By Asuman Bisiika
On March 15, Uganda started withdrawing its troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was three months since December 14, 2008 when the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), with the support of the Congolese and South Sudanese armies, launched a military offensive against the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebels on Congolese soil.
The invitation of the media to cover the troop pull-out process was very conspicuous if one contrasted it with the reticence that shrouded the December 14 attack on the rebel hideout.
But now that the troops are home from what the military establishment says is a mission accomplished, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the achievements and challenges of Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) with the benefit of hindsight.
From conception, OLT carried a lot of unnecessary political baggage for a special military operation. The prospect of political capital from the expected success of the operation was so alluring that the political leadership tried to direct it from Kampala.
In special military operations like this one, this kind of attitude by the political leadership tends to influence the dynamics of field craft (ujanja ya porini). The political leadership should have limited its involvement to endorsing and clearing the operation. The choice of Zero Hour (launch time) should have been left to the field commander in order to allow him leverage and space on field decision-making.
Unfortunately for OLT, the day the political leadership ordered Zero Hour, there was bad weather. Frustrated by bad weather, the political leadership ordered: ‘œwhatever-it-takes (kama mbaya mbaya), you have to launch’. This consequently robbed the operation of the elements of right equipment, right time and right target.
It could have been done otherwise though. With information of the D-Day kept tight, the operation’s commander would have planned for a window of a week for the launch. Within that week, the standby level would have been upgraded to RED (or whatever codes UPDF uses). This would have given the commander opportunity to factor in variables like weather, enemy troop movement or a chance opportunity for an easy harvest of a high profile target.
The political leadership would only have been informed (please note the key word ‘informed’, not ‘seeking permission’ to launch) at least twenty four hours before actual launch. More like’¦ ‘the eagle has landed’.
Managing public expectations
Perhaps the biggest challenge OLT faced was to manage public expectations from the operations. The attempt to keep a tight lid on information flow to the public led to some confusion.
The public expected nothing less than the capture or killing of Joseph Kony. In all honesty, this was also the main objective of the operation. OLT expected to achieve this through the elements of surprise, ‘œshock and awe’.
But the military PR machine didn’t do a good job and left the public to feed on the ominous opinions and commentaries from people who could not articulate issues related to the operation.
The political leadership of northern Uganda was outright against the Operation Lightning Thunder and dismissing them with gestures was not good PR. The light side of the distortions that ensued can be captured by the media writing Lightning as Lightening (there is a very big difference in spelling and meaning).
Minus the UPDF’s chest-thumping and portrayal of the military as an exclusive practice for the genius, the achievements of OLT are worth the effort; notwithstanding the fact that the main objective was not achieved. However, the army’s continued insistence that the operation was intended to force Joseph Kony to append his signature to the Juba Peace Accords is annoyingly pedestrian.
Imagine a news conference that could have kicked off with a statement going like this: ‘œLadies and gentlemen, the political leadership are frustrated by Kony’s recalcitrance and deliberate refusal to sign the Juba Peace Agreements. They asked us to design Plan B. And OLT is what we came up with. It was launched today at 8.00 am local time. Initial reports from the field say the operation is going on well as planned. For the time being, I will however not give you details of the operational activities as this may jeopardise the safety of the troops on the ground’¦’
UPDF spokespersons don’t seem to have the capacity to engage the media without speaking on policy issues (and sometimes politics) outside the domain of the army. This is because of the fusion of the Ministry of Defence and the Army Spokesperson’s office.
It is difficult to know whether the army spokesperson is speaking as a Ministry of Defence official or as an army official. The Ministry of Defence is a department of the civil administration while the army (UPDF) is part of the armed forces with a military mandate.
Even when something is clearly a policy issue that should be left for the attention of superiors, the army spokesperson will always hazard an answer. That’s how we ended up with the line: ‘forcing Kony to sign the Juba Peace Accords’.
The operation has weakened the LRA’s capacity to sustain a serious military offensive. The general assessment is that the LRA would need ‘outside’ support to regenerate its fledgling troops into a fighting force.During the course of the operation, the UPDF killed and captured LRA rebel commanders and their men thereby disrupting the command structure of the rebel outfit. They have also rescued former abductees who were the rebels’ source of fighters.
These are good achievements. However, there are also secondary achievements of a strategic nature that have accrued from OLT.
In the first week of March, President Museveni and President Kabila of the DR of Congo met in Kasese. Something worth noting was their body language. At least the two leaders appeared to have had some good chemistry; a far cry from earlier meetings like the Ngordoto meeting in Tanzania.
So, the other achievement of OLT is that it could unwittingly (or wittingly) be the mother of a new entente cordiale between Uganda and her huge natural resources-endowed neighbour. The troop interaction at operational level and the summit meeting of the top leadership are worthy achievements that could be the beginning of a new diplomatic rapprochement.
The withdrawal of Ugandan troops on March 15 followed the February 26 withdraw of the Rwandan troops from Congo. The Rwandans were also on a similar operation code named Umoja Wetu (Our Unity) to dislodge Rwandan rebels with bases in the Congolese provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu.
The Rwandan troops were withdrawn after protests in Kinshasa over President Kabila’s invitation of foreign troops to operate on Congolese soil. As high a personality as the Speaker of the Lower House in Kinshasa (hitherto a President Kabila ally) made public his discontent over allowing Rwandan troops in DRC. Four Members of Parliament are said to have resigned their seats in protest of President Kabila’s military co-operation with arch-foes Rwanda.
Uganda still enjoys a reasonable level of acceptance (modest though) in Kinshasa; seeing as it is that there were no protests against the UPDF’s presence on Congolese soil.
Uganda has deliberately (painstakingly though) worked on its relationship with Rwanda.
With the right diplomatic footwork, Uganda is likely to regain the initiative as a central player in the power plays of the Great Lakes region. Perhaps the Garamba Mission was strategically worth it; in spite of its shortcomings.
About the author: Asuman Bisika is a journalist and a keen watcher of security and political dynamics in the Great Lakes region.