By Andrew M. Mwenda
On December 14, 2008 the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) launched Operation Lightning Thunder on the camps of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Later President Yoweri Museveni, in a national broadcast aired on radio and television on December 22, 2008, declared the operation a success. The army also provided pictures of objects captured from the rebels and a bombed out hut it said was in one of the LRA camps.
Since then, The Independent has interviewed UPDF officers involved in planning and executing the mission for the full story of the attack on Garamba; the strategic objectives of the mission, and the operation’s strategy and the end-game (see Issue no 001, January 2-8). Armed with this information, we interviewed seven UPDF generals ‘ three serving, four retired or on katebe (undeployed). We also talked to a British and then an American military expert conversant with Special Forces’ operations in their countries. All provided both technical and strategic analysis of the operation.
UPDF officers did not want to be named officially. The three who are still serving can easily be accused of speaking in the ‘wrong forum’. Some of the retired officers did not want to be seen criticising their colleagues who planned the operation. But former army commander, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, agreed to be quoted as did former army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Zed Maruru. The Independent then interviewed Gen. David Tinyefuza, who gave a candid rejoinder to the issues.
Below, our Managing Editor, Andrew M. Mwenda, brings you the perspectives of military experts and generals blending analysis of military strategy, operational tactics, regional context and international complexity of the Garamba mission.
Military experts say that every operation must have a main objective. In the case of Garamba, President Yoweri Museveni said that objective was to hit the LRA so decisively as to cripple their ability to make war. The key performance indicators here would include: killing a large number of LRA commanders and soldiers, capturing huge amounts of their military hardware, killing LRA leader Joseph Kony and therefore destroying his messianic appeal to his fighters, destroy their supply lines, encircle them and permanently cripple their ability to re-group, re-organise, recruit, retrain and re-establish command and control over their forces.
To explain whether UPDF achieved all or any of these objectives, we have to look at the information provided by the army in describing the operation as a success.
First, the UPDF actually bombed LRA camps in Garamba as pictures from the battlefront show. The army also occupied the rebel camps and as the President reported, is now feeding on the vast stores of food left behind by the LRA as its troops abandoned the camps in haste. Finally, the UPDF displayed objects it captured like Kony’s wig, guitar and LRA jerry cans, saucepans, chairs, a thermal flask, plastic basins and three rusty rifles.
Given the above, to what extent has this operation taken the UPDF towards the main objective of crippling LRA’s ability to make war?
The UPDF generals we spoke to asked: Is bombing and occupying abandoned camps in any way taking us towards the main objective? Does the capture of saucepans, jerry cans plus Kony’s guitar and wig undermine LRA’s capacity to make war?
To answer them, we must look at other claims of victory by UPDF and the President to establish whether the aim of the Operation Lightening Thunder (OPT) was realised. Most generals The Independent talked to said even the achievements that can be discerned from the operation are of a tactical, not of a strategic nature.
‘For an operation to cripple LRA’s ability to make war, it must establish the rebel army’s centre of gravity,’ a general said, ‘In military terms, a centre of gravity is that object which, when destroyed, would bring other elements of enemy strength to collapse and therefore render the ability of the enemy to make war futile. In the case of the LRA, the person of Kony is the central fulcrum around which the functioning of the LRA rotates; you kill him and LRA would collapse. In this case, Kony is to LRA what Jonas Savimbi was to UNITA in Angola.’
According to information from UPDF, killing Kony was actually one of the objectives. A team sent to recce his camps had established the hut in which he lived. Indeed, this information had been provided to pilots supposed to fly the MiG-21 planes that were supposed to bomb Garamba. Inside sources in UPDF told The Independent that Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of Kony’s hut had been fed into the MiGs. However, the MiGs did not fly because of bad weather. And here again comes the second failure.
Generals The Independent talked to said bad weather cannot be a sufficient explanation for the failure of the operation. It can only be an excuse. ‘Look,’ one general said in an agitated voice, ‘when you are using an air force in any operation, you have to involve meteorologists to forecast the weather. So, the date of bombing has to be according to weather forecast. In this case, either the UPDF did not involve meteorologists or they provided wrong weather forecasts.’
Generals also said that in military planning, a commander has to establish a number of scenarios likely to impact on the operation; Plan A, B and even C. In fact, there can also be variations within say Plan A. The commander must then ask: What if this fails, what is my fallback position? Under such circumstances, good commanders can have Plan 1A, 1B and 1C within Plan 1 alone. Variation gives the commander the necessary flexibility to counter-intuitively alter his plans to respond to a changing environment.
‘It is common knowledge in the military that there is never a perfect plan,’ one retired UPDF general told The Independent, ‘That is why variation is critical in military operations. A commander has to constantly ask: What if? The way the operation was presented shows this was not done. Apparently there seems to have been excessive overconfidence on the part of UPDF that everything would go as planned.’
Overconfidence may be a polite way of saying there was gross incompetence in the operation reflected in poor timing (with inability to forecast weather), poor planning (as in failure to project unforeseen circumstances) and bad execution (a subject we shall come to later).
President Museveni argued that UPDF has hurt LRA severely: first by taking over their camps, capturing their food supplies and finally breaking down the ability of one rebel group to communicate with another.
Here experts say the critical question for commanders was: What do we know about Kony out of the long history of UPDF combat with LRA?
Gen. Muntu weighs into the debate
Muntu said that Kony enjoys a particular advantage because he seeks to avoid direct confrontation with UPDF, keeping his forces highly mobile and in small groups. This increases the costs on government troops because they also have to break their forces up. Without motorised infantry, chasing him across a vast territory of Garamba makes the operation an extremely expensive task that can wear out even the most committed commander. Indeed, Muntu said, because there are no people in Garamba ‘ which is a national park, UPDF is in unfriendly territory where it cannot rely on human intelligence to monitor rebel movements.Muntu told The Independent that LRA is a rebel movement that has proven extremely adept as working in small and highly mobile groups. Kony has never desired to capture and hold territory, or control population, Muntu said. From this perspective therefore, capturing and occupying his camps in Garamba can have tactical but not strategic value. If the UPDF and its allies fail to completely encircle him in Garamba, then the objective of crippling his ability to make war will have been significantly diminished. According to Muntu, this shows that the plan was a big gamble.
Another general told The Independent that in the mid 1990s when Gen. Salim Saleh was commanding the operations against the LRA, the rebels used to move in large formations. Saleh began deploying large formations of mobile forces to counter them and thereby inflicted heavy damage on them. Then all of a sudden, LRA changed their tactics; they broke up into small formations which were extremely mobile. They would only re-group near their target. This altered the nature of the war. From this experience, the general said, breaking down LRA into small groups cannot be considered success because that has been Kony’s strategy. It is a strategy of the weak, yes. But it has sustained him through difficulties.
Breaking Kony’s communication
President Museveni said UPDF has broken down the ability of the different and scattered LRA units to communicate. Doesn’t this really cripple Kony’s ability to exercise command and control over his troops? One of the serving generals interviewed said this is only an illusion. When moving ground troops from Point A to Point B, a commander must recce the area; if you are scattered by the enemy at Point A, you plan to regroup at Point B. ‘It is possible that LRA was anticipating an attack, although they got it wrong on the actual timing,’ he said, ‘In this case, they must have planned where and how to re-group if they were scattered by a surprise attack.’
Museveni said the other success of OLT was that LRA lost most of its communication gadgets. The scattered fragments of the rebels therefore cannot communicate with each other. Without communication between the different and scattered units, it is almost impossible for Kony to exercise effective command and control over his troops. Now UPDF’s work is to search for such isolated units and destroy them.
This analysis is challenged by other generals. One of them said that even without communication gadgets, LRA rebels know where to re-group. ‘Remember that LRA has 20 years experience in this kind of warfare,’ the general who once commanded operations against the rebel army told The Independent, ‘They have learnt how to survive under such conditions. Thus, regardless of our moral assessment of Kony, we need to recognise that he is an excellent strategist and tactician. Otherwise we would have defeated him along ago like we did with other rebellions.’
The same general said that, depending on the damage inflicted on the LRA, Kony will look for ways to rebuild his capacity to make war. ‘We have beaten him like this before; capturing his arms, disorganising his forces and demoralising his troops,’ the general said, ‘yet he has always demonstrated an unusual ability to go back on the drawing board ‘ regroup, recruit, re-train and re-launch his war. So even if the damage claimed by the army today is correct, it does not mean he is finished. Kony has demonstrated greater ability to constantly adapt to an ever changing environment than we in UPDF.’
Muntu added to this point arguing that because Kony largely attacks innocent civilians, the main challenge of the UPDF is not to fight LRA but to protect civilians. ‘Kony has no capacity to attack UPDF,’ he said, ‘But that does not mean he has been weakened. He still has capacity to kill civilians. The only success UPDF can claim is to have destroyed his ability to return to Uganda and carry out massacres. Nothing from the reports on the operation shows that LRA has been rendered unable to return to northern Uganda.’
Will Kony survive?
Now that the operation is done, what future holds for UPDF against Kony? UPDF has promised to sustain the effort at hunting the rebels wherever they are. With the army of the Government of Southern Sudan, Sudanese People’s Liberation army (SPLA) closing his northern escape route while the DRC army and the United Nations peacekeeping force MONUC have closed the southern route, Kony could be annihilated by a sustained campaign.
But a serving general rejected this analysis. He said OLT seems to have been conceived as a short-term hit and win operation. The UPDF has to change this short-term operation into a long term campaign. However, to do so will wear UPDF down to Kony’s advantage. For starters, it is unlikely DRC and SPLA will help to the standard that UPDF needs. The Garamba region is vast. To sustain the campaign, UPDF will need to establish supply lines across a long and treacherous distance.
‘This will leave our army badly exposed,’ the dissenting general said, ‘because LRA will now be able to attack UPDF supply lines to loot food (and therefore feed off our backs) and to make it difficult and expensive for us to sustain our troops in Garamba. It would be almost impossible (and if possible extremely expensive in money and soldiers) to secure the vast distance from Koboko to Garamba to protect UPDF supply lines. There are no roads, there are few human settlements and most of the place is either forest or bush. No commander would love to be in such a situation.’