Earlier this month, President Obama sent a letter to Congress explaining why he had approved sending 100 US military advisers to fight a shadowy rebel group in central Africa.
The reason, President Obama wrote, is that the Lord’s Resistance Army – a brutal rebel group with a mixture of Christian fundamentalist and African traditional beliefs – is a threat to regional security in central Africa, and thus a threat to the interests of the US government and its strategic partners.
Noting that Congress had passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2009, Mr. Obama wrote, “I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped US forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield.”
While tracking down unhinged African warlords may be the stuff of bad Hollywood movies, it generally has not been a plank in US foreign policy. But with the advent of the US military’s relatively new Africa Command (AFRICOM), headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, America’s military is working closer with its African partners to ensure regional security.
Viewed with suspicion by some African leaders as part of a larger “neo-colonial” foothold on the African continent, it is seen as a boon by other US partner nations such as Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, who work closely with the US military on common issues such as counterterrorism and insurgencies.
In the current US AFRICOM operation, 100 Special Operations troops will travel with Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF)
soldiers trailing LRA leader Joseph Kony.
US to ‘share lessons learned’
A US diplomat with knowledge of the operation told the Monitor that US Special Forces soldiers will “… share lessons learned from 10 years of fighting in a similarly rugged environment against small groups of people moving on foot,” such as the US military has faced in the Afghan war.
The US soldiers will not be “hunting” Mr. Kony, the diplomat adds, and “they will not take part in combat.”
“They will be helping the [Ugandan military] refine [its] operations by sharing tactics and procedures we have learned in 10 years of low intensity conflict while helping them look at the ‘problem set’ through fresh eyes. The [Ugandan military] is a professional force with a lot of combat experience, [and] embedded advisors will help them leverage their strengths.”
The Obama administration’s deployment has won some praise from activist groups like the Enough Project.
“President Obama should be lauded for deploying qualified military advisers to the region,” said Enough’s co-founder John Prendergast, adding that if the Obama administration “helps generate multilaterally the necessary logistical and intelligence support for those troops, the LRA’s days will be numbered.”
But other humanitarian aid groups have been more cautious.
Concerns for civilians
Noah Gottschalk, a senior humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam America, says that a military operation is just one of many potential tools for combating the LRA, and one that could put countless thousands of civilians in harm’s way.
“The truth is that the LRA are really good at evading military action,” says Mr. Gottschalk, noting that the area in which the LRA operate – including northern Uganda, South Sudan, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic – is about the size of California.
The Ugandan military has tried a military solution in dealing with the LRA in the past, Gottschalk said, most recently with their Operation Lightning Thunder at the end of 2008. “That operation was designed to go after the LRA with the stated intent of making the LRA go away, but it left civilians a lot worse off.”
In the long run, the solution may be the boring work of development, Gottschalk says.
“The LRA goes to places where there is little development, they don’t go to places where there are big roads,” he says. “So if you start to squeeze that area, building roads, bringing in infrastructure, you’re not only bringing development to the most neglected corners of Africa, you’re also reducing the territory that the LRA can operate in.”