Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said most of the American forces have landed in Uganda and are beginning to coordinate the efforts of four central African countries as they comb a huge expanse of jungle for Joseph Kony, the messianic founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony and his rebels are accused of killing, maiming, kidnapping and raping thousands of civilians in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan.
Obama administration officials have been vague about how long U.S. forces will remain in central Africa. In congressional testimony recently, a senior defense official said that the mission would last for a matter of “months,” though allowed that it would be reviewed over time.
Ham said the plan is to keep troops in the region until Kony is killed or brought to justice. “That’s the mission,” Ham said in an interview Thursday during a visit to Washington.
The Lord’s Resistance Army has been fighting against the Ugandan government and attacking civilians for nearly a quarter century, but Ham predicted the group “will probably wither” if Kony is apprehended.
“This is not like another organization where if you take the top guy out somebody else can step in,” Ham said in his first public remarks on the Lord’s Resistance Army since Obama deployed the U.S. troops last month. “It really is about him personally.”
Kony is a self-proclaimed prophet whose group emerged from northern Uganda in the late 1980s. The Lord’s Resistance Army is known for its brutality and for conscripting children as soldiers and sex slaves.
The International Criminal Court indicted Kony and four other commanders in 2005 on war-crimes charges. Kony and his core group of about 250 fighters, however, have dodged their pursuers by retreating to jungle hideouts across central Africa.
A smaller group of U.S. military advisers assisted a previous Ugandan-led offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army in late 2008 and early 2009. That operation backfired as Kony’s group escaped and responded by massacring several hundred of civilians.
Congress and human rights groups have pressed the White House to try again, prompting Obama last month to send about 100 Special Operations Forces to the region. Obama has said the troops will primarily advise and train African forces looking for Kony. He said they will not participate in direct combat missions, but are authorized to open fire in self-defense.
It is the largest deployment of U.S. forces to an African conflict zone since Marines landed in Liberia in 2003.
Ham said most of the U.S. forces are based in Uganda, but that a “small number” are working at a joint operations center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said joint activity in the Congo will likely remain limited until after that country holds elections Nov. 28.
In the past, Kony has been able to exploit a lack of coordination among Ugandan, Congolese, South Sudanese and Central African Republic soldiers simply by ducking across the border whenever his pursuers get close. Ham said U.S. trainers will address that weakness by formalizing communications links among the regional forces.
“If we can help apply pressure -- constant pressure -- I think we have a reasonable chance of success,” Ham said. “It’s moving in the right direction. Is it going to be successful next week or the week after? Unlikely, unless there’s the proverbial lucky opportunity.”
Ham and other U.S. officials have said they believe Kony and his senior deputies are currently in the Central African Republic.