As monkeys howl in the jungle canopy above, a weary Congolese army lieutenant makes no secret of his frustration. Deployed to the isolated forests in a vast north-eastern swathe of the Democratic Republic of Congo to hunt down Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), his troops are short of ammunition and have had no rations or pay for months. But his ire is reserved most of all for his supposed allies, the Ugandan army. "It's a crooked war the Ugandans are fighting with the LRA," he vents. "They have all the weapons in the world but they’re not serious."
It has been almost three years since Uganda sent troops into Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic to pursue their fanatical compatriots, but the coalition’s performance to date has been dismal. Joseph Kony, the LRA’s psychopathic leader, has eluded capture, as have his top commanders. The rebels, meanwhile, have since slaughtered some 2,400 villagers and abducted at least 3,400 more.
It was against this grim backdrop that the American administration says it will send military advisers and backup staff numbering around 100 troops in all to help co-ordinate the hunt for Mr Kony and his men. Though no guarantee of success, this modest deployment may, it is hoped, salvage a mission on the brink of failure. Crippled from the start by a long history of bad blood, the Ugandan-dominated coalition has been falling apart. South Sudan, newly independent and embattled, has little stomach for fighting the LRA. The Central African Republic, with virtually no army of its own, ordered Ugandan troops to withdraw from certain areas last year, amid suspicions of diamond smuggling. And, though most of the killings of civilians have occurred on its soil, Congo wants Ugandan troops to pull out completely ahead of Congo’s presidential elections next month.
Renewed American backing for the operations may boost the coalition’s ebbing morale and strengthen Washington’s diplomatic leverage with the reluctant allies. Although American soldiers will not take a direct part in the fighting, it is hoped that their presence will improve the behaviour of some local forces, help with intelligence and bring some much-needed order to the effort. "It’s a step in the right direction," says Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby that is one of several such groups endorsing the move. "But if it’s not enough, they should be prepared to do more."
There’s the rub. Barack Obama may well hesitate to send more than this limited force if his Republican opponents continue to seize on the issue to criticise him for embarking on what they say is another reckless foreign adventure. Rush Limbaugh, an influential right-wing radio host, has pointed to the "Lord" in LRA and complained that Mr Obama’s "invasion" of Uganda would "wipe out Christians". And Senator John McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, has chimed in with warnings of a Vietnam-style quagmire.
Back in the jungle, the lieutenant says he’s received word that LRA fighters are heading his way. But, since his unit has not been equipped with a radio, it’s taken a day for a courier to bring the message from the next army position. “They’re probably already here,” he says with a shrug.