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Revisiting ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’

By Ronald Atinkson

In this first part of our commentary revisiting Operation Lightning Thunder in Garamba, DR Congo, Ronald R. Atkinson weighs the failures ‘” and successes the incursion against UPDF’s stated objectives and accountability.

On December 14, 2008, the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) began bombing camps of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army/Movement (LRA/M) in Garamba National Park in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The rebels had largely relocated there during the Juba peace talks that began in July 2006. The air attacks were meant to be the surprise opening of a multi-pronged offensive against the LRA, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder, which officially ended on 15 March 2009 when the UPDF abruptly began what was announced as an eight-day withdrawal from the DRC.

Two UPDF commanders offered assessments of the three-month operation. At the handover ceremony to the Congolese army (the FARDC), Uganda’s Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, said that the UPDF was leaving when the LRA was at ‘their weakest point we have ever seen.’ Air Force Chief of Staff, Col. Moses Rwakitarate, added: ‘UPDF’s victory is not capturing Kony but failing the enemy’s normal operations. Therefore, Operation Lightning Thunder was a success because we have managed to kill many of Kony’s fighters and rescue over 300 abductees’ (Daily Monitor, March 16, 2009).

Did Operation Lightning Thunder leave the LRA at their ‘weakest point’? Was the operation a success? How should success (or not) be measured? Trying to answer these and other questions presents a daunting challenge, first because attempting to establish what most likely happened in ‘the fog of war’ is always a difficult and approximate exercise. It is especially difficult here because almost all information publicly available in Uganda on the operation comes from the UPDF itself or the Ugandan government, both with overwhelming incentives to present a particular version of events.

This account will revisit Operation Lightning Thunder utilising UPDF and Ugandan government information, as well as press accounts and a number of assessments of the operation produced by international research and advocacy groups. But the story of Operation Lightning Thunder recounted here will also draw on information, not previously public, obtained from both former UPDF soldiers who were in Garamba and former rebels who have been in contact with LRA fighters who were also there.Some of this new information flies directly in the face of UPDF and Uganda government claims.

Success of failure?

From its beginning on Sunday December 14, 2008, the Ugandan government and UPDF called the operation a joint one with the the DRC and GoSS, and it has almost always been reported this way in both the local and international media. But it was an overwhelmingly UPDF affair in fact, with the two other armies (and their governments) not even notified until the attack had begun, and then playing a minimal support role at most.

Although stated military objectives shifted during the course of the operation (see Col. Rwakitarate quote above), there can be little doubt that the initial list included the intention to kill or capture Kony and his top commanders and cripple or destroy the LRA. This was explicitly stated by UPDF spokesman, Capt. Chris Magezi, a day after the initial air attacks began: ‘The operation is on until we achieve our objective to destroy and eliminate or capture rebel leader Joseph Kony’ ( New Vision, 16 December 2008).

But Kony was not captured or killed, nor were any of his top commanders. One major named Okello Lupore was killed; another, a Col. Kwoyelo was wounded and captured (although he had been under arrest by the LRA for over a year and thus had played little or no military role during that time). UPDF claims to have killed another LRA senior commander identified as ‘Lt. Col. Okello Yape’ were dismissed by former LRA fighter I talked with, who said his name was Yaapeke and he was actually a very young guy and ‘not even a Lance Corporal.’

If the objective of killing or capturing Kony and his top commanders was quietly dropped (or even denied as ever having been an objective), the army from the beginning emphasised the goal of rescuing rebel abductees. It is difficult to determine whether the number so rescued ‘” about 300 ‘” meets the UPDF definition of success or not. And as the Conciliation Resources report cited above notes, ‘while the goal of the military operation was to rescue as many people as possible from the LRA, few provisions have been made to cater for those that return.’

But such rescue was at least in the UPDF’s objectives and planning. Something entirely omitted was the objective of protecting local civilians in the aftermath of the attack. Anyone who knows anything about the LRA should have known that when the rebel group is pushed, let alone attacked, they will retaliate at soft targets that the rebels see as linked to or associated with those who are opposing them. In this case, those targets were DRC and South Sudanese civilians whose governments assisted or at least condoned the UPDF attacks.

After the announced ending of the operation on March 15, the limited public information available on the operation is telling. Even government spokespersons and supporters trying to paint the most positive picture possible have had a difficult time doing so. The pages of the government New Vision newspaper make clear, sometimes despite claims to the contrary, that the UPDF have failed to kill or capture top rebel leaders, inflict serious losses on rebel fighters in general, rescue more than limited numbers of LRA abductees, or ‘” crucially ‘” provide or even plan for the protection of local civilians.

Here are some reported statistics, based on UPDF sources. After five weeks, on January 20, the paper reported that 48 rebels had been killed, 10 captured, 21 surrendered, and 11 captives rescued. On February 11, nine weeks into the operation, considerably higher figures of rescued abductees were given (280 total; 120 ‘reporting’ to the UPDF, 165 to the FARDC). On the February 15, the number of rebels reported killed was upped to 146, although 100 of these were identified only as ‘dead bodies our troops have come across in the bombarded forests.’

There were no updated figures over the rest of February. Then, just a day before the official end of the operation, a New Vision Special Report (March 14, 2009) gave the following summary numbers: 6 UPDF killed (the UPDF shortly after officially upped this to 12); 1 jet down; 150 rebels killed (virtually no change from two weeks before); 5 LRA commanders captured (with Col. Kwoyelo being the highest-ranking); and 300 abductees rescued (only 20 more than the end of February). No Kony.None of his highest-level commanders. And given that the tally of rebel deaths included the 100 bodies found in the forest, only 50 were reported killed in direct engagements.

Whether these figures represent success or failure, what has come to be almost universally accepted as a disaster was the failure during the UPDF operation to protect civilians from a wave of horrific attacks. These attacks, affecting much of northeastern DRC and nearby areas of South Sudan and CAR, were unprecedented in scope and scale since the LRA established a base in Garamba in 2005. Up to 1,000 or more were killed, estimated abductions range from 250-870, and up to 200,000 were displaced. The UPDF disclaimed any responsibility for protecting these civilians from LRA reprisals, instead blaming its faux-partners ‘” the FARDC in Congo and SPLA in South Sudan ‘” as well as UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo for failing to do so. Near unanimous criticisms on this issue have stood in stark contrast to the almost equally wide-spread support of the operation when it began.

Such criticisms, along with many others, can be seen in five reports from international organisations that have assessed Operation Lightning Thunder like Human Rights Watch and the US-based advocacy group, ENOUGH Project.1 All of these reports include important research on the ground in DRC and South Sudan. But none rely on anything other than UPDF information for the military aspects of the operation. This information, as already shown, is not especially positive. Nor does it always reflect what seems to have actually happened, as indicated by both former UPDF soldiers involved in Operation Lightning Thunder and former LRA who have been in touch with rebels who were there. Here is what I have learned.

New information

First, both UPDF and LRA sources indicate that many more UPDF soldiers were killed than the 12 officially acknowledged, including several hundred killed in one large rebel ambush. When one former UPDF soldier who had been in a unit where wounded and dead soldiers were taken had finished his account, I totaled up the number of dead he had noted. It was between 600 and 700. He nodded and said that the final figure could easily reach 800, as not all the bodies could be recovered from the swamps in Garamba and some were still dying of their wounds.

Second, both UPDF and LRA sources said that some UPDF soldiers were captured.

Third, two LRA sources provided a detailed account indicating that the LRA acquired several hundred US weapons, with ammunition, during Operation Lightning Thunder.

Fourth, the UPDF and Uganda government have claimed that when the operation began, the LRA fighting force numbered 600-800 (with one estimate as high as 1,000). Both LRA sources and those outside in touch with the rebels indicate that the total number of LRA fighters was substantially higher, about 2,000 to 2,500. This latter figure is much more in line with what I was told by reliable LRA and GoSS sources in 2006, when LRA fighting strength was at least 4000 in South Sudan and another 800-1000 in the recently established LRA base in Garamba.

Fifth, reliable information from both former abductees from South Sudan and LRA sources indicate clearly that since at least the last year-and-a-half to two years, and possibly longer, the LRA before Operation Lightning Thunder was training virtually no new abductees from the DRC or Western Equatoria in South Sudan as fighters.Thus, arguments by the ICC, Uganda government and others that the LRA was using the peace talks to buy time to build up its fighting force are not accurate.

Sixth, the same sources say that the LRA has not been receiving arms or other supplies from Khartoum over the same time period. So they were not using the peace talks to rearm, either.

Seventh, despite the proclaimed pullout of all but a small number of UPDF intelligence-unit soldiers, a number of sources assert that there could be at least 2,000 UPDF still in DRC, not all of whom appear as typical soldiers.

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Ronald R. Atkinson is a Professor, Department of History, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

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