.2 million Rwandan Hutus crossed the border into the neighboring DRC—then Zaire—and took refuge in Kivu province, a region dominated by ethnic Tutsis. Tribal tensions flared, resulting in civil war and an eventual regime change in 1997. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Rwandan and Ugandan military forces moved into eastern DRC to secure access to mines to exploit eastern DRC’s vast mineral wealth. By 1998, Angola, Chad, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe were all implicated, backing a favored political coalition or occupying DRC land for the purposes of mineral extraction, exporting the minerals home and selling them on the world market.

DRC’s bloody civil strife has been reinforced by both domestic rebel groups and government soldiers profiting from minerals, as well as meddling regional powers that have their own stake in the mineral trade. The rich deposits of coltan, cassiterite (necessary for tin production), timber, gold, and diamonds have created strong material incentives for competition in the DRC, which, absent adequate institutional regulation, has become violent as parties struggle for access to lucrative mines. In her analysis of natural resources, violence and the DRC, Dena Montague, writing in The Johns Hopkins University journal The SAIS Review of International Relations, called the competition for scarce and lucrative resources “a key factor in the lack of stability and continuation of war.” Montague emphasized the particular importance of coltan, which is the primary constituent mineral processed to create tantalum powder, a highly conductive and valuable substance used in heat-resistance electronic capacitors in advanced and sensitive technologies.

Incidentally, according to Montague, the United States is the world’s largest consumer of coltan, which it uses to produce cell phones, laptops, jet engines, missiles and other high-end electronics critical to defense weapons systems. And while for now the majority of coltan on the market comes from Australia, eastern DRC possesses the greatest concentrations of global reserves of coltan – 80 percent – guaranteeing a role for DRC in the international mineral trade as consumption increases. This may be cause for alarm as the United States begins to evaluate where its supply chain vulnerabilities lie in procuring critical minerals for tomorrow’s defense technologies.

DoD needs to be cognizant of the role that illegal minerals trade plays in fueling the conflict in eastern DRC and the way the issue engages U.S. national security interests.  Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, has highlighted the importance of stabilizing conflict zones like the DRC, which serve to prevent localized violence from metastasizing and spreading to neighboring states and regions in east Africa where American security interests are more clear cut – such as Somalia.

More to the point, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) currently conducts small missions in the DRC to “help the host nation build capacity to more effectively conduct its military operations and provide for its own security.” It is important for DoD and AFRICOM to understand the way in which illegal minerals trade engages existing issues in DRC so that it can adequately prepare for any strategic challenges that lie ahead. Furthermore, the United States has a vested interest in supporting efforts that foster a legitimate mineral trade in DRC and would give DoD more visibility in the supply chain of coltan and other critical minerals so that it can assess U.S. defense vulnerabilities and prepare accordingly.

Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Kinshasa and tour of eastern DRC signaled that conflict resolution in DRC is well within the interest of the United States. But the country’s fate is not yet written, and by many accounts, it may well be grim. On Monday, writing for NPR, Jeffrey Herbst of Foreign Policy responded to Secretary of State Clinton’s dealings with the DRC and worried that the country’s easternmost borders might simply erode because Kinshasa has little power to enforce its authority in those faraway regions.  It is exactly there, of course, that domestic and international competition over minerals has been most fierce.  Whether violence persists or development takes hold, minerals will play a determining role in DRC’s future, and DoD needs to be aware of how that issue will engage other strategic interests, both in DRC and the region.

Photo: General William E. Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, speaks with Congolese officers at the military school Centre Superieur Militaire in Kinshasa as part of the U.S. military's security capacity building mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Courtesy of Kenneth Fidler and U.S. Africa Command.