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Moment of Truth: The Potential and Limits of the US Military’s Counter-LRA Deployment

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Executive Summary

In October 2011, President Obama announced the deployment of nearly 100 US military advisers to central Africa to assist Ugandan and regional military forces in defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group that has committed atrocities against civilians in the region for over two decades.

While just over half of the 100 advisers are based in Uganda, where the LRA has not operated since 2006, the rest are deployed to four bases in Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo), and South Sudan, all countries where the LRA continues to threaten civilians.

In the first seven months of their deployment, the advisers have had a significant impact.1 They have helped streamline logistical and intelligence support to Ugandan military forces, now authorized by the African Union (AU), that are primarily focused on pursuing senior LRA commanders in southeast CAR. This has led to more intense military pressure on LRA groups and enabled more LRA combatants there to escape. The advisers have established operations and intelligence “fusion centers” in forward operating locations. They have also worked with State Department field staff dedicated to counter-LRA efforts to improve crossborder information-sharing on LRA activity among both military and civilian actors, and to strengthen civilian protection efforts. US advisers and civilian staff have also played a key role in expanding “come home” messaging distributed through leaflets and FM radio broadcasts to encourage defection of LRA combatants in southeast CAR.

In May 2012, Ugandan forces struck the first significant blow to the LRA’s senior command structure in over two years by taking Maj. General Caesar Achellam into custody after weeks of tracking him through the forest. His removal demonstrates that targeted military operations can still be effective as a tool to weaken the LRA’s command structure. Information that Achellam shares will provide Ugandan forces with better insight into the LRA’s inner dynamics and strategies, and his departure from the LRA also can be leveraged to encourage the defection of other rebel commanders and combatants.

However, the LRA remains a grave threat to civilians across a vast swath of central Africa. The LRA committed at least 53 attacks on civilians in the first three months of 2012, including a spike in attacks in southeast CAR following Ugandan military pressure on the LRA there earlier in the year. The political situation is equally worrisome. The governments of CAR, Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda are distracted by escalating conflicts in the broader region, particularly resurgent violence in Congo’s Kivus region and the threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan. Uganda, whose forces remain the keystone of the current counter-LRA strategy, continues to place a very low priority on ending LRA violence and lacks the capacity to protect civilians from LRA raids. It has reportedly withdrawn all but 800 troops from LRA-affected areas. To escape their pursuers, senior LRA commanders are now gravitating towards areas where Ugandan forces are not currently allowed to operate or have limited logistical capacity to follow them, including northern Congo, northeastern CAR, and Sudan’s Darfur region.

Unless further steps are taken to address shortcomings in existing efforts, Achellam’s removal is likely to be a positive outlier in the midst of years of inconclusive military operations instead of an indication that counter-LRA efforts are finally turning the tide against the rebel group. Dismantling the LRA’s command structure is the key to decisively ending the LRA threat, but no single approach will achieve this goal.

Policymakers must strategically utilize a range of strategies, including military operations, “come home” messaging, conditional negotiations with specific LRA commanders, and diplomatic engagement to ensure LRA commanders find no safe haven in the region. Enhanced civilian protection measures must be incorporated into all of these efforts to mitigate the LRA’s violent backlash in response to failed military operations or negotiations processes, a pattern seen repeatedly in the past.

Far from locking the US into an inflexible military strategy, the deployment of US military advisers in the field has improved the capacity for regional counter-LRA efforts to utilize the full range of measures outlined in President Obama’s comprehensive LRA strategy, released in November 2011. The LRA’s dispersion across the region and Achellam’s removal will likely weaken Kony’s influence over remaining LRA commanders, opening up opportunities for combinations of different approaches to capture or encourage the surrender of remaining LRA forces. Key to the success of any counter-LRA efforts will be tailoring them to specific LRA groups and commanders.

However, more must be done to utilize the skills and expertise the advisers bring to the regional forces pursuing LRA commanders and protecting civilians. US advisers are currently restricted in their movements, limiting their ability to understand patterns in LRA activity and help regional forces respond effectively. They should be allowed greater freedom of movement and more leeway in authorizing the rapid deployment of mobility and intelligence resources to react to reports of LRA activity. US advisers should also expand on current efforts to share information with civilian early warning networks, disseminate “come home” messaging encouraging LRA combatants to defect, and ensure Ugandan forces incorporate civilian protection measures into their operations.

The US military advisers are far from a silver bullet solution to ending the LRA, however, and regional governments and international partners have limited resources available for long-term deployments in counter-LRA operations. The US must work with regional and international leaders to temporarily increase helicopter support, troop levels, and intelligence gathering to ensure that the AU-authorized forces can effectively respond when threats to civilians or opportunities to apprehend senior LRA commanders are greatest. US officials should leverage increased global attention on the LRA, as well as the AU’s increased involvement, to pressure Uganda to send more troops to the theater and to augment their deployment with other capable African troops. The US should also support efforts by the UN and civil society leaders to encourage LRA members to defect via community FM radio stations, leaflets, and conditional negotiations with LRA commanders who stop attacks on civilians.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must also personally engage with regional leaders to unite and prioritize counter-LRA efforts, especially to deny the group any safe haven. For instance, they should work with the AU and United Nations (UN) to convene a side meeting at the heads of state level on the LRA at the UN General Assembly in September 2012. Such a meeting should aim to improve cooperation between LRA-affected countries and to encourage donors to coordinate the funding necessary to implement the joint UN/AU LRA strategy mandated by the UN Security Council, which is scheduled for release in late June.

The State Department should also assign at least one additional counter-LRA field staff member to ensure a greater civilian presence in LRA-affected areas. The field staff already in place has played a critical role in counter-LRA efforts, in part because of their unique mandate to travel to the field and national capitals in all LRA-affected countries. They have helped US advisers establish positive relations with local communities and humanitarian actors, expanded civilian protection and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programming, and coordinated a more united response from relevant US embassies.

Equally important, President Obama must implement elements of his comprehensive LRA strategy to help protect civilians and reduce the space in which the LRA can operate. This should include expanded funding for mobile phones, HF radios, and roads, as well as support for economic development and improved local governance institutions in LRA-affected areas.2 Such efforts can help defeat the LRA in the shortterm, as well as address the conditions of poverty and marginalization that attract predatory groups such as the LRA to this troubled region.