The US believes its military intervention in central Africa in pursuit of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is having the desired effect, reducing attacks and improving civilian protection - although analysts have reservations.
In 2011, the US deployed about 100 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and Uganda to assist the region’s military forces in killing or capturing Kony and his senior command, following President Barack Obama Administration’s announcement in November 2010 to deal decisively with the armed group.
Karl Wycoff, the US deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, in a telephone briefing on 22 February, told IRIN: “Over recent months the military of Uganda, CAR, DRC and South Sudan have continued to carry out operations against the LRA. We are supporting them in these efforts. We are providing logistical support to help the Ugandan military sustain its forward operations against the LRA. We are funding, for example, some airlift, fuel and other transport support for their troops. In the DRC we trained and equipped a Congolese battalion that is now operating in LRA-affected areas of the DRC and we are also working with the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO [UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC].”
About US$40 million has been provided by the US so far in support of the Ugandan military effort.
MONUSCO and Congolese forces were involved in recent operations to prevent any repeats of the LRA’s 2008 and 2009 Christmas massacres, he said, and the US was also providing support to CAR and South Sudan military forces.
“With our support, these four military forces continue to make progress in reducing the LRA numbers and keeping them from regrouping. We believe it is critical the militaries in the region continue to work together to keep the pressure on the LRA and protect their own citizens. As we have seen in the past, the LRA will exploit any reduction in military or diplomatic pressure to regroup and rebuild their forces,” Wycloff said.
Still dancing to Kony’s tune
He cited UN statistics saying that in 2011 there were 278 attacks attributed to the LRA and more than 300 abductions, but in the second half of the year, which coincided with the deployment of US troops, incidents “appear” to have decreased - although about 465,000 people in the region were displaced or living as refugees in 2011 because of LRA activities.
Rear Admiral Brian Losey, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, believed the drop in attacks was a result of the US and local military operations and the “numbers of [LRA] fighters have been reduced to 200 or so... We do not have a specific timeline with this mission, nor is it open-ended.”
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However, Phil Lancaster, one of the authors of the 2011 International Working Group on the LRA report, Diagnostic Study of the Lord’s Resistance Army and former head of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration division of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), predecessor to MONUSCO, told IRIN, “Estimates of core numbers have bounced between 250 and 150 for the past 18 months.
“He [Wycoff] doesn't know any more than anyone else what is going on inside the LRA... The important thing now is what Kony is actually doing and as far as anyone can tell, he is still in control and calling the tune the rest of us dance to.”
The LRA, which relies on forced recruitment, and more often than not the use of child soldiers, to bolster its ranks, has largely operated with a core strength of about 250 fighters from its inception in the 1980s, say analysts.
A 22 February briefing note by the Small Arms Survey (SAS), Lord's Resistance Army Update said although in 2012 there had been no reported attacks in South Sudan or CAR since 18 January, “raids in northeastern DRC have increased this year”.
“At least 12 attacks were reported in the first two weeks of February, all in or near areas where LRA groups have attacked during the last three years. Ngilima, Bangadi, Dungu and areas around Faradje have been consistently targeted by LRA combatants, indicating a return to old bases, particularly in Garamba National Park,” the update said.
Lack of regional cooperation
The SAS update also questioned the level of cooperation between regional forces and the DRC, considering President Joseph Kabila’s government antipathy towards Ugandan troops on its soil. Of the four contributing military forces, Ugandans are viewed as the most professional.
“Ugandan troops are not officially allowed to enter the DRC, even though the Congolese army units located in areas with an LRA presence are notoriously incapable of dealing with the rebels... This refusal to allow Ugandan troops, and by association US advisers, to enter the DRC has impeded the Americans’ drive to remove top LRA commanders from the battlefield,” the SAS update said.
Resolve, a US-based advocacy NGO, said in a February 2012 report, Peace Can Be. President Obama’s chance to help end LRA atrocities in 2012, questioned Uganda’s commitment to continued operations against the LRA, as its border regions were no longer threatened by the armed group and since 2009 it has withdrawn more than half its soldiers dedicated to the pursuit of Kony and his senior commanders.
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Uganda’s military is also heavily committed to the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which in recent days has seen a renewed emphasis by the international community to resolving the conflict in the country.
Measuring success against the LRA in terms of reduced attacks was also questioned.
“In the second half of 2011, the LRA dramatically reduced its attacks, particularly those involving killings of civilians. Regional military forces interpret these trends as a sign that the rebel group’s capacity has been severely deci¬mated. However, the LRA’s proven ability to protect its core commanders and to regenerate itself if given the op¬portunity should inspire caution.
“LRA commanders may be intentionally reducing violence against civilians in the hopes that renewed US and regional initiatives lose mo¬mentum. If current initiatives fail to break apart the LRA’s command structure, the group will be poised to survive indefinitely and eventually replenish its strength in the tri-border region,” the report said.
Resolve said the US commitment was also threatened by the 2012 presidential campaign as “the Obama Administration may encounter domestic pressure to withdraw the US military advisers before they have achieved their objectives.”
Among Resolve’s recommendations to end the “predations” of the LRA, was “convincing” Uganda to devote more troops to the fight, increasing “intelligence and aerial mobility support to the Ugandans”, and “especially to ensure that Congo [DRC] allows the Ugandan military conditional access to Congolese territory affected by the LRA”.