October 14, 2011

Expanding Horizon of Obama’s Ugandan Mission

Spearheading the newest phase of President Barack Obama’s progressive response against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an “initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda” on October 12th. A second “combat-equipped team” will deploy next month, bringing to total force (presumably a mixture of “white” and “black” operatives) to 100 personnel. The announcement builds on several years of legislation and inter-agency cooperation, which the administration is visibly proud of.

“The United States’ comprehensive, multi-year strategy seeks to help mitigate and end the threat posed to civilians and regional stability by the LRA,” reads the State Department’s “fact sheet.”

While Africa is full of friction and mission creep (with traces of “invasion”) has already setting into the U.S. media, parts of the administration's strategy rest on solid grounds. A brutal “Christian” extremist group despised by the majority of Ugandans, the LRA qualifies as an apocalyptic-utopian insurgency seeking little more than individual power. Thousands have lost their lives across a regional scale; the State Department counts an excess of 2,400 people killed and 3,400 abducted since 2008. World police may not serve America’s overall interests, but assisting in the LRA’s elimination is legally and morally justifiable.

The centrality of LRA leader Joseph Kony also makes the group vulnerable to an immediate takedown, a mission that the Obama administration is obviously fond of. Although flanked by a small circle of violent lieutenants - Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ogwen and Okot Odek - Kony’s charisma and religious visions turn the LRA’s wheels, unlike more developed militant networks. Remove the hub and the spokes could be permanently neutralized.

Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda's military spokesman, explained of the deployment, "We are aware that they are coming. We are happy about it. We look forward to working with them and eliminating Kony and his fighters."

Counterinsurgency is rarely simple though, and the Obama administration must guard against a number of contingencies. The same survivalist mentality that weakens the group (“no agenda and no purpose other than its own survival,” in Obama’s words) increases the danger it poses. Ugandan forces have unsuccessfully hunted Kony for over a decade, and one must assume that he will seize on U.S. “intervention” to bolster his cause. LRA commanders are also believed to be operating in the semi-lawless regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and south Sudan, roughly 300,000 square miles of rough terrain. The modest group is estimated at 300-400 fighters, one reason why U.S. personnel were summoned to assist Ugandan forces in a vast field.

However this strategy depends largely on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency, to eliminate the LRA’s threat to civilians. Killing or capturing Kony and his lieutenants is the objective, not restoring order in the lawless enclaves that they survive in, or repairing central Africa’s non-military spheres. A program is being developed to disarm LRA fighters, but they will only consider disarming after the loss of their leaders. Kony’s religious element also opens the possibility that a follower will attempt to claim his throne.

Obama’s rules of engagement are leading some U.S. politicians and observers to question how effective this deployment can be. Conceived as an intelligence unit, U.S. forces have been ordered “not to fire unless fired upon.” Their mission as force-multipliers fits Uganda’s situation; Ugandan forces can carry out the mission’s tactical components under the guidance of U.S. operators. The more U.S. personnel become directly involved in the region’s battlefield, the less effective they may be in reducing the LRA’s appeal.

The administration’s decision to limit their actions is sound on a tactical and information level. In addition to keeping U.S. personnel out of unnecessary firefights, the White House is determined to manage expectations that Uganda’s mission won’t creep out of range. Even a few U.S. casualties could spoil domestic support. A small force also facilitates a rapid exit, leaving a minimal to non-existent footprint. Not every American will approve of Uganda’s deployment and war is known to wreck schedules, but Obama has involved himself (in part) because Uganda is a relatively easy mission compared to the other battlefields that America’s military is engaging.

The largest area for concern is mission creep outside of Uganda’s parameters. By definition, U.S. troops could roam between four central African states in search of LRA leadership, and they will take up position within Washington’s growing African network. The CIA has already established bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, and assisting Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni functions as a downpayment for another AU deployment into Mogadishu (ignoring his crackdown on a recent opposition movement). Washington is coordinating with Sahel states to construct desert bases, and plunking new personnel into central Africa adds more muscle to Washington’s offensive against al-Qaeda’s offshoots, with Nigeria next in line. Although Libya’s mission could leave Western states with less influence than they expect, this key space on Africa’s chessboard has also attracted considerable suspicion.

The Obama administration, of course, sees nothing wrong with its arching African strategy, and neither do many Americans, whether they’re oriented around national security or the economic crisis. Developing a regional framework is vital to inhibiting insurgencies and other militants groups. Predicting the unintended consequences of this militarization will be the long-term challenge.

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