Last week, President Obama sent a letter to Congress announcing the deployment of a “small number of combat equipped US forces to Central Africa in order to provide assistance for regional forces that are working towards the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield.”
Kony leads the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that has been responsible for numerous atrocities including rape, murder and kidnapping that have reportedly left thousands of people dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes. Obama noted that the LRA’s actions “have a disproportionate impact on regional security” and that the troop deployment “is in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
What is interesting about the letter was its timing, from a couple of perspectives. First, the announcement occurred on a Friday and attracted relatively little media attention, especially given the importance of the mission where US national security interests are at stake. In fact, the Sunday morning news shows hardly mentioned the announcement. Was this an attempt by the administration to quietly add another troop deployment to the list of current commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? This leads to the second point of interest: what has changed in Central Africa to warrant this action? In his letter, Obama cited the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 where Congress expressed its support for the “development of a regional strategy to support multilateral efforts to successfully protect civilians and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA.” However, the LRA has been committing these brutal acts of violence for over two decades – so, why deploy troops now? Does this suggest a renewed focus in this region and, if so, to what end? Reporter David Axe was correct when he observed that “Obama’s announcement raised more questions than it answered.”
Perhaps one reason for the letter’s timing is concern about a renewed surge of LRA violence against civilians and the Obama administration’s “responsibility” to protect them from mass atrocities. This concept has seen a revival in US strategic thinking as demonstrated in Libya where the United States, under the authorization of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and with the backing of the Arab League, used military force to stop the late-Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from committing mass murder. One could argue that Obama’s troop deployment announcement continues this trend. According to Human Rights Watch and UN documentation, the LRA carried out at least 120 attacks, killing 81 civilians and abducted 193 (many of them children) in the first four months of this year. Additionally, in May of this year a coalition of 39 human rights and other organizations implored the Obama administration to take a more direct role in ending LRA atrocities. Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve, said that ““The administration has improved some of its efforts, but, by and large, has failed to strengthen civilian protection or apprehend the LRA’s top leaders.”
Another reason for Obama’s announced troop deployment is to support allies in the region. Consider that Uganda has long been a US ally under President Yoweri Museveni, while the Uganda People’s Defense Force is spearheading the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that has been fighting armed militant and terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab (that announced its alliance with Al Qaeda earlier this year) since 2007. Having recently visited Uganda, despite its challenges one can sense the economic potential of the country that is blessed with natural resources including recently-discovered oil reserves, increased foreign investment and a population that appears determined to succeed. Deploying US troops to assist in Uganda’s efforts to defeat the estimated 200 to 400 LRA fighters that originated in the country back in 1987 sends a clear signal of commitment to President Museveni and other allies in the region.
The president was clear that the total US military commitment will consist of approximately 100 personnel who will act as “advisors” to select partner nation forces. Although functioning in an advisory capacity, it is worth noting that these troops will be armed and authorized to directly engage LRA forces in self-defense. According to the Department of Defense, these troops will primarily consist of special operations forces and are expected to deploy to Uganda, newly created South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Given the ongoing US troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is possible that these scarce assets have been planned by US Africa Command for some time but only recently become available for tasking, which may also account for the timing of Obama’s announcement.
Of course, one must consider the strategic risks associated with any commitment of US military forces, regardless of the size and nature of the deployment. Recall that in 1992, President George H.W. Bush sent US troops and other assets to Somalia to ensure the delivery of food aid in order to stop starvation and improve the dire humanitarian situation. Despite these altruistic intentions, President Clinton withdrew all US forces following the now-infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident that resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers in October 1993. One could argue the possibility of a similar situation occurring in Central Africa as these military advisors conduct operations against armed fighters with a proven track record of extreme violence. Additionally, there is a risk of “mission creep” as these forces become more deeply involved in the conflict – one need only consider the US experience in Viet Nam as an example. That said, proper congressional oversight could mitigate these risks by keeping the mission narrowly focused and in accordance with a strict timeline, while ensuring a small US military footprint in the region.
Obama’s announced troop deployment presents an opportunity to support and enable partner nations in Central Africa to defeat the LRA (a common threat), while building capacity in a longer-term effort that promotes regional solutions to regional problems. Consider former-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ 2008 National Defense Strategy that states, “Arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves.” Although there are some risks associated with the upcoming troop deployment, this renewed focus might result in enhanced regional stability (a US national interest) that cannot be underestimated in a region of the world where peace cannot be taken for granted.
Jim Cook is a retired Army officer and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are his own.