By David Tinyefuza
Last week, we published views of seven generals (both retired and serving) on Operation Lightning Thunder. They criticised the ongoing operation against Kony’s LRA rebels as poorly planned and likely to achieve nothing significant. Coordinator of Intelligence Gen. David Tinyefuza who commanded Operation North in â€˜90s writes in this issue, telling off critics and spelling out the expectations of the UPDF and their achievements so far.
The army officers who criticised the strategy and execution of Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) in The Independent (Issue 43 January 16 , 22, 2009) did not understand the strategic objectives of the Uganda government or the UPDF military strategy. Because their premise of analysis was flawed, they arrived at wrong conclusions.
First of all, it is not true that an army can have 100 per cent certainty on weather conditions even when they use meteorologists.
You can see how Israel today is facing problems in bombing Gaza because of unforeseen weather conditions. During the Gulf War in 1991, US forces had to suspend bombing for seven days until weather conditions improved. Besides, Uganda could not have had a meteorology department in Garamba. DRC does not have one either. But when Plan A could not work, we employed Plan B. That is why we had contingency plans to substitute MiGs with helicopter gunships in the initial assault on Garamba.
It is true that in any military campaign aimed at destroying an enemy, the planning authorities should establish the centre of gravity. In the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the centre of gravity is not its leader, Joseph Kony. Rather it is regional polarisation. Kony and his LRA have never been a power by themselves. They have been proxies of the government of Sudan in Khartoum.
There was a time in its early years when LRA was a power by itself. During those days, it also enjoyed some level of popular support in Acholi. But those years are long past. Over the years, LRA has grown into a geo-political force and at one time or another has assumed a regional dimension , with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) becoming its props.
The support of Khartoum and DRC provided Kony with safe havens outside Uganda. Without training grounds in Sudan and DRC and without money and other military supplies from Sudan, LRA would have been defeated long ago.
So in view of the above, what has changed in the regional configuration of power – in our geopolitics – has changed how the Uganda government, and by extension the UPDF are responding to Kony and his LRA.
The most important strategic objective of government of Uganda therefore was to forge a regional alliance against Kony. The government launched OLT in alliance with the Government of South Sudan (GOSS), and the government of DRC. We also had a nod from the international forces that matter. For example, the UN supported our operations inside DRC and even the Central Africa Republic. Other powerful international actors also supported us by supplying us with intelligence on LRA.
I can give an example here. During the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill realised that the major strategic objective for Britain to defeat Germany was to involve the United States of America in the war. Churchill focused all his diplomatic cards on this objective which eventually worked. Once the US joined the war against Germany, the qualitative and quantitative circumstances changed , the war reached its turning point. When Germany declared war on the US, Churchill said: ‘For the first time during the war, I slept soundly.’
In our case, even the government of Sudan in Khartoum has contributed to OLT by keeping out of the conflict. Previously, it would have sent in helicopters to evacuate Kony and his thugs. Its decision not to get involved on either side was favourable to Uganda. In 2002, Khartoum gave Uganda permission to enter southern Sudan and fight Kony from there during Operation Iron Fist (OIF). Many people think OIF was a failure. But this is because they do not understand military strategy.
OIF was a success because it uprooted Kony from southern Sudan. He came to Uganda and spread across many districts in order to draw us from Sudan. I remember I appeared on Andrew Mwenda Live on Monitor FM at the time and explained that UPDF understood Kony’s strategy. We would not withdraw troops from southern Sudan. Instead, we mobilised auxiliary forces like Arrow Boys and chased him from Teso. At the time, Kony also lost the support of the regime in Khartoum. Whatever remained of it was clandestine. Even here, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan placed the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) between Kony and Khartoum.
As a result of OIF, Kony fled northern Uganda to southern Sudan and later to the DRC near the border with Central Africa Republic (CAR). This shows that Kony is now geographically far away from Uganda and therefore unable to cause much trouble in Uganda. In Garamba, he is more of a fugitive than a rebel leader. That is why he desperately needs to talk peace. It is not because he loves peace, but because he has been cornered and realises he is about to be annihilated.
The second issue is: has UPDF degraded LRA’s ability to make war to a level that can lead to total success? The answer is a resounding yes. And here is the explanation. A raid like OLT would have two elements: First, to destroy the targeted elements; second, if you do not achieve element one in its totality, you exploit initial success of the raid by pursuing the enemy in a coordinated and comprehensive operation to eliminate his remaining capacity to make war.
From this perspective, by kicking Kony out of his camps in Garamba and occupying them, has given UPDF three advantages. First, since we now occupy his camps, we can collect intelligence about LRA. Second, Kony has lost access to his gardens and granaries which were his major source of food. Kony had grown over 20 square miles of sim sim using forced labour of abductees. He had also stock-piled loads of food supplied to him by the international community during the peace talks.
There is a saying in military circles that ‘soldiers fight on their stomachs.’ Starved armies cannot fight. The LRA is starving and won’t fight longer. Many are already surrendering. During the peace talks, Kony was using money given to him by international donors to build up supplies , buy guns, ammunition, food, recruit, retrain and rebuild his military capability. All that is now destroyed.
More critically, UPDF has gained strategic depth. This refers to the distance from one’s border to one’s heart and nerve centre e.g. the capital city. Strategic depth is important in warfare because you can trade territory to buy time, mobilise your resources for war and launch counter attacks. This is exactly what the Soviet Union did to Germany when Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in the late spring of 1941.
LRA was operating in three countries: Sudan, DRC and Uganda. It was beginning to acquire a fourth, CAR. Kony therefore enjoyed better strategic depth than Uganda. For example, Garamba is almost 300km from Koboko where Uganda is, 500km from Juba where GoSS is based and another 160km from Dungu where the nearest DRC government outpost is. By occupying Garamba, UPDF has qualitatively degraded Kony’s strategic depth to zero.
This brings me to the argument that LRA’s break into small groups is not a sign of defeat but adaptation to hostile circumstances. That is partly true. But such a move is not a strategic or tactical operational strength because he is more vulnerable to attack now. So his entire strategy now is one of survival. A rebel must be able to attack weak points of the enemy to get food and arms. Kony cannot do that now.
Indeed, as I write this article, many of LRA’s small groups are surrendering to the UPDF. In any case, command and control is difficult to sustain when you have small and scattered groups. More seriously, with small groups, Kony needs communication equipment to keep contact with his commanders. But we have captured his walkie-talkies, his satellite phones and his solar panels for recharging. So wherever he is, Kony can’t communicate with his commanders. He must be finding it difficult to issue orders.
Remember that Kony is splitting his forces in order to scatter the effort of the UPDF so that he can deny us the consolidated advantage of attacking him in big formations. But this does not change the fact that he is weakened. And since he has split his forces in circumstances where he has limited communication with his commanders and therefore a tenuous command and control, he will not last long.
The criticising officers raised the issue of the experience with Gen. Salim Saleh when in the mid-1990s Kony employed this tactic of splitting his forces with some minimum success. But the LRA was at the time operating in an area where they could count on some local support and therefore work through the local population. The north was a populated area. Garamba is a national park with very few people if any. So they have nowhere to hide and no people to work through.
Splitting one’s forces works to your advantage only when you have many troops at your disposal. This is another advantage Kony enjoyed in the mid 1990s. Today, Kony has not more than 500 troops. During the operation, LRA lost many soldiers. We have found three mass graves filled with freshly decomposing bodies. These must be the soldiers Kony lost during the initial aerial raid. If you subtract the dead and those surrendering, he could be below 300 now.
With such a high attrition rate, he has few forces to split. And this is in circumstances where he has many forces against him , the UPDF, SPLA and DRC army. By SPLA blocking his northern escape route, DRC his southern escape route, they have left UPDF freedom to focus solely on search-and-destroy missions.
Another criticism raised was on the long supply line from Koboko to Garamba. That is a legitimate point. But it is UPDF’s challenge. Under counterinsurgency operational concept, you proceed from the knowledge that you have long supply lines vulnerable to attack by small enemy forces. Therefore, you establish a convoy system to transport your supplies. We did this during the 1990s when LRA was a menace in Uganda and it worked. UPDF never failed to supply Gulu and Kitgum because of LRA ambushes. In his diminished capacity, Kony is unable to effectively disrupt UPDF supply lines, the operating word here is ‘effectively.’
Besides, UPDF now has air capability which allows us to do aerial surveillance, drop troops at hot spots and supply our forces promptly. Therefore, UPDF now enjoys a superior technical advantage over LRA. In any case, Special Forces are not supplied food daily. They depend on packed food.
Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu raised an important point about the possibility or at least the probability of Kony returning to Uganda. This is not possible, and if Kony takes this route, he will have dug his own grave. The UPDF strategy in Garamba is multi-faceted. We have ground troops which are mobile and some which are stationary and we also have air surveillance. All these render Kony’s movements; leave alone his ability to carry out operations, extremely difficult. So he cannot return to Uganda.