Late last week, President Obama announced that he was ordering 100 armed advisors to be sent to central Africa to bolster efforts on the ground to combat Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) operating in Uganda and neighboring countries. For years, the LRA has systematically used rape as a weapon, burned villages to the ground, killed countless unarmed civilians and taken as prisoner, young girls, to act as sex slaves for Kony and his followers. Additionally, the LRA has forced many of its young prisoners to take up arms against their countrymen.
Originating in Uganda over two decades ago, the LRA under the leadership of Joseph Kony, a cultlike personality, has spread its activities into neighboring South Sudan, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and eastern Central African Republic (CAR). What differentiates the group from other rebel groups throughout modern history is that it operates without clear political objectives and is notable for its fondness for committing rape, abducting children and enlisting them as child soldiers and the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians.
While this development would be a muscular increase of America’s role in the region, and while the American advisors will be armed, the development was hailed by a number of human rights groups and activists who are intimately familiar with the real world developments on the ground. Among those arguing for a more robust engagement on the ground to help the Ugandans and others combat the LRA is Human Rights Watch.
The groups Washington director, Tom Malinowski, in an interview with the New York Times, argues, “I would not suggest that U.S. forces should be fighting the L.R.A. themselves…there are lot of things they can do with this kind of deployment that they weren’t able to do previously.” Tom Malinowski went on to suggest that while the LRA remains relatively small, “they are incredibly vicious and have committed numerous massacres. It’s a group that seems to exist for no other purpose than to kill,” he continued.
In an effort to pre-empt any Congressional disapproval, President Obama sent a letter to Congressional leaders explaining his administration’s decision. “For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has murdered, raped, and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women, and children in central Africa. The LRA continues to commit atrocities across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan that have a disproportionate impact on regional security,” Obama wrote to Congressional leaders. “On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel.”
While the president’s opponents might contend that this endeavor is an overstep, unsupported by Congress, the administration contends that the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act gives the administration the Congressional approval that it needs. The law, passed in 2010, stated, “To support stabilization and lasting peace in northern Uganda and areas affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army through development of a regional strategy to support multilateral efforts to successfully protect civilians and eliminate the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and to authorize funds for humanitarian relief and reconstruction, reconciliation, and transitional justice, and for other purposes.”
The Obama administration contends that the 100 American advisors will not directly participate in combat operations and will only act as advisors and “will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense,” according to Obama. Additionally, this American effort is a continuation of operations undertaken by Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. During Bush’s second term, he ordered the deployment of 17 counterterrorism advisors to help train Ugandan forces and offer other assistance as they fought LRA forces. It was during this effort that a raid, orchestrated by American advisors against Kony’s forces, failed and key leaders of the LRA fled into neighboring countries.
Unfortunately, as the LRA became dispersed, its fighters continued with their murdurous rampage and killed hundreds as they fled. According to some estimates, close to 900 unarmed civilians were killed by LRA rebels. The LRA, desperate for new fighters, have emerged from their jungle hideouts in Uganda and elsewhere and have begun to renew their attacks on villagers and have forced many young boys and girls into their ranks. Recognizing this, the Obama administration has decided to send armed advisors into Africa. While the commitment of 100 advisors, mostly Special Forces trainers, is a small commitment to make, it makes for good press for American forces to be seen as attempting to staunch the activities of a group like the LRA.
This renewed effort against the LRA is also a feasible mission with minimal risk. By all accounts, the LRA is lightly armed with a fragmented leadership. According to data provided by the Ugandan military, from a high of thousands of fighters when the group was operating at its strongest point, to a low of several hundred this year, defeating the LRA and bringing Joseph Kony to justice would garner the United States favor in the region. “It really doesn’t take that many U.S. resources,” said Enough spokesman Matt Brown. “You’ve got 100 troops to go in and take care of the LRA problem once and for all.”
The capture or kill order for Joseph Kony will not surprise many who follow the Obama administration. Obama emphasized in his letter to Congressional leaders last Friday, that the primary mission is to remove “from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA.” Further, the American advisors are to operate under the auspices of advisory and not combat roles so this diminishes the chances that American lives will be lost. This development comes at a time of little patience for American adventures abroad. The American public is war weary and the administration will have to demonstrate that the mission is achievable.
However, despite some inevitable pushback from Rep. Ron Paul and others, the mission is likely to garner little negative press given the nature of the LRA and its involvement in central Africa. The Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed with wide bipartisanship support and America’s role is small compared to its ongoing involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The National Security Council’s Tommy Vietor emphasized, “This is an advise and assist mission…It’s an indication of our support for the ongoing regional effort to confront this threat.”
Already, this decision has garnered the support of a key member of the U.S. Senate. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) issued this statement following the Obama Administration’s assertion that U.S. military support is crucial to defeating Joseph Kony and the LRA. “The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under the sadistic leadership of Joseph Kony, has committed unspeakable atrocities for many years against innocent civilians, including women and children, in several African countries.” McCain continued, “This is a worthy goal for U.S. policy, and I support efforts to assist our partners in central Africa in combating the LRA.”