On Friday, President Barack Obama announced the deployment of about 100 US military personnel to central Africa to assist the armed forces of regional states in putting an end to the decades long rampage of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  

The initial team, consisting primarily of Special Operations Forces, arrived in Uganda last Wednesday, while a second group will arrive next month to work with partners in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. While the president emphasized that the teams will serve as advisors to their host nations and “will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense,” the deployment nonetheless represents the first time since the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created in 2007 that combat-equipped troops have been sent to Sub-Saharan Africa to help quell an insurgency. How is this move to be assessed?
The group that the US forces will help hunt down is one of the most bizarre and brutal rebel groups on a continent which has seen all too many challenges to struggling governments. The LRA was founded in northern Uganda in 1987 by Joseph Kony, a former altar boy and high school dropout who had briefly apprenticed for a local witch doctor. While the movement drew some of its initial recruits from groups which had either been defeated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in his rise to power or otherwise felt marginalized by the government, it never really advanced any ideological vision or articulated any political program. It was held together by brute force and terror—most of its “soldiers” were abducted children who were forced to carry out atrocities as part of their “initiation”—with Kony’s messianic ravings to boot (inter alia, he claims to channel spirits and dabs shea nut oil on his combatants to protect them from bullets). 
Over the years, the LRA is estimated to have forcibly pressed as many as 75,000 into its ranks, the boys to serve as combatants or porters, the girls to be given as “wives” to fighters who had proven their loyalty. The group has been responsible for the murder and rape of tens of thousands of men, women, and children across the middle of Africa and the displacement of over 1.5 million in northern Uganda alone. These horrors made Kony the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity and the LRA a designation as a “terrorist group” by the United States. For its part, the European Union has spent €158 million in the past ten years alone on assistance to the LRA’s victims—and this figure does not include aid given separately by EU member states.
While efforts by the Ugandan People’s Defence Force and others have significantly weakened the LRA in recent years, Kony has eluded capture by escaping over the multiple borders in the region and the group has enjoyed support from the government in Sudan, which saw LRA attacks as a way to retaliate against its neighbors for their support of the ultimately successful South Sudanese push for independence. 
The Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, unanimously passed by Congress and signed by Obama last year, made bringing the conflict to an end a priority of US policy. Last November, the administration published a “Strategy to Support the Disarmament of the Lord’s Resistance Army” emphasizing civilian protection, removing Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield, bringing the remaining fighters out of the bush, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance to communities affected by the LRA.
Despite all that, it is not readily apparent how a deployment with the objective of neutralizing the threat posed by Kony and his remaining followers—however that might be accomplished—is “in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.” The LRA has no capacity to pose a direct security threat to the American homeland or even the nearest US forces, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. Even the Enough Project, one of the leading voices among the coalition of human rights and religious groups which have long advocated for more robust action against the LRA, acknowledged in a report at the end of last year that Kony no longer has full control of his forces which were estimated to have dwindled to less than 400. Rather, to understand the deployment, a broader view and a longer-term time horizon are needed.
First, while the LRA may not pose a real threat to the United States, it has wreaked havoc with some of America’s closest African partners, including Uganda, the main contributor to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which is the only thing standing between that country’s weak interim authority and its total defeat at the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab insurgents, and South Sudan, the continent’s newest state which came into being earlier this year largely through US and European diplomatic persistence. These countries have appealed for assistance. While the United States itself has provided over $40 million in logistical support, equipment, and training since 2008 to assist regional militaries in their operations against the LRA operations, this has not been sufficient to end the rebels’ depredations. In June, the African Union appealed for external support for a regional task force to tackle the challenge.
Second, not only are the African countries bearing the brunt of the LRA’s violence allies, but they also are rich in natural resources which cannot be developed to their benefit or that of their trading partners because of the conflict. South Sudan sits on top of Africa’s fifth largest proved petroleum reserves, while Uganda is on the cusp of production of oil along its border with the DRC. The latter country has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and vast quantities of diamonds, gold, copper, uranium, and other minerals, while the CAR has also significant, but mainly unexploited, deposits of many of the same.
Third, the mission to reinforce the African militaries’ foreign internal defense capabilities in the face of a threat like the LRA goes to the raison d’être of AFRICOM, which has the mission to advance the “national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations…to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development.” It also underscores—pace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s off-the-cuff remark in Congressional testimony just last Thursday, that should automatic spending cuts be forced on the Pentagon by the budget impasse, Africa would be one of the areas where the cuts would come—the value of AFRICOM’s engagements across the continent as modest investments in terms of personnel, skills, and equipment which can reap large dividends and that, even in the current lean times, funds need to be found to maintain the readiness of America’s armed forces to carry out such missions.
Fourth, even though the US military may be best positioned to assist with the military aspects of concluding the struggle against the LRA, in the current austerity, support must be found from the European Union and other international parties for not only for the corollary relief, demobilization, reconstruction, and development efforts that will be required to sustain the peace, but also for military contributions to help bring about that end state. Foremost among those that come to mind is France with its considerable interests in the region as well as a permanent military base in the CAR, where it supports a small multinational force (MICOPAX) created by the subregional Economic Community of Central African States.
Fifth, it should not be forgotten that, with the prevailing competitive global geopolitical and economic conditions, the Atlantic community cannot take its African partners for granted. If the West cannot at least meet their needs, these countries can and will seek other partners who will satisfy their requests—even if some of the deals struck are not necessarily in their best national interests in the long run. 
Finally, whatever the United States and its partners do to support anti-LRA efforts should be balanced against wider human security, democratization, and governance concerns for the region. A common interest in fighting the rebels should not amount to a free pass for governments that need to undertake serious reform.
The decision to help African countries put an end to the murderous Kony and his remaining cultish minions may well be a “war of choice,” as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations labeled it over the weekend. However, it will be the right choice as long the mission remains focused on the goals outlined by the president and limited in its scope to those highly specialized tasks that Special Operations Forces are so expert while leaving the principal operational responsibilities on the host militaries—and there is every reason to think such will be the case given that that Special Operations Command Africa is nowadays headed by Rear Admiral Brian Losey, a Navy SEAL who previously commanded CJTF-HOA and thus not only knows the region well, but also that what is needed there is a very light American footprint and more enhanced African capacity. If such proves to be case, ending this bush war and all the suffering it has caused will not only be consonant with humanitarian ideals, but will also advance some very real strategic interests. 
J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Although he has served on the Senior Advisory Group of the US Africa Command since its inauguration, this commentary is his personal perspective and does not necessarily represent the official views of the US Government or any of its agencies. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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