By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
If you asked Gen Ham Carter, commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), he will tell you that all evil in this world “exists in the person of Joseph Kony”. On July 19, Gen Ham told Ugandan journalists at AFRICOM’s Stuttgart headquarters in Germany that he would never shed a tear for Kony, no matter how sad his death. Given the atrocities Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has committed against the people of northern Uganda and the Great Lakes region, the American General said the rebel leader deserved no one’s compassion.
For the past 24 years, Kony’s rag-tag rebels have deprived women of beauty and dignity; cutting off breasts, lips, ears, arms, etc; abducting children, turning them into sex slaves and child soldiers. The rebels have decimated villages, driving communities into refugee camps and traumatizing entire generations of (especially) Northern Uganda’s people.
The U.S government’s recent deployment of 100 troops to support the latest military offensive against Kony’s LRA – “Operation Effectiveness” – demonstrates that Gen Ham’s distaste for the rebel leader finds favour in his country’s foreign policy, especially with the enactment in 2009 of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act by US Congress.
In his announcement on October 14 of the deployment of US military personnel against the LRA, US President Barack Obama said that while his troops would not be involved in actual fighting, they would share information, intelligence and military strategy with Uganda and the regional countries now bearing the brunt of Kony’s murderous campaign – namely the Central African Republic (CAR), DR Congo, Uganda and South Sudan.
“U.S. personnel that deploy for this mission will carry out support functions in Uganda,” said Virginia Blaser, U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires in Kampala.” Only a portion of the personnel will travel to the field locations.”
The U.S has been supporting the fight against the LRA since 2008 – sharing intelligence, training UPDF soldiers, and supplying specialized equipment. The U.S military was involved in planning the botched Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) in 2008, whose failure was blamed on uncoordinated command in the UPDF, and to which the US donated satellite phones and $1 million worth of fuel.
The operation aimed to flush LRA out of hiding in Congo’s Garamba National Park after Kony rebuffed a peace treaty that might have ended the carnage. But the rebel leaders escaped, breaking their fighters into small groups that continue to ransack North-Eastern DR Congo town by town, hacking, burning, maiming, shooting and clubbing to death anyone in their way, a trail of massacres in their wake. Since OLT, LRA has killed over 2,400 people and abducted at least 3,400. According to the United Nations, more than 380,000 are currently displaced across CAR, South Sudan and DR Congo as a result.
Ordinarily, any prospect of capturing Kony or killing LRA’s commanders would garner automatic applause. But the US deployment has drawn skepticism, some questioning the motive and timing of the grand gesture.
Drawing parallels with the super power’s military adventures in Kuwait, Iraq, South Sudan and Libya, some analysts have argued that the US deployment is motivated not by the humanitarian need to impose peace in the region, but by a hunger for Uganda’s oil.
The US Embassy’s Blaser dismisses these allegations, but online debates among Ugandans have questioned the US’s eagerness to send troops – only the second time since the LRA’s rebellion started 24 years ago. The US AFRICOM sent 17 military advisors to guide air and ground strikes against Kony in rugged, isolated, DR Congo under OLT, the first US troop deployment against the rebellion. Could it be because Uganda will soon begin pumping oil, a precious commodity that Americans badly need to control?
NGOs like Invisible Children, Enough and Resolve have welcomed the Americans.
“The deployment demonstrates that President Obama is taking seriously the calls from hundreds of thousands of young Americans that want to see an end to the senseless LRA violence,” said Ben Keesey, executive director of Invisible Children.
Views of Uganda’s military brass appear mixed. While Col. Felix Kulayigye, UPDF spokesman, brought out the welcome mat, saying the deployment recognized that LRA was no longer a Ugandan but a regional problem, his commander-in-chief expressed reservations.
Addressing his second press conference in five days, President Yoweri Museveni bragged that his government did not need foreign troops fighting for it, and that such would be a vote of no-confidence in Uganda’s army. The President emphasized that US soldiers would play a secondary role, tracking Kony and his men, and informing UPDF to go and fight them. But questions linger of the US motives.
Is it part of that country’s election politics as 2013 draws close? The new American approach to war – as the New York Times called it – has garnered a string of military successes for Obama’s administration over the last six months. US commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakstan in May; Gaddafi’s administration was overthrown in August and Africa’s ‘king of kings’ killed in October; a top al Qaeda operative in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by American drones in September. Might Kony be next?
Or is it about money? A UPDF security source said the US was frustrated that its funding of the war against Kony seemed to garner no results, and decided to take matters into its hands.
“People are tired of Uganda pocketing dollars in the name of fighting LRA in CAR and DRC, yet Kony remains at large,” the source said. “Troops hunting Kony need advanced intelligence, but desire for money stands in the way. It does not make sense for the US to stay away and keep giving Uganda dollars and we make money as thousands of Congolese and CAR people continue to die. ”
“These governments have been taking the US money and doing nothing. I don’t see the deployment as utterly motivated by selfish interests because the LRA killings are real and Uganda government has been calling on US support for long,” the source added.
“Some people have raised the question of oil, claiming that Americans wanted a hand in it, but I believe they already have a good ally in President Museveni and if they needed an oil deal they would easily get it. After all, he’s their man in Somalia and he needs them to maintain his clout in the region.”
In any case, the source added that any suspicions about US motives were counter-weighed by concern about the waning goodwill of regional governments to allow UPDF to pursue Kony into their borders.
Analysts argue that the LRA’s ability to oscillate between four countries (Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo and CAR) means that more than ever, the success of Operation Effectiveness will depend on goodwill and cooperation of the governments, whose relationships are complicated. Reports have quoted President Joseph Kabila and his Minister saying they were not consulted.
That the Khartoum regime, which has been accused of backing the LRA, seems to be left out of the renewed operation against Kony and his men, also does not augur well. UPDF entered South Sudan, DRC and CAR on contract, their stay renewed periodically with justification. But reports say the UPDF’s stay in DRC expired in May but Kabila’s regime was reluctant to renew it without a clear exit calendar. CAR, in whose jungles Kony has found sanctuary, is pre-occupied pursuing its own domestic rebels and has no capacity to go after LRA.
Given the divergent interests, military watchers are concerned that the mistakes of OLT may be repeated. On Dec. 14, 2008, UPDF, with US technical support through AFRICOM, launched OLT to capture or kill Kony with support from South Sudan and DRC forces. But the operation was an overwhelmingly UPDF affair. In fact, the other two armies (and their governments) were not even notified until the attack had begun, and then only played a minimal support role. The 17 American military “advisors” and Ugandan officers used satellite imagery and Ugandan field intelligence to triangulate LRA’s hiding place. The plan was for the UPDF to bomb Kony’s camp and cut off his 700 or so fighters with a force of more than 6,000 Ugandan and Congolese ground troops. But the difficult terrain – thick forests, large swathes of deserted land, thick fog – stole UPDF’s element of surprise. Kony escaped unhurt, leaving behind computers, satellite phones and a guitar for the UPDF, and taking his revenge butchering Congolese civilians.
Blaser said efforts would be made to share information on LRA whereabouts with civilians to enable them escape any LRA reprisal attacks. But some say the only protection for civilians is to capture Kony.
And to do it fast. Rosebell Kagumire, a journalist who has reported on the LRA conflict, says the increased US role “creates a lot of expectations” that the war against Kony will finally be won. But it needs to be done fast. Any long-term stay of US troops will feed suspicion of their intent and alliances, and may instead destabilise regional politics.