Is a U.S. military precedent being set in Africa?

Walter Pincus
Reporter December 12, 2011

The United States has undertaken an “armed humanitarian mission” in sending 100 Special Forces troops into Central Africa to help the Ugandan army and other local forces capture or kill the leadership of the cultlike Lord’s Resistance Army.

That’s not my description. It was used Wednesday by William M. Bellamy, director of the National Defense University’s Africa Center and a former U.S. ambassador in Kenya. He also said there were “no good precedents” for what we are doing.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

My thought on hearing “armed humanitarian mission” was: Would this be the precedent for military deployments in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world?

Bellamy was speaking at a U.S. Institute of Peace (IOP) event about efforts to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader, Joseph Kony. For 25 years, Kony has terrorized a wide area of Central Africa where three countries come together. His group’s killing, looting and kidnapping of young boys and forcing them to fight have continued despite sporadic efforts to capture him by Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.

In all, the LRA has abducted 66,000 youth, some forced “to become child soldiers or sex slaves and ordered to commit unspeakable acts,” according to Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who also spoke at the IOP event.

The United Nations has estimated that about 440,000 Africans have been displaced by LRA activities, and while the group’s leadership and core believers have been reduced to nearly 150, they still carried out 250 attacks this year, Carson said.

According to the Ugandan press, dozens of the U.S. Special Forces troops have established a frontline base in Obo, a town in southeastern Central African Republic, to help the regional armies track down Kony and other LRA leaders. The forward-based personnel are there to help with intelligence, communications and logistics operations. They are to fight only in self-defense.

Most people are unaware that President Obama’s Oct. 14 announcement of the Special Forces deployment was done in accordance with a bill that Congress passed in 2009 and was signed into law in 2010. It required the administration to plan and coordinate “diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military elements of United States policy across the region regarding the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

In fact, the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill now before Congress calls for providing “logistic support, supplies, and services and intelligence support” for Ugandan and other forces “participating in operations to mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.” The legislation authorizes $35 million in 2012 and 2013 to cover the costs.

According to a Nov. 21 Congressional Research Service report, the Special Forces unit will cost an additional $4.5 million a month. That figure is on top of U.S. liaison officers from Africa Command dispatched in July 2011 to “to assist host government officials and military commanders who are working to counter the LRA,” the service wrote.

Kony is a bad person, but what’s the history of U.S. attempts to bring him down? In 2001, President George W. Bush placed the LRA on the U.S. Terrorist Exclusion List. In November 2008, in his last months in office, Bush sent fewer than 20 military advisers to support Operation Lightning and Thunder, an anti-LRA effort in Congolese territory carried out by U.S.-trained Ugandan army units and other regional forces.

“Leaky intelligence allowed the LRA leadership to get advance warning of the bombing raid that was supposed to begin the operation,” according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In response, the LRA attacked several Congolese villages, killing more than 400 people.

Since then the State Department has provided more than $41 million in non-lethal aid, such as satellite phones, night-vision goggles and pickup trucks. It also supplies fuel for “contract air support and fuel for [Ugandan army] helicopters,” according to the Congressional Research Service report. The Pentagon has also increased military assistance, providing $4.4 million in June for Ugandan military training along with combat engineer and communications equipment, according to the service.

Carson said the U.S. interest was a humanitarian one. The U.S. military should not be used just to protect American citizens or corporations or keep international waterways open, he told the IOP audience. But it should be used to respond to humanitarian crises as much as strategic ones. “That is what we stand for as a nation,” he said.

How far does the United States take this concept? Boko Haram, a Ni­ger­ian Islamist group, was the focus of a Nov. 30 report by the House Homeland Security’s subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. The panel described the group as “an emerging threat to U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland.” Why? This northern Ni­ger­ia terrorist group has received praise and possibly advice and aid from al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate.

The House panel called for the United States to “work more closely with Ni­ger­ian security forces to develop greater intelligence collection and sharing with the U.S. intelligence community.”

The Obama administration’s 2011 national security strategy for countering terrorism in Africa calls for dismantling al-Qaeda elements and enabling countries “to serve as countervailing forces to the supporters of al-Qaeda and the purveyors of instability.”

Against this background it is worth looking at questions raised by the Congressional Research Service in its discussion of the U.S. Special Forces unit sent to help stop the LRA’s Kony: Is that response “commensurate with the level of threat the LRA poses to U.S. interests and whether the deployment of U.S. military personnel could lead to unintended consequences,” say, if one American is captured or killed? More broadly, the service went on, could this deployment “potentially be viewed as a precedent for U.S. responses in similar situations in the future?”

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