The deployment of U.S. military advisors to central Africa is potentially the most significant step in a decade to end the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. The comprehensive strategy to end the LRA that U.S. forces should help develop as a result of their deployment will only have a chance of being successful if American forces are supplemented by four additional ingredients from the United States and other supportive countries: troops, transport, intelligence, and a defections strategy, or TTID for short. This includes additional special forces troops, enhanced transport and logistics, upgraded intelligence capacities, and a more effective strategy to increase LRA defections.
If the mission is to succeed, it is essential for the U.S. advisors to stay in the field for a significant amount of time and be buttressed by TTID support. The LRA has decreased its attacks by two-thirds over the past six months in an effort to reorganize and lie low. But this is not a sign of LRA weakness. It is part of the group’s historical pattern of waiting out military incursions and then launching attacks. The LRA are among the best survivors on the planet—and they could simply be playing a waiting game for the departure of the U.S. soldiers. If the advisors withdraw prematurely and TTID support is not given, the LRA will likely reemerge and resume its attacks on civilians.
Despite the U.S. deployment and a new African Union, or AU, initiative, which essentially is a rehatting of the military operation by the four countries involved under AU auspices, there is a serious danger of the LRA reorganizing for attacks because of disturbing trends on both the military and civilian side. On the military side, Uganda is the main force undertaking operations against the LRA, but its current capacity and troop numbers—approximately half of what they were in 2010—are inadequate to be able to pin the group down in the vast territory within which it operates, roughly the size of Arizona and extending into four countries. Moreover, Uganda’s best soldiers are deployed as peacekeepers in Somalia. Some 90 percent of LRA attacks over the past six months have taken place in Congo, but Uganda does not have bases there at the request of the Congolese authorities. The shortage of troops is also hurting civilian protection efforts, which are in urgent need of a boost. And the existing deployment is hampered by a lack of mobility and intelligence capacity over the large territory.
On the civilian side, initiatives to lure LRA commanders and fighters out of the bush through defection are far less effective than they were 5 to 10 years ago in northern Uganda. The fear factor among potential LRA defectors is very high; they have very few locations to which they can run away and face attacks from angry local communities. The undermining of Uganda’s Amnesty Act with the trial of former mid-level LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo is further worsening chances that LRA fighters will come out; the case has sparked fear of prosecution among the LRA ranks.
If these issues are not rapidly addressed, there is a significant danger of both major LRA attacks against civilians and a move to rearm with the support of the Sudanese gov- ernment. The LRA attacked an area less than 100 miles from the South Sudan-Sudan border in late December, and the lessons of the LRA’s history show that if the group is left alone as it has been over the past year, it will reorganize, rearm, and launch offensives to abduct child soldiers and spread fear in rural communities. Furthermore, according to recently returned LRA combatants, LRA leader Joseph Kony appears confident following the U.S. deployment, telling his troops that they have defeated much larger Ugandan army and United Nations military contingents.
In order for the U.S. advisors’ mission to succeed, the United States and other supportive nations must increase their commitments with troops, transport, and intelligence on the military side and a two-tiered defection strategy on the civilian side. The defection strategy should include both an initiative targeted at senior-level commanders to weaken the LRA’s leadership and a substantial aid package to increase radio outreach to LRA fighters and sensitize communities in LRA-affected areas to accept ex-combatants peacefully.
President Obama should follow up the civilian strategy by making a strong diplomatic push to secure elite special forces for the AU mission, from either the current operational armies or other African countries. Simply put, if there are not enough troops to gather effective intelligence on the LRA’s whereabouts and to act quickly on this information, it will be impossible to track down Joseph Kony, head of the LRA, and his leaders. In addition, the administration should help secure helicopters and other trans- port and intelligence gathering capacities for the troops and broker an agreement among the countries in the region to allow the regional troops to deploy across borders in all LRA-affected regions, including Congo. The $35 million authorized by Congress in December for the Pentagon’s LRA initiatives and $10 million from USAID and the State Department should help in the TTID efforts if USAID and the Pentagon make the most of this funding. The European Union should follow with further support. This would be far more cost effective than maintaining the status quo with the risk of significant civilian casualties and increased instability in the region.
By Sasha Lezhnev