Tatum Worthington on the United States’ new humanitarian mission in Uganda 









President Obama’s deployment of 100 Special Forces troops to Uganda on the 14th October has raised more than a few eyebrows. Their mission, as outlined by the president, is to provide national forces with logistics and intelligence support in their aim of neutralizing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and removing its leader, the notorious Joseph Kony. However, they are not to engage in combat unless necessary for self-defence – and this begs the question of how much they can hope to achieve in the region.

30,000 people have died in the last 20 years under LRA terror in North Uganda, and thousands of children have been kidnapped, either to be trained as soldiers or used as sex slaves. Driven out of the country to some extent in 2005 by the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF), the militia now operates mostly in the bordering regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The movement is said to have started off as the ‘Holy Spirit Movement’ under Alice Auma (a.k.a Lakwena), and was an anti-governmental movement to supposedly protect the Acholi people. Hers was a Christian movement that gained momentum until its final defeat and her flight to a refugee camp in Northern Kenya, at which point Kony, claiming to be her cousin, took charge and re-branded the movement, claiming to be fighting to install a theocracy based on the Ten Commandments. He quickly found himself unsuccessful in gaining or maintaining support, and in his frustration, as well as to dispel rumours that his support was waning, the LRA started recruiting (abducting) children to the ranks and targeting communities in remote, marginalised areas where they are least likely to generate a response from the rest of the world. However, although this approach was successful for him for many years, the international community has now realized that intervention is needed – but will 100 US troops make all the difference?

The problem is not necessarily about numbers – the Ugandan government estimates the LRA to number only 500 to 1000 men (although some sources claim up to 3000 given the undocumented number of child soldiers recruited), so the UPDF, which counts 40,000 to 45,000 active personnel (and which joined forces last month with the militaries of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic) should surely have the numbers to eradicate this terrorist militia. However, the unpredictable movements and activity of the LRA combined with the geography of the region means that resources are spread too thinly and that the military do not have adequate intelligence to effectively tackle the terrorist group.

The LRA targets remote villages where sometimes news of attacks can take months to reach military HQ in Kampala due to absence of communications technology. This approach is hard for any military force to handle. First of all, the militia often disguise themselves as Ugandan soldiers which, along with their constant border crossing and the complete lack of telecommunications in the area, makes them almost impossible to track and/or apprehend.

Obama fails to address this difficulty in his letter to US Congress. He includes in this letter a list of strategic aims, which are the following: 1) protect civilians 2) apprehend or remove Kony and his commanders from the LRA 3) promote defection and disarmament of LRA fighters, and 4) increase humanitarian assistance to people in affected areas. Whilst these are indeed commendable aims, it seems that the President has not properly thought this through.

His strategy for disarmament and defection is ‘thin on detail’ according to Will Ross, the East African Correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Indeed it seems that much has been ignored in his strategy. Traitors to the LRA will be killed if they attempt to defect, and many of the soldiers are brainwashed, therefore it is plausible to suggest that this strategy will be difficult to achieve without a backing force. In addition, Obama’s belief is that if Kony is removed, then the LRA will simply collapse from within. This is dangerously naïve since other leaders (such as Vincent Otti) have been killed without damaging the force, and an attempt on Kony’s life made two years ago prompted the LRA to kill hundreds of civilians. As for the protection of these civilians, there is no concrete plan of how to protect the vulnerable position of villages.

One entity that is clearly needed for humanitarian aid and also coordination of operations is the building of communications technology throughout the country. This would carry positive ramifications for isolated areas, even after the conflict, and could be achieved peacefully. Conversely, if the LRA is to be neutralized, a more decisively led military is going to have to be prepared for active combat looking to quickly and effectively stamp out the terrorist force.

John McCain, an American Senator, points out that past humanitarian and peace-keeping operations led by the United States have resulted in tragedies that were never intended or expected. Obviously disconcerted with the President’s decision, he expresses his regret that Obama did not consult with Congress on the deployment. Indeed it looks like much could have been gained through more careful planning. However, that is unless his decision to deploy troops is not entirely a selfless humanitarian operation, but simply an empty gesture stemming from the good relations between Uganda and the United States.

US troops will undoubtedly supply valuable intelligence and logistics skills to the UPDF, but it seems that this militia can only be neutralized increased manpower (in order to confront the LRA head-on), additional high tech equipment, and a more committed and decisive strategy. In addition, the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, is sure to require more from his American friend, and it would be disappointing to find that Obama’s deployment is, after all, simply perfunctory.


Tatum Worthington 

Image Credit – U.S. Army