June 14, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Lord’s Resistance Army: Predator and Pawn

As of mid-June 2012, some 90 million viewers have seen the "Kony2012" webfomercial that first went viral in March 2012. Since then, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has become the most infamous rebel group in Africa. Under the leadership of Joseph Kony, the LRA has terrorized northern Uganda for almost two decades, kidnapping twenty thousand children and displacing two million people into refugee camps.

LRA capability was severely degraded by 2006, when the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF) drove the last of Kony's fighters into the darkest of Africa's corners: the densely forested borderlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan. Its fighters move almost invisibly in small, dispersed bands across the vast, sparsely populated forests, and are unconstrained by the region's porous borders. They emerge only to loot, kidnap, and kill. And though the LRA has steadily dwindled in numbers (today it's believed to be comprised of no more than two to three hundred dedicated fighters), the group still poses an outsized threat to security. Just since 2007, the LRA is believed to have killed over 2,400 people, kidnapped another 3,400, and displaced close to half a million.


The New Law of the Jungle

The LRA has long played the complex geopolitics of the African Great Lakes region to its advantage. Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, tolerated the LRA for decades as a means of suppressing dissent in the economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized north. It took almost twenty years for the UPDF to finally drive the LRA over Uganda's border. Since then, the LRA's activities in the remote hinterland jungles of the African Great Lakes have been of minimal interest to Uganda, or to the governments of the DRC, the CAR, and Sudan. This is not unexpected given the number of complicated and interconnected geopolitical concerns and lingering security threats facing the region. Consider, for example, the following list:


  • Kinshasa has long considered the Ugandan army a more present threat than the LRA.
  • Bangui, CAR's capital, has been beset by insurgencies.
  • The capital of Sudan, Khartoum, is a former ally of the LRA.
  • Juba has only recently gained sovereignty over southern Sudan.
  • Meanwhile, the UPDF spent years stripping eastern Congo of its mineral riches, which, according to the DRC government and the International Court of Justice at the Hague, caused some US$ 6 to 10 billion dollars worth of damage.

Regional ambivalence has stymied efforts to capture Kony for years. In fact, the only country that has been somewhat consistent in its commitment to stopping the LRA is the United States. In 2008, the United States provided communication and logistics support for "Operation Lightning Thunder," a Ugandan military effort that not only failed to capture Kony and his top commanders, but triggered reprisal killings of thousands of Congolese civilians. In 2010, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed humanitarian legislation (the "Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009") to provide development assistance to affected communities, support the hunt for Kony, and encourage the defection of child soldiers from the LRA's ranks. And in October 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would deploy one hundred Special Forces personnel to the African Great Lakes to train Ugandan and other regional forces in intelligence and counterinsurgency tactics.


Global War on Terror: The Next Generation

But it is Somalia, and not the humanitarian imperative, that has finally turned the geopolitical tide against the LRA. Uganda has contributed more than 10,000 soldiers to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and is fast outstripping Ethiopia as the United States' key counterterrorism partner in East Africa. The quest to bring Kony to justice has presented Washington with a convenient opportunity to test and build Uganda's capability to conduct a terrorist manhunt in one of the world's least-policed regions.

U.S. support has been overwhelmingly directed towards Uganda; even though a handful of American military advisors have been stationed in the DRC and CAR, the U.S. has provided virtually no assistance to those militaries' pursuit of the LRA. (The U.S. Congressional Research Service notes that only one light battalion from the DRC has received significant U.S. training in the context of the LRA, and that was in 2010, prior to the current deployment of military advisors.)  U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson noted in Senate testimony that "We [the United States] have provided the government of Uganda substantial millions of dollars to provide them with logistical support to travel into northern Uganda, into the eastern part of the Congo, and into the Central African Republic. We have shared information and intelligence with them as we have acquired it, and we have provided them with additional communications and logistical and administrative support in their efforts."

The Obama administration has been quick to point out that its military capacity-building support to the UPDF is consistent with the humanitarian directive set forth in the 2009 Congressional legislation, but dramatically overstated the national security threat posed by the LRA. Both the mission's timing and price tag (US$4.5 million a month in an era of budget austerity and aversion to foreign military adventures) suggest that a confluence of humanitarian and national security objectives are at play. Primarily, the mission will allow the United States and its regional military command, AFRICOM, to strengthen the relationship with Uganda and enhance U.S. intelligence and counterterror platforms in a volatile, oil-rich region. The deployment is consistent with the Obama administration's preference for surgical strikes and drones to conduct the war on terror, and more specifically, with the directive in the new Defense Strategic Guidance, to "develop innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives on the [African] continent." Finally, the mission provides the African Union — which is spearheading coordination between the regional forces — with an opportunity to expand its portfolio and public profile.



This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council..



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