On Friday, the press began to run numerous stories about the announcement that President Obama had authorized the deployment of about 100 combat-ready troops to Uganda to take an advising role in order to help capture or kill LRA leaders. Obama wrote a letter to John Boehner about the deployment two days after the first troops had landed in Uganda, placing the statement square on a Friday afternoon. This was a scrolling headline for some, but for me it was all over the internets. Stuff like this happens when you’re Facebook is filled with Invisible Children activists and your Twitter is dotted with development wonks and academics that are experts in the region. Let’s look at what exactly is happening here.
Let’s start with why this is happening. In the letter, (which can be found here) Obama references that the LRA are impacting regional security, the passage last year of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, and national security interests in the region. The troops are destined for Uganda, but will be going to the DRC, CAR and South Sudan as long as each of those countries agree to host them. The troops will be combat-ready, but will only be serving in an advisory role.
Full disclaimer to the few readers that don’t already know, I volunteered with Resolve to help advocate for passage of the aforementioned bill. I’ve continued to work with them to advocate for more action from the Obama administration on this issue. That said, I’m not sure where exactly I stand on this decision. Over the years, I have had at least a few conversations with fellow activists about the possibility of deploying American forces – advising or combating – to remove LRA leader Joseph Kony. Let’s take a look at some of that, shall we?
Why don’t we send some U.S. troops to just go snipe Kony?
Well, for starters, that’s a really bad idea and it probably wouldn’t work. First we’ll be needing permission to run the operation (well, I guess we don’t need permission if we decide to just fly in on a stealth helicopter and shoot him in the face, but still. We should). Kony could be in one of a few places: northeastern DRC, southern CAR, South Sudan, or Darfur. The DRC has a history of being used as a training ground for atrocities, place to push a rebel group you don’t like or place to start your own rebel group if you want. It’s not fond of having more armed forces in the area. The DRC has already asked the Ugandan military, currently hunting for Kony, to get out. Twice. And it tried to kick out MONUC despite never really solving the 20-rebel-groups-hide-here problem. Supposedly Kabila is “pleased” with the recent U.S. decision, but I can’t read French and he’s changed his mind after the fact before.
Anyways, if we were to send U.S. troops in to do the job, they would face quite a few setbacks. The terrain is densely forested and rural, and there are very few chances to use surveillance such as cell phones and satellite tracking. Kony has historically established wide networks of soldiers around him so that he knows when trouble is afoot. That’s how he’s survived for 25 years, outlasting the Holy Spirit Movement and the UPDA and evading the UPDF, SPLA, and even Guatemalan special forces (killing 6 when the UN tried to catch him a few years ago). He will know what’s up. Not knowing the terrain or the language puts the forces at a disadvantage against a guy who has literally lived in the bush for twenty years.
That, and the specter of Somalia (despite huge differences between the situations) seem to be why Obama has gone with the advisory route, which still smells a little bit like Vietnam to many, but that is also a vastly different situation. Museveni has already given assurances that the Americans are here to advise, not to fight, simultaneously boasting about how the UPDF don’t need help to fight their wars. And so the US “personnel” have begun to arrive in Kampala, and will pretty soon begin to deploy to the other respective countries in the region.
Except for Sudan. While the LRA are currently scattered across DRC, CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, a year ago reports said that Kony was en route to Darfur. Darfur would be part of Sudan, and thus out of reach to both central African militaries and US advisers. I feel like if anybody asked Omar al Bashir if it was okay to enter Sudan to apprehend a leader indicted for war crimes, he might think you were talking about him since, you know, you could be. If Kony hasn’t made it to Darfur yet, he’s probably thinking about it.
But why send the advisers there now?
The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed in May of 2010, and the requisite strategy on the LRA was released in November of that year. Since those have been around for a while, some are asking, “why now?” Well, since then, all has been quiet on the LRA front until Resolve mentioned AFRICOM’s nudge-nudge that a deployment could happen soon. ABC News reported that the plans have been in the works for over a year, but that resources were not available until now. Some have speculated that the U.S. is rewarding Uganda for its contributions to Somalia’s fight against al Shabaab.
I don’t quite know if that makes sense. Uganda itself is really not concerned with the LRA anymore. The government is dealing with economic protests and its huge effort with AMISOM fighting al Shabaab. The LRA haven’t been active in northern Uganda for years, and when I was in Uganda last year many people told me they were far more concerned with the upcoming elections and Museveni’s continued rule than with a rebel group in the DRC – especially in central and southern Uganda, where civilians never really faced the threat of the LRA. This deployment is fueled by grassroots efforts, and I think that Uganda will accept it as another way for the UPDF to project power in the region.
One other piece that fits nicely that I haven’t seen reported is that it is yet another nod from the Obama administration to support the ICC. After Bush relaxed the hatred late in his term, Obama has stepped it up with a yes-vote on the Libya resolution and a heavy, heavy presence at the ICC Conference last summer. Assisting in the capture of Kony could show real U.S. support for the ICC without all the supposed worries of actually joining up and ratifying the Rome Statute. It’s an international and human rights win without any of the duke-it-out-with-Jesse-Helms bad press.
Will it work, and if not, what will?
I’ve been pushing for the Obama administration to address the crisis for a long time. The region that the LRA operate in has almost zero infrastructure and is completely ungoverned. This is why there is so much lawlessness in these corners of the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. The key to protecting civilians and ending these types of insurgencies is to make it difficult to operate there. Whether the advisers go there or not, the thing that needs to happen is more support for infrastructure in the region.
Speaking specifically to the LRA, Kony has got to go. There have been reports about how fractured the LRA are, but they are usually followed by a former abductee mentioning that Kony is communicating with other leaders constantly. The LRA has a highly concentrated command structure, and getting rid of Kony could actually resolve the entire issue.
While training troops and assisting with intelligence to find Kony, we also need to help build up government legitimacy and accountability. Resolve indicated in a recent post that the US personnel will be able to investigate UPDF abuses “and (hopefully) hold them accountable to a higher human rights standard as they interact with civilians across the region.” I have yet to see that reported anywhere else, but if that is true it is a huge step. The Ugandan government’s handling of both the civilian population in northern Uganda and abroad has been abysmal and needs to be addressed. The UPDF itself testified that it had committed 501 human rights abuses in 2005 alone. If a handful of advisers can simultaneously help catch Kony and bring accountability into the UPDF, it will go a long ways.
In summation, the decision has little guarantee of succeeding, but there is little risk for the US. AFRICOM has said that the advisers will not be accompanying on any missions to actually capture Kony, only on training missions. This means American soldiers should not be in any real danger, although that’s really hard to say for sure. If Kony is captured, it will be an easy foreign policy win and a great step for human rights in central Africa. If it doesn’t work, the advisers can quietly return and say they did their job, which was to train the regional forces. There’s a lot to gain and not a lot to lose, so why not try it?