US Troops in Uganda: Will History Repeat Itself?

On October 12, US President Barack Obama

authorized the deployment to Uganda of approximately 100 combat-equipped U.S. forces to help regional forces “remove from the battlefield” – meaning capture or kill – Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and senior leaders of the LRA.

The forces will deploy beginning with a small group and grow over the next  month to 100. They will ultimately go to Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the permission of those countries.

The LRA, formed in the late 1980s, is one of the most brutal rebel groups in the world. Although it began as a rebellion against the Ugandan government, it preys on civilian communities in countries throughout the region.

Halting the LRA is a laudable goal. Killing Kony could fragment and weaken the movement. But the deployment of US troops to Uganda carries political risks, and missions against the LRA have failed in the past. By most accounts, December 2008’s “Operation Lightning Thunder,” a Ugandan-led campaign against the LRA to which the US gave operational support, was a disaster: Kony lived, and many civilians died.

In January 2009, the UN news agency IRIN wrote:

The LRA has been blamed for the murder of hundreds of civilians. Uganda has also faced criticism over the operation. The Enough Project described it as “poorly executed” and “operationally flawed”, noting that “LRA camps were largely empty of fighters and high-level commanders when struck by Ugandan aircraft”. The advocacy group added that Lightning Thunder had made the situation in north-eastern DRC worse by playing to the strengths of the LRA, “who know the tricky terrain better than their adversaries … are able to move and disperse quickly in small numbers … have shown every willingness to loot and pillage to survive”.

Read an even more critical account here.

Even though the design of the current mission is different, the same risks remain: poor coordination among different militaries, civilian deaths, and the inability of local or outside forces to find Kony.

Some believe that this time could be different. In March 2009, Enough called for a second mission, one that would “place civilian protection front and center.” Undoubtedly US civilian and military authorities have carefully studied Operation Lightning Thunder and its failures.

But Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has put together a helpful background piece on the LRA, writes that applying the lessons of the past “will not be easy”:

One of the consequences of Operation Lightning Thunder was that the LRA scattered into smaller groups, making them much more difficult to track down. Kony himself is believed to be operating in the Central African Republic. The groups have discarded any communication equipment that would allow them to be traced and instead rely on runners to relay messages. In addition, the LRA is a hardened guerilla force used to operating in difficult terrain. It has survived against the odds for a quarter of a century. U.S. policymakers and military planners emphasize that there is no quick fix to ending the scourge of the LRA and that even the death or capture of Kony and his senior commanders may not be sufficient to finish off the group unless broader efforts are made to address the grievances that caused it to form in the first place.

Things could be different this time around, but the challenges are large enough to make me pessimistic about the chances of success.

Finally, there is a broader political risk to note. Across Africa, many leaders and ordinary people are wary of deepening US military involvement on the continent. Given direct US military involvement in Libya, various forms of involvement in Somalia, and the planned construction of a US drone base in Ethiopia, this deployment of US troops to Uganda, small though it is, could make for even more nervousness in Africa regarding the United States’ long-term intentions there.

9 thoughts on “US Troops in Uganda: Will History Repeat Itself?

  1. Pingback: Obama, the king of Africa « Mb50's "Liquid Mud" Blog

  2. Pingback: The US power grab in Africa « Mb50's "Liquid Mud" Blog

  3. I don’t have any problems with the US taking out Joseph Kony. However, I think the US still “doesn’t get it” – the complexities of dealing with Africa.

    America’s eagerness to eliminate Kony must having something to do with the presence of 5,000 Ugandan troops in Somalia fighting a proxy war in Uganda for the US. You cannot expect a dictator to “use” his armed forces to further your strategic objectives without expecting him to “use” yours to further his own strategic objectives. That is exactly what occurred in Uganda.

    Expect more of the same, only that the next set of engagements will be less of an “open and shut” case than Joseph Kony.

    Americans are unbelievably naive, they really believe that they can ramp up military engagements with dictators like Meles Zenawi, Museveni and corrupt Nigerian politicians without having a blow-back coming their way. At some point, Americans will be forced to learn the hard way (as they always do), that there is a trade-off between chasing a few hundred terrorists across the Sahel and the risk of coddling dictators and alienating the wider population.

    This is what you get when you have a very poorly thought out African policy, when your policy is defined more in terms of threats (energy security, terrorism, Chinese influences, AIDS) than economic opportunities or economic development.

    Until the Chinese came, nobody seriously talked about economic opportunities in Africa.

    I read several Western blogs (like this blog and Ambassador Campbell’s blog) and discussion tends to center around the latest threat / latest war/ latest fear. Africans also read these blogs and elementary psychology will tell you that you do a person no good if you constantly remind him/her that he/she has no future.

    That is not to say that these fears are not real, but Africans see them a bit differently than you do. I grew up in South-Eastern Nigeria, and I visited the Niger Delta several times in my youth. It was clear to me even then, that poor governance was a ticking time bomb. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in 1995 (with the full cooperation of Shell). What was the US Government’s most visible response to these events – offers of security assistance to the same Nigerian military that murdered Saro-Wiwa and a very widely publicized US Navy exercise off the Gulf of Guinea that my usually pro-American pastor denounced from his pulpit.

    I spent most of 2002, as a business consultant attached to a Cement plant in North Eastern Nigeria. In conducting a survey, I found out that only about 25% of plant workers were literate. That level of illiteracy was unheard of where I come from. I knew this was serious problem – that is the breeding ground of Boko Haram.

    That is the problem with taking sides in a conflict without appreciating the wider context. How much of what we refer to as AQIM are remnants from the Islamic Salvation front? And have the grievances that led to their insurrection in the early nineties been dealt with?

    Please understand Africa or stay away from it.

    • While obviously we’re grateful to Uganda for its support in Somalia, there’s also the fact that the U.S simply despises the LRA and if it can be shattered it can allow some amount of state building to be done in the areas affected. Please remember that the LRA hasn’t directly attacked the U.S, we aren’t trying to kill Kony from overactive fears.

      On another note I have to wonder how much the 2008 effort really worsened things. It’s not as though the LRA was going to refrain from its attacks if the Ugandan military hadn’t gone after them. Indeed, a large part of the LRA’s strength comes from its raids.

      • The death toll was actually higher. I’ll admit its hard to say if they would have lived or not if the attack didn’t happen. Of course that doesn’t mean we should accept the LRA.

  4. The U.S. mission in Uganda appears generally sound. The regional effects, as you concluded, are more concerning: rewarding Museveni’s internal actions and Washington’s planned militarization across Africa’s northern half. Although the U.S. is supposedly chasing “al-Qaeda 2.0” into the region, U.S. policy continues to be driven by military operations. Still waiting to see a comprehensive, overarching political strategy to combat AQ, not just drones and security cooperation with regional allies.

    • I’m not sure Al Qaeda’s as big a problem now. Thinking about it, how far is AQ from its goal of establishing a caliphate now compared to 2000? The only militant groups that show success are the more national ones, a lot like Communists.

    • That’s the problem with a “threat” driven foreign policy – majoring on the minors. The diplomatic energy and resources expended in chasing Al Qaeda across Africa’s northern blinds the US to numerous opportunities.

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