President Obama has ordered a sharp increase in U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to Uganda and sent U.S. military aircraft there for the first time in the ongoing effort to hunt down warlord Joseph Kony across a broad swath of central Africa.
The CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refueling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Operations forces and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes, according to Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. At least four Ospreys will be deployed.
The White House began to notify Congress, under the War Powers Act, of the new deployments as they began Sunday night. Dory and other officials emphasized that the Ospreys will be used for troop transport and that the rules of engagement for U.S. forces remain the same as for about 100 Special Operations troops that Obama first sent to help find Kony in October 2011.
U.S. personnel are authorized to “provide information, advice and assistance” to an African Union military task force tracking Kony and his organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), across Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo. While combat-equipped, they are prohibited from engaging LRA forces unless in self-defense.
The new War Powers Act notification sets the approximate total for all U.S. forces in Uganda at 300.
Kony, whose forces have spent years attacking central African villages, mutilating civilians and stealing children, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. His organization is thought to have been decimated in recent years through military action against it and defections.
LRA attacks have decreased significantly and the number of people killed has dropped more than 75 percent since 2010, said Grant Harris, a special assistant to Obama and senior African affairs director for the National Security Council. Three of the organization’s five commanders have been “removed . . . from the battlefield” since May 2012, he said, including “credible reporting” that second-in-command Okot Odhiambo was killed late last year.
But Kony has not been definitively sighted for some time. His force is now thought to number no more than 250 fighters who shift position frequently within a wide area across the target countries. Most recently, he has been thought to be somewhere in the heavy jungle of the eastern Central African Republic, a country in the midst of political upheaval and virtually without a government.
U.S. and A.U. forces pursuing Kony operate out of bases in Uganda. Administration officials who described the new deployments insisted they did not imply any weakening in the Obama administration’s criticism of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni for signing a new law imposing harsh penalties for “homosexual offenses.”
Obama warned that the law, passed last month by the Ugandan parliament, was a “step backward for all Ugandans,” and the administration said it would review bilateral relations, including $400 million in annual U.S. aid to Uganda.
“Ensuring justice and accountability for human rights violators like the LRA and protecting” the rights of gay and transgendered persons “are not mutually exclusive,” Harris said.
He said the administration has already moved to shift funding away from partners “whose actions don’t reflect” U.S. values, including $6.4 million that had been designated for the Interreligious Council of Uganda, which has supported the legislation.
A planned survey of key populations at risk for HIV, to be jointly conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Uganda University, has also been suspended because “we think proceeding could cause danger to staff and respondents,” Harris said.
He said that approximately $3 million in tourism and biodiversity promotion programs has been transferred from the Ugandan government to nongovernmental organizations. The Pentagon has also shifted regional military conferences that were to be held in Uganda to other locations.
“We are continuing to look at additional steps we might take,” Harris said, and “continue to urge Uganda to repeal the law.”
Dory, at the Pentagon, declined to specify the exact number of Ospreys that are being sent to Uganda or where they would be based inside the country.
The Pentagon, the State Department and A.U. task force commanders requested the aircraft last year to better enable the quick transport of troops to areas where they have received intelligence about Kony.
Ospreys are tilt-rotor aircraft capable of landing and lifting straight off the ground like helicopters, but they can also fly and land as fixed-wing planes. They are faster, and with their refueling capability, they can fly farther than the small, fixed-wing contract aircraft being used in the mission.
Each can carry about 24 troops, and the aircraft are equipped with .50-caliber machine guns for self-defense. “They will make a significant difference in the ability to respond to leads” about Kony’s whereabouts, many of them generated through growing defections from Kony’s ranks, Dory said.
The deployment is also “an excellent example of being able to share assets between different combatant commands,” she said. Normally based in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, under the U.S. Central Command — which oversees the Middle East — the Ospreys are temporarily being transferred to the Africa Command. The deployment is temporary, officials said, but they provided no estimate of how long they will remain in Uganda.
The LRA poses no threat to the United States, but the administration sees assistance to the A.U. mission as a useful way to build military and political partnerships with African governments in a region where al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are rapidly expanding, as well as to demonstrate adherence to human rights principles.
Although critics accuse Obama of “weakness” in Syria and the administration has been challenged by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the Uganda action is a relatively inexpensive way to show resolve in a popular cause.
LRA atrocities publicized on the Internet sparked interest among tens of thousands of young people in the United States, many of whom wrote their members of Congress. In 2009, Congress passed legislation expressing “support for increased, comprehensive U.S. efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.”