U.S. “special forces” not needed in central Africa

Published (with some edits that are omitted here) on the website of The Guardian (London) on November 29 2010.

It is hard to imagine a more evil man than Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who heads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and President Obama’s new strategy for rooting him out has won praise from US activists who campaigned vigorously for “the humanitarian use of force” in the region.

Yet the pledge to "apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders [of the LRA]" in fact contains little that is new, risks fanning the dying embers of the conflict, and perpetuates US efforts at geopolitical steering of Africa.

The LRA’s indiscriminate violence terrorised civilians in northern Uganda for two decades before spilling into southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Kony and his principal henchmen have been indicted by the International Criminal Court and placed on America’s list of international terrorists.

Yet the conflict in northern Uganda was highly complex. Rooted in the immense difficulty of reconciling the interests of several pre-colonial southern kingdoms and smaller, clan-based polities in the north, it was exacerbated by tensions between the central governments of Uganda and the Sudan, which have both supported insurgencies in each other’s territories.

None of this justifies Kony’s warlordship which, while citing the marginalisation of Acholi people as its rationale, specialises in murder, mutilation and abducting women and children into sexual and military slavery.

But Ugandan government counter-insurgency operations were harsh. They included the internment of 1.8 million civilians in “internally displaced persons” camps with shockingly high mortality rates.

Many Ugandans—including two candidates in the 2011 presidential elections: former UN Under Secretary General, Olara Otunnu, and Democratic Party leader, Norbert Mao—insist that atrocities were committed on both sides. Some argue that the conflict enriched senior Ugandan army officers, who dipped their fingers in the war chest and hoped to steal the land of interned peasants, and deliberately prolonged the war for that reason.

Such complexities are not recognised by US pressure groups, which were hugely successful in mobilising bipartisan support for an LRA Disarmament Act passed by Congress in May. NGOs such as Invisible Children, which organises mock abductions on American campuses, have helped to make crushing the LRA a cause celebre among well-meaning activists, bloggers and journalists.

Not all of these are well informed. A UC Berkeley professor noted in a recent web post that several of his students, who were Invisible Children activists at high school, appeared not to know that the civil war in Uganda was over, and that the overwhelming majority of “internally displaced persons” have returned home.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, was also baying for Kony’s blood last month in a Foreign Policy magazine article which suggested that local armies lack the equipment and skills needed to apprehend the villain—the implication being that America should send in a posse.

This is distinctly chilling coming from the head of the world’s most influential human rights organisation. If it’s okay to send in a posse to take out Kony, why not also take out all the other, in some cases equally vicious, rebel groups in Central Africa? Why not put the whole continent under US military command?

Obama’s strategy is thin on detail and does not rule out US boots on the ground, but he is unlikely to go that far. Yet in order to achieve “removal of Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders from the battlefield” the strategy makes a “multi-year commitment” to provide “enhanced logistical, operational and intelligence assistance in support of regional and multilateral partners.”

But America has already tried this. USD 23 million went in logistical and intelligence support for Operation Lightning Thunder, starting in December 2008. This joint Uganda-DRC offensive aimed to rout the LRA remnants, estimated at some 250 strong, in their then hide-out in the Congo’s Garamba Forest. It was a dismal failure, succeeding only in splintering and scattering those remnants to loot and pillage in Sudan and the Central African Republic, while also straining frail relations between Uganda and DRC. Future missions involving four states with prickly relations will be even more diplomatically and logistically daunting.

Yet the indictments against the LRA appear to rule out non-militarily options. With the door closed on negotiation, efforts to corner Kony on a “battlefield” that spans four countries are likely to press him into further acts of murderous bravado. Yet, as scholarly studies have shown , many northern Ugandans themselves favour a negotiated settlement with traditional reconciliation mechanisms. Thus, even if Kony is killed soon, Western campaigns for retributive justice and an end to impunity may have prolonged and spread the very violence they deplore.

In some lights, American support in mopping up the LRA is a payback for Uganda’s contribution of (US-trained) peacekeepers in Somalia. A more sinister interpretation is that America, whose defence budget is now higher than at any point during or since the Cold War, is gearing up for “strategic” competition with China in Africa, seizing opportunities to strengthen military alliances.

There appears, at least, to be broad convergence of interests between old-school hawks, who believe the only safe world is one dominated by American power, and young idealists who find Kony to be the perfect hate figure. He is an evil brigand, and there would be widespread rejoicing if God struck him down with a thunderbolt. But America is not God.