U.S. Response to the Lord's Resistance Army: What Now?


Valantine Mbolibirani, 15, was abducted in July 2009 for 7 months. She was taken to Joseph Kony and forced to be one of his many wives. Accused of being a sorcerer, she was to be tried by Kony but escaped the day before the trial. Image by Marcus Bleasdale. 2010

The Obama administration chose the late afternoon before a four-day holiday to release its 33-page "Strategy to Support the Disarmament of the Lord's Resistance Army."

The strategy paper was a requirement of the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in May. It is the product of a six-month multi-agency evaluation aimed at devising a more effective international response to the murderous rogue militia led by LRA founder Joseph Kony.

The White House was charged with formulating a plan of action to tackle the law's four primary objectives: civilian protection, removing Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield, bringing the remaining fighters out of the bush, and, finally, channeling humanitarian assistance towards communities affected by the LRA.

"The desired end-state is that there is no longer a threat to civilians and regional stability posed by the LRA," the document states.

So what does the strategy paper actually say? And what can we read between the lines?

1: Don't expect Uncle Sam to save the day.

"The sustained military and diplomatic cooperation of governments in the region to defeat Joseph Kony and the LRA, coupled with strong support from the international community, remains the most critical component for success."

The White House puts a heavy emphasis on the need for multilateral cooperation to defeat the LRA, while shying away from the sticky issue of direct American engagement. This is in line with the text of the law. But it is also a result of pressure on American financial and military resources (more on this later).

Though the law does allow for a classified annex, nowhere in the published portion of the strategy is there any mention of direct U.S. military involvement. The United States will, however, "provide enhanced integrated logistical, operational, and intelligence assistance in support of regional and multilateral partners."

So who are these regional partners?

"The UPDF (Ugandan army) has been the primary national force pursuing the LRA throughout the CAR, the DRC, and southern Sudan. Other regional militaries have limited capability to conduct counter-LRA operations."

Those 'other militaries' are a dysfunctional Congolese army cobbled together following that country's devastating civil war, a Central African army of just a few thousand troops already deployed against its own domestic rebellions, and a southern Sudanese force struggling to keep a lid on things ahead of a January referendum on independence.

That leaves the Ugandans, with their 20-year history of failure against the LRA and, as the strategy paper points out, new shifting priorities.

"There is no guarantee that Ugandan operations against the LRA will continue at the same pace...given the great distance from Uganda and other Ugandan foreign policy priorities related to Somalia and Sudan."

So the bulk of military support will initially go to Uganda, as they are already deployed. However, nothing in the strategy rules out other actors.

Recently, Uganda, southern Sudan, CAR, and Congo agreed to form a joint brigade specifically tasked with operating against the LRA. An African Union mission or a small coalition of the willing could also be options in the future.

2: There is no slam-dunk option.

In December 2008 America backed a failed Ugandan bombing raid and ground attack targeting the LRA's camps in Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park. At the time Kony, his top commanders, and the bulk of his rebel force were congregated in a relatively small area.

It is unlikely another such opportunity to decapitate the movement will present itself again—a reality that seems to have pushed the White House towards an understanding that any strategy against the LRA must be a long-term plan.

"While every effort should be made and opportunity taken to accelerate the apprehension or removal of Kony and the senior commanders, short-term actions must be considered within the context of a multi-year commitment that will maximize the chances of overall success."

And the strategy recognizes that the LRA is no longer simply a military problem with a purely military solution. If the goal is the total elimination of Kony's rebellion, then a comprehensive approach is required.

Since the strikes on the Garamba camps two years ago, the LRA has killed at least 2,300 people and abducted over 3,000 more. More than 400,000 civilians have fled their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis. The LRA led more than 240 deadly attacks in 2010 alone.

The U.S. has committed to working with national armies and existing peacekeeping missions in the region to boost their capacity to protect civilians, though how this will be done is not spelled out. Local communications infrastructure will also be upgraded. And the strategy pledges increased funding for humanitarian agencies operating in LRA-affected areas.

To block any support for the rebels from outside actors (read Khartoum) and prevent them from finding a safe haven in which to regroup and rearm, the U.S. will make use of its diplomatic heft to ensure that Kony remains ostracized and weak.

3: Where's the money?

The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament Act breezed through both houses but, in an effort to appease fiscally conservative congressmen and ensure its passage, budget provisions were left out of the bill.

Since 2008, the United States has spent $23 million dollars in support of an overstretched Ugandan-led operation against the LRA – a paltry sum in the context of current American military spending. As of July this year, that offensive had led to the elimination or capture of just 23 LRA officers. That's $1 million – or in a grimmer comparison, 100 massacred civilians – per officer.

The Ugandans have lacked sufficient numbers of attack helicopters, air transport for troops, timely intelligence, and advanced communications technology. And they are now operating in an extremely isolated area straddling the borders of three countries.

Clearly, something has to change, and the White House spells out the current dilemma in no uncertain terms.

"The successful implementation of this strategy requires the appropriation of new resources. The challenges are enormous and without additional funding, eliminating the LRA threat will remain elusive."

U.S. military resources are already overstretched in two combat theaters—Iraq and Afghanistan—and additional funding for non-military aspects of the strategy will be difficult to squeeze out of already tight budgets.

So whether or not the U.S. seriously commits to defeating the LRA will be left largely up to Congress. The general vagueness of the strategy paper is due, in part, to this uncertainty surrounding funding approval. And the shift in the political climate following the recent midterm elections doesn't bode well.

The law's two primary backers, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-WI, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, are leaving the Senate—Brownback to become governor of Kansas and Feingold, who drafted and introduced the bill, a victim of the Tea Party revolution.

Republicans took control of the House and made significant gains in the Senate on a platform of hardline fiscal conservatism, promising to freeze discretionary spending and make deep cuts. The resurgent right is under pressure to prove itself early on, and proponents of the strategy will be hard-pressed to convince them to sink money into an African bush war with little direct strategic interest for the United States.

Yet the new strategy, minus funding, will achieve nothing. Voting in favor of a feel-good bill supporting a noble effort to end one of the world's most brutal rebellions—the LRA bill passed unanimously in both houses—was easy. Picking up the check would be the true test of political will.

Editor's note: Joe Bavier and Marcus Bleasdale reported this summer and fall from villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic that had been attacked by the Lord's Resistance Army. The project was undertaken in collaboration with Human Rights Watch; it includes "Dear Obama," a video appeal by LRA victims for U.S. leadership in helping to end the LRA's attacks.

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