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Guest blog: US should not repeat Ugandan failures against the LRA

This guest blog was written by Ledio Cakaj. He has worked almost exclusively on the LRA conflict for the last three years as a consultant with various organizations. Most recently he was part of an international group of experts looking into possible ways to deal with the LRA.  On 14 October 2011, President Obama announced in a letter to Congress his decision to deploy “a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces … to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield.” Kony is the founder and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group which for more than two decades waged civil conflict in Northern Uganda before moving to bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2006. Since the end of 2008 the Ugandan army with significant US support, has hunted the highly mobile LRA in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. The aid from the US over the last three years includes logistics and intelligence to the Ugandans to the tune of about $40 million. US troop deployment to central Africa is part of a larger US strategy to deal with the LRA that was unveiled on 24 November 2010. Obama’s recent announcement and the related media fanfare just shy of the strategy’s one-year anniversary are somewhat anachronistic, given that the current campaign against the LRA has largely stalled. Total numbers of armed LRA combatants today are virtually unchanged compared to last November – at about 350 – and the leadership of the rebel group remains intact. In the meantime LRA groups have conducted numerous accounts in all three countries. Since December 2008, the LRA has purportedly killed over 3,000 people and caused the displacement of 440,000. The majority of killings and displacements have taken place in DRC. Friction between the pursuing Ugandan troops and the regional armies, particularly the Congolese (FARDC), is one of many reasons for the shortcomings of the current efforts. Despite public pronouncements from Kampala and Kinshasa hailing the Ugandan-Congolese cooperation, the situation on the ground is dire. A recent Ugandan army internal report stated that FARDC troops have openly threatened to shoot Ugandan soldiers in DRC while a Congolese army officer told a journalist that the Ugandans were intent on looting Congolese resources. Ugandan officials accuse some FARDC commanders originating from  the Kivus of being pro-Rwanda and anti-Uganda. The history of the Ugandan-Rwandese conflict played out in Congolese territory in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the abuses by both sides are firmly rooted at the heart of the current hostilities. The willingness and ability of the Ugandans to capture Kony and his commanders is also a likely negative factor. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly vowed to crush the LRA militarily – and systematically failed to do so – since the rebel group came to life in 1988.  Reports from the last ten years have implicated Ugandans officers in engaging in illegal mineral extraction in DRC and logging in South Sudan. It is possible that a predilection on the part of Ugandan army officers to first look for possible business deals then focus on the LRA hunt has contributed to the conflict’s longevity. US soldiers on the ground could help to provide some transparency in the LRA operations and perhaps a rapprochement between the Ugandans and the Congolese. Supplied with sophisticated communication technology US troops should be able to provide real time intelligence on the movements of LRA groups as well as the behavior of the Congolese and Ugandan soldiers. But claims that the US troops will help quickly finish the job the Ugandans started 23 years ago are most likely a serious exaggeration. Contrary to commonly held views of the LRA as a group of rag-tag bandits, Kony’s men are well-trained, disciplined and capable of enduring extreme hardships while covering large swathes of inhospitable territory. While US engagement is welcome as it brings much needed attention to a largely neglected conflict, the current approach might need rethinking. In its existing form, the US has comprehensively adopted the unsuccessful Ugandan policy of all-out war without appearing to question its merits or fully appreciating potential repercussions. The risk of overemphasizing the military offensive at the expense of encouraging defections of LRA combatants or enhancing civilian protection strategies cannot be overstated. History has shown that a focus on a military solution alone has done little to end the LRA war, while simultaneously increasing violence to civilians, a strategy preferred by LRA commanders when feeling cornered. Rather than focusing exclusively on advising Ugandan soldiers how to capture or kill Kony, the US troops should help devise and carry out better strategies to protect civilians and encourage LRA fighters to leave the ranks. The US strategy seems also to have espoused the Ugandan modus operandi of military operations against the LRA with no particular time frame, contingency plans and end-game scenarios. For the strategy to have a high chance of success, US planners need to match the LRA’s adaptability and quick thinking. Peacefully engaging LRA commanders and resuming peace talks with the top leadership of the LRA are options that should be considered either as concurrent to or as alternatives to the military approach. Kony might still refuse to sign a peace deal, but luring his commanders out can be more devastating to the LRA than direct military action. The LRA has been greatly damaged during peaceful negotiations in the past as we have been able to learn a great deal about the otherwise secretive rebel group. Peace talks have also directly led to the defection of a few high profile commanders. Not too long ago, my colleague Philip Lancaster argued in this forum that a serious analysis of the LRA had not been conducted by any of the militaries involved. Hopefully, the US military advisers can fill that gap and in the process help provide a flexible roadmap for ending this long and bloody conflict for good.

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