How The U.S. Came To Fight The Lord’s Resistance Army

Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to the news that President Obama was sending 100 combat-ready troops to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army was probably similar to that of many Americans.

Speaking on his radio show last Friday, shortly after the President’s letter informing Congress of the deployment had been released, the right wing talk show host did a mini-straw poll among his callers.

“Now, up until today, most Americans have never heard of the Lord’s Resistance Army. And here we are at war with them. Have you ever heard of Lord’s Resistance Army, Dawn? How about you, Brian? Snerdley, have you? You never heard of Lord’s Resistance Army? Well, proves my contention, most Americans have never heard of it, and here we are at war with them. Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. It means God. I was only kidding. Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan.”

Limbaugh may well have been right in his first assertion – that “most Americans have never heard of the Lord’s Resistance Army.” However, his Googling skills on the second assertion – “they are fighting Muslims in Sudan” – rather failed him. In reality, the Sudanese government has a rather complex relationship with the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, and has often been accused of providing him with safe haven and support.

Indeed, later in the same transcript, Limbaugh’s appears to discover that the LRA doesn’t exactly practice a “kumbiyah” version of Christianity:

“Is that right? The Lord’s Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We’re gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.”

Limbaugh is on the money there: according to most international experts the LRA has long departed from its loftier goals, and basically seems to exist for the sake of “child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff.”

If Limbaugh were to dig just a little deeper he would find that it’s “stuff” like this that has driven the U.S. to take a tough stance on the LRA for nearly a decade. That’s why the news came as far less of a shock to many diplomats and NGOs. They also broadly welcomed the news as a positive but incremental step; the polar opposite of Limbaugh, who led with the headline, “Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians.”

So how did we get here? First of all, although the LRA first assembled in the late 1980s to combat some ethnically driven practices by the Ugandan government, it now largely operates from the surrounding countries of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Africa policymakers often refer to this as the “Great Lakes Region,” reflecting how the LRA have morphed into a transnational problem.

It was partly the cross-border nature of their violence that led the U.S. to designate the group a terrorist organization in 2001.

The U.S. has been involved in tackling the LRA via one means or another pretty much since then. However, for quite some time it had been hard to cozy up too close to the LRA’s main pursuers – the Ugandan army – since they had been accused of some of the practices (recruiting child soldiers, raping people, generally being pretty dodgy) that the LRA was also committing.

That said, for all the problems of the “Ugandan People’s Defense Force,” most experts agree the LRA was and is far worse. Major-General Patrick Cammaert (ret.), a former UN force commander who has had some tangles with the LRA, told TPM the group’s outlandish brutality had long since “scared and turned away any people who had the slightest sympathy with their goals.”

That brutality is all the more astounding given that most experts reckon the LRA has only between 500 and 1000 combatants left within its ranks. Since 2005 its top commanders have been under indictment by the International Criminal Court, and Cammaert told TPM that were African armies able to arrest or otherwise “finish” those leaders, then that could have an immediate calming effect.

Numerous international NGO and humanitarian agencies have pointed this out for some time, and called for a more aggressive approach to tackling the LRA. Indeed, while such groups are often the first to cry “we need to tackle the underlying problems” when it comes to insurgencies, in the LRA’s case it seemed many just wanted it smashed apart as soon as possible.

Several years ago the U.S. started trying to do a bit of both. Here, for instance, is a Ugandan television report on American efforts to help Uganda’s army dispel the what the broadcaster calls “the wrong perception about the UPDF or the army within the public.” The “skills” being taught largely seem to involve “getting closer to the community” by giving out school books to children.

Still, the flipside of the coin is that the U.S. has also been involved in military training and strategic coordination aimed at tackling the LRA. In 2009, for instance, the New York Times reported how 17 American advisers played a role in arranging a joint Ugandan-Congolese mission that “did not go as intended,” as “American officials” rather understatedly put it. More from that report:

“No American forces ever got involved in the ground fighting in this isolated, rugged corner of Congo, but human rights advocates and villagers here complain that the Ugandans and the Congolese troops who carried out the operation did little or nothing to protect nearby villages, despite a history of rebel reprisals against civilians.
The troops did not seal off the rebels’ escape routes or deploy soldiers to many of the nearby towns where the rebels slaughtered people in churches and even tried to twist off toddlers’ heads.”

One factor that opened the door to cross-border operations like this one was that in 2007 the Pentagon’s AFRICOM center started up. Until that point African operations were largely a subsidiary of EUCOM, the European command center. AFRICOM, however, reflected a new focus on the continent that escalated during the Bush administration.

This rise in interest does not seem to have been entirely disconnected from the interests of the Commander in Chief himself during this period. George W. Bush earned plaudits from African leaders and activists alike for increasing American engagement with Africa, and Micah Zenko, a Council On Foreign Relations fellow, recently tweeted that “A snr WH adviser told me that at end of second term, Bush asked as much for details + progress for getting Joseph Kony as Bin Laden.”

The desire to tackle Kony and his zealots was also growing in Congress. 2009 saw the introduction of the “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act,” which President Obama finally signed into law in May 2010.

While allocating money towards humanitarian and “post-conflict” efforts, the bill also called for an assessment of how the U.S. could “support multilateral efforts” to “apprehend or otherwise remove” LRA leaders and “eliminate the threat” overall.

One diplomatic source who spoke to TPM on the condition of anonymity said the sending of “combat-equipped” advisers might also reflect a recent rise in estimation of the Ugandan army’s capabilities. The Ugandans have been a key pillar of the African Union’s notably active peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and it seems that ex-U.S. special forces officers have helped conduct some of those operations close to the battlefield.

That same source stressed however, as did President Obama, that the recently-deployed troops would not be expected to fight themselves and were armed in case they should need to exercise “self-defense.”

Both that source and Major-General Cammaert doubted a “Black Hawk Down” scenario in Uganda or the Congo would be likely. For one thing, the terrain is not an urban one, like the environment that led to the Black Hawk disaster, and the antagonists are far fewer.

Cammaert also noted that if the latest contingent contained large numbers of U.S. special forces then they would “know their business.” “You cannot tell me they don’t know what they are going into,” he said.

So, the deployment is hardly out of the blue, is not somehow anti-Christian in nature and does not seem likely to provide a Jimmy Carter moment for President Obama. However, Limbaugh did raise one other question that might be on Americans’ minds: “Would somebody explain to me what you think our “national security interests” are in Uganda?”

It’s a fair question and the answer is necessarily somewhat complex. Bluntly, though, the answer boils down to goodwill and international order. If the LRA truly could be “finished” via a slight bump in U.S. involvement, then that could have a great impact on many people’s lives. Beyond that humanitarian perspective, however, is the idea that it would ease the plight of several energy-rich countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has enough problems as it is. Given the history of U.S. involvement that’s probably enough to explain the deployment. Still, it probably doesn’t hurt that northern Uganda, where the LRA originated, is also believed to have some rather large and rather untapped oil fields.

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