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In October 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama sent around 100 Special Forces soldiers to back the Ugandan army’s hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony. The American forces provided advisory, intelligence, and logistical support, transporting Ugandan troops to the remote regions of Central Africa where the rebels had been spotted.
Since then, the LRA has become a shadow of its former self. The group has not recently carried out any large-scale attacks, such as the so-called Christmas massacres of 2008, in which its fighters killed more than 800 people in northern Congo. Its ranks have thinned to fewer than 100 loosely organized fighters, down from roughly 400 in 2010. (At the peak of its power in the late 1990s, the LRA controlled nearly 3,000 combatants.) And many of the group’s commanders have either surrendered or been killed. Survival, not rebellion, has become the LRA’s raison d’être.
In April, the United States and Uganda ended their mission against the LRA, withdrawing their forces from the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Kony is still at large, however, and neither local army units nor UN peacekeepers can put an end to the LRA or adequately protect civilians from its assaults. That is why the United States should increase its support for the United Nations’ mission in the CAR and do more to help professionalize that nation’s army.
Joseph Kony founded the LRA in 1987 as an armed rebellion against the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. With covert support from the Sudanese government, Kony filled the LRA’s ranks with young men and women abducted in northern Uganda. In 2005, as part of a peace treaty aimed at ending a civil war, Sudan declared that the LRA would have to abandon its bases in the country. The group soon decamped for Congo, where it came under attack from the Ugandan army in December 2008. After that offensive failed to defeat the LRA and led to large-scale retaliatory attacks against Congolese civilians, Ugandan troops pursued LRA groups throughout northeastern Congo and, from June 2009, into the neighboring Central African Republic. The LRA suffered severe losses in that year, thanks mostly to the Ugandan army’s persistence.
By late 2011, Kampala’s campaign had slowed, as the LRA moved beyond the reach of Ugandan forces. The U.S. military mission, called Observant Compass, gave it a boost. Between the arrival of U.S. forces in 2011 and late 2013, the LRA suffered more losses, likely halving in size from 400 to 200 fighters. In January 2013, Ugandan forces killed Binansio Anum, a commander who played a crucial role in the LRA’s ivory-poaching operations. Later that year, they killed Okot Odhiambo, a deputy of Kony who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Between 2012 and early 2017, a number of influential LRA figures—including Caesar Achellam, George Okot, Okello Okutti, Dominic Ongwen, and Opiyo Sam—surrendered, responding to the pressure placed on them by Ugandan forces and to the so-called defection messaging produced by U.S. military advisers in the form of leaflets and radio broadcasts. Kony became increasingly erratic as his subordinates abandoned him, ordering the execution of several of his own commanders. And as the LRA crumbled, it shed a splinter group—an unprecedented development for the organization.
Observant Compass was unusual in that it deployed elite American troops to help deal with a conflict with no direct bearing on U.S. military interests. The Obama administration saw the mission as a model for preventing atrocities—one in which a small number of highly trained forces could help local authorities quell violence in places far from the United States.
In recent years, however, U.S. military planners came to see Observant Compass as a drain on Washington’s other security commitments in Africa, such as fighting al Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Libya. They were frustrated by the failure of the search for Kony—which one U.S. commander compared to “looking for a needle in a million haystacks.” And they were troubled by the cost of the mission, which at first was expected to last months, not years.
Making matters worse, the Ugandan army’s interest in the anti-LRA mission was lukewarm. On several occasions, Kampala announced that it would withdraw its troops from the campaign—attempts, it seemed, to pressure Washington into blunting its criticism of Museveni’s semi-authoritarian rule. (Until now, the Ugandans never followed through on those threats.) At the same time, relations between the Ugandan and American troops have deteriorated. In May, for example, Washington disinvited Peter Elwelu, a Ugandan army commander once in charge of anti-LRA operations, from a U.S.-led training event in Malawi, because soldiers under his command had killed more than 150 mostly unarmed people in an operation in western Uganda in November 2016. (In an apparent reward for that operation, Museveni promoted Elwelu in January, placing him in charge of Uganda’s land forces.)
Meanwhile, the influence of the American advocacy groups pushing Washington to counter the LRA has waned. Nongovernmental organizations such as Invisible Children, Resolve, and the Enough Project helped secure bipartisan support for U.S. action against the LRA in the first decade of this century, culminating in a 2010 law that led to the creation of a multilateral strategy to eliminate the threat posed by the LRA and support the region’s rehabilitation. Since then, Resolve has folded and Invisible Children has shifted its attention to field programs in Central Africa. That such pressure has lessened should be no surprise, given the mission’s unexpected longevity. The fight against Kony and the LRA received more attention and funding than most of its advocates had hoped it would in the early days of the Obama administration.
The LRA is weaker than ever. But its decline could be reversed if Kony or his sons end their policy of promoting only Ugandan recruits—who are hard to find in western Sudan and the eastern CAR—to positions of power. Without such a change, the group’s downward spiral will continue, even without the presence of U.S. or Ugandan troops.
The withdrawal could create other problems, however. In the eastern Central African Republic, it could create a vacuum, allowing armed groups from neighboring South Sudan and former factions of the Seleka—the rebel coalition that overthrew the CAR’s government in 2013—to severely harm civilians. In northern Congo, which U.S. and Ugandan forces buffered against the LRA, the group’s fighters could resume their poaching activities in Garamba National Park.
The army of the Central African Republic, known as FACA, should equip and train its soldiers to better protect civilians. The United States has promised to help it do so, and Uganda has also announced that it will help the CAR’s government train its forces. But professionalizing FACA will be difficult, and its troops are not motivated to fight: in early May, a contingent in the town of Obo staged a demonstration to protest the extension of its deployment. Nor does MINUSCA, the United Nation’s peacekeeping force in the CAR, have enough troops to provide basic protection to the civilians in the area. The expected cuts to Washington’s funding for UN peacekeeping missions could worsen this situation, undoing some of the progress that Observant Compass achieved.
The success of campaigns against groups like the LRA depends on the commitment of national governments and international organizations. U.S. leadership is a crucial component. Combined with possible cuts to UN peacekeeping missions, the withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to more civilian deaths and more volatility, the effects of which will be felt far beyond Central Africa.