Given the state of the regional armies involved in the fight against the LRA, it is hard to imagine that the military options proposed in the AU meeting, involving these same armies, can actually succeed.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Those of us who work on security issues in Africa find the endemic ignorance about the continent (that's right - continent, not country) in US military and policy circles frustrating. And when that ignorance gives rise to poorly informed commentary on African security issues, or US strategic interests in Africa, we find it as exasperating as Central Asia experts do with regard to Afghanistan (see here, here, and especially here.) That goes for both advocates and opponents of greater US engagement in Africa - both sides are guilty of catering to existing stereotypes rather than working to inform their audiences.
Case in point: a couple weeks back, Andrew Exum took extreme issue with Kenneth Roth's support for heightened US involvement in the ongoing effort to put an end to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Ex goes so far as to draw a comparison with the hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001, and Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu in 1994.
Ex is a smart guy, but this was a stupid post. The LRA are most definitely not the Taliban or AQ in skills or armament, nor have they been viewed as strategic asset by any of the countries in the region since the 1990s. In terms that would have done Henry Morton Stanley proud, Ex cautions about launching operations in 'the dense jungles of central Africa'. Too bad he didn't check a map. As this one shows, LRA attacks over the last 2 years have rarely if ever taken place in heavily forested areas. We're talking wooded savannah at most; geographically challenging certainly, but not the equivalent of central DRC.
Drawing the parallel to Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia is perhaps the silliest of all his errors. The LRA has no popular support in any of the countries it's operating in. It relies on children captured during its raids on villages to replenish its ranks. It has no political agenda other than survival. Civilians in affected areas are begging for more international engagement, and are ready to welcome anybody who will protect them (as evident in the reported response of civilians to the UPDF in north eastern DRC - see pp. 6-7) And the governments of Uganda, DRC, Central African Republic, and South Sudan recently agreed to form a joint military force to pursue the LRA, while asking the African Union to declare it a terrorist group. Now, as Ledio Cakaj points out,
But that's the argument for increased US support. AFRICOM is already providing limited intelligence. logistics and planning support to the Ugandan forces pursuing the LRA across the tri-border region, and PAE is providing logistical support through Nzara, South Sudan under a Dept. of State contract.
Moreover, there's considerable support within the USG for doing more. The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act received unanimous support in Congress and was signed into law by President Obama on 24 May 2010, requiring the USG to, among other things, develop a regional strategy including military options to 'eliminate the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army.' The deadline for that strategy is the last week of November, 2010 and DOD is in the thick of developing options for military support.
Needless to say, the US won't be invading Central Africa any time soon. No one in their right mind (or who isn't creating straw men to glibly denounce) is suggesting large numbers of the US troops on the ground. But US forces have been deployed to the region - SOF have periodically deployed to Darfur in very small numbers, and if you don't think the US has a quiet presence in South Sudan ahead of the January 2011 referendum, I have a bridge to sell you.
Embedding US Special Forces with Ugandan units on the ground to provide tactical advice and a point of contact for enhanced intelligence support might be one element of a larger plan. It's not beyond current US capabilities to train, equip and provide logistical support for units from regional militaries to go after the LRA and/or prevent reprisals against the civilian population.* Hell, US Special Forces are already training Congolese forces as part of broader US engagement.
None of this is to suggest for a moment that defeating the LRA would be easy or simple, regardless of the forces are involved. There are regional issues, capacity issues, and geopolitics all at play. Not to mention a couple of other priorities for US forces. But when 'experts' claim it's just too hard, there is a useful comparison to make with the RUF in Sierra Leone. Lt. Gen. Riley (UK) has noted that greed and terror are poor motivation to hold an insurgent movement together, and that discussing a bunch of thugs as if they're the Waffen SS is disingenuous. Leveraging a small British force package, in 2001 Riley led a counter-insurgency campaign using primarily Sierra Leonean troops and irregulars to defeat a group just as bat-shit crazy**as the LRA that was considerably larger than Kony's band of psychotic leaders and brainwashed child soldiers (4,000 for the RUF then; about 400 for the LRA now, though it fluctuates with raids and losses).
So by all means, let's have the argument for and against US involvement in hunting down the LRA that acknowledges all the complexities - there are plenty of points on both sides. But let's not reject the idea on the basis of pure ignorance and false historical analogy. We can leave that to Afghanistan Study Group, can't we Ex?
* Which has the dual purpose of preventing atrocities and cutting the LRA off from their source of materiel and recruits.
**Hat-tip to SNLII for that description.