Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What is the Lord's Resistance Army?

Barack Obama's decision to send 100 US troops to Uganda to take part in operations against a group that calls itself "The Lord's Resistance Army" is leaving quite a few people scratching their heads.  And understandably so. 

Well, the obvious question is many people (including myself, and I've studied Africa) asked is, what exactly is The Lord's Resistance ArmyHot Air pretty much nails it when they call it "a cross between the Branch Davidians and the Khmer Rouge, with a special fondness for killing families and then impressing the surviving children into service as soldiers."

I rounded up as much as I could find online about the LRA.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, operated in the north from bases in southern Sudan. The LRA committed numerous abuses and atrocities, including the abduction, rape, maiming, and killing of civilians, including children. In addition to destabilizing northern Uganda from bases in Sudan, the LRA congregated in the Bunia area in eastern Congo. They linked up with the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR) and other rebel groups that were battling with forces from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

The LRA continued to kill, torture, maim, rape, and abduct large numbers of civilians, virtually enslaving numerous children. Although its levels of activity diminished somewhat compared with 1997, the area that the LRA targeted grew. The LRA sought to overthrow the Ugandan Government and inflicted brutal violence on the population in northern Uganda. LRA forces also targeted local government officials and employees. The LRA also targeted international humanitarian convoys and local NGO workers.
The LRA abducted large numbers of civilians for training as guerrillas. Most victims were children and young adults. The LRA abducted young girls as sex and labor slaves. Other children, mainly girls, were reported to have been sold, traded, or given as gifts by the LRA to arms dealers in Sudan. While some later escaped or were rescued, the whereabouts of many children remain unknown.
In particular, the LRA abducted numerous children and, at clandestine bases, terrorized them into virtual slavery as guards, concubines, and soldiers. In addition to being beaten, raped, and forced to march until exhausted, abducted children were forced to participate in the killing of other children who had attempted to escape. Amnesty International reported that without child abductions, the LRA would have few combatants. More than 6,000 children were abducted during 1998, although many of those abducted later escaped or were released. Most human rights NGOs placed the number of abducted children held captive by the LRA at around 3,000, although estimates varied substantially.
Civil strife in the north of Uganda led to the violation of the rights of many members of the Acholi tribe, which was largely resident in the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum. Both government forces and the LRA rebels, who themselves largely are Acholi, committed violations. LRA fighters in particular were implicated in the killing, maiming, and kidnapping of Acholi tribe members, although the number and severity of their attacks decreased somewhat compared with 1997.
The LRA rebels stated that they fought for the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. They were notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to become rebel fighters or concubines. More than one-half-million people in Uganda's Gulu and Kitgum districts had been displaced by the fighting and lived in temporary camps, protected by the army.
The Atlantic:

When the Lord's Resistance Army showed up in the Central African Republican village of Obo in 2008, everyone who refused to join them was killed. One of the men they scooped up, Daba Emmanuel, would spend the next year as one of the LRA's slave-soldiers. Indoctrinated, abused, and eventually forced to perform raids like the one against Obo, he survived to tell journalist Graeme Wood his story. "We killed the old immediately, and kept the young for work," Emmanuel said.

Recalling one raid on a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he told Wood that his small LRA faction began by gathering all the villagers together. "We put them into the church and closed the doors," Emmanuel remembered. They'd been ordered to steal supplies and find new children to make into slaves. "We entered only to choose some small girls and boys. The rest we burnt." They killed anyone who tried to escape with machetes, logs, or stones -- new recruits like Emmanuel were not trusted with rifles. As with similar groups, it's children who make the most loyal soldiers -- once their home has been destroyed, their language forgotten, and their religion replaced with a cult-like worship of LRA leader Joseph Kony, betrayal or escape is much less likely.

Part insurgency and part cult, the Lord's Resistance Army has waged a 20-year campaign of terror across Uganda, where it originally formed in opposition to the government there, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan. It raids villages, massacres for no other purpose than bloodlust, enslaves child soldiers and child sex slaves, drugs its captives to make them more violent, all in an apparently endless mission that has destroyed countless villages and killed thousands of civilians, transforming one of the world's least governed spaces into one of its most dangerous.
The Seattle Times:
For two hours, terrified villagers told Brig. Gen. Chefe Ali, army commander of the north, of atrocities and attacks by a fanatic Christian fundamentalist cult led by a self-proclaimed prophet with a murderous manner.
Okeya Santo recounted how members of the Lord's Resistance Army shouted, "Teachers come out!" when they came to his hamlet late last year.
When the 32-year-old schoolteacher emerged from his hut, they shot him in the chest and both arms. "I said, `You are killing me for no reason,' " Santo recalled, his right arm now amputated at the elbow. "They said: `You are a teacher. We don't want teachers.' "
On March 22, the guerrillas returned. This time they burned 17 thatch-roofed huts and the local school. Four villagers stepped on land mines left by the retreating rebels: One villager was killed, and three lost limbs.
At least 250 killed
Since stepping up their attacks in early February, members of the Lord's Resistance Army have killed at least 250 people, mostly civilians, and abducted hundreds more. They say their goal is to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni and to install a regime dedicated to enforcing the Ten Commandments.
Museveni has led his long-suffering country into the modern world since he seized power in 1986. The economy is now the fastest-growing in Africa, the press is free, and presidential elections are scheduled for May. Foreign donors and investors have poured in more than $1 billion in hopes that Uganda's long years of tyranny and terror are finally over.
But Uganda's progress, at least in the north, is now held hostage by a former Roman Catholic altar boy named Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.
"They kidnap, they kill, they rape and they maim," said a senior Western diplomat in Kampala, the capital.
Government officials compare Kony's brutality to that of Pol Pot's savage Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and his zealotry to a now-dead American. "We call him Africa's David Koresh," said Maj. Kale Kayihura, the army's political commissar, referring to the leader of the ill-fated Branch Davidian cult.
So I guess Hot Air's description wasn't exactly original.  It's still a good 'un.  IRIN dscribes their organization:
The LRA is made up of small brigades - independent clusters of 10 to 20 soldiers. They work with speed and aggression and have been effective in spreading widespread terror with very few combatants. According to the Ugandan government, there are only 500-1,000 soldiers in total, many of the original LRA combatants having been killed in conflict or died of ill health, including HIV/AIDS.

However, these figures are disputed. Military sources and international observers in Southern Sudan estimate that there could be as many as 3,000 LRA fighters, with about 1,500 women and children in tow.

Highly centralised and disciplined, the LRA has shown itself responsive to ceasefire orders, but the brigade structure means orders can take time to reach the units. The Ugandan and Sudanese governments are aware of ‘copycat’ groups that ambush and kill in areas affected by the rebellion, which sometimes get blamed on LRA.

The LRA has benefited from tacit, underground support from communities in northern Uganda, despite its brutality. Collaborators are used to provide information, batteries, rubber boots and other basic supplies. LRA raids target communication tools, medical supplies and food. Copycat groups are usually older men who go for high-value goods and cash.
The worst part is their "conscription" of children:

Abductions and killings have been a feature of the movement, and have persisted in Sudan, with reports of about 15 Sudanese children known to have been abducted by the LRA over the past year. Abducted children are usually tied together and used as porters; their fate is unpredictable. Some are shot or killed, some are released, others are kept by the movement. Former abductees report being forced into murderous initiation rites. Forced to kill their relatives and friends, children feel they are unable to return to their families and community. Extreme fear is used to keep the children with the movement, while they undergo military training.

According to military sources in the region, the young recruits were trained in Sudan during the time the LRA received support from the government in Khartoum. The children are brought back into the bush, used as porters, and subjected to an initiation rite where they are forced to kill someone – often children who try to flee. “It is a way of bringing the child into a position of absolute obeisance,” explained one source close to the LRA. Then they are sent to training facilities for about two months, and taught how to shoot, operate in the bush, raid and ambush, use hand and whistle signals, and take orders. After training they are deployed to different units.
Why are we going in now? Back to The Atlantic:

A 2009 U.S. law authorizing financial support to Uganda against the LRA cites studies finding the LRA had abducted 66,000 children and displaced two million civilians. Last year, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth -- no hawk -- called on Obama to use U.S. military force against the Lord's Resistance Army. Roth cited the group's overwhelming humanitarian toll, its small size, and (unlike, for example, the Taliban) its extreme unpopularity among the populations it terrorizes.

The U.S. already supplies intelligence and a few million dollars to the Ugandan government in its totally failed quest to stop the LRA and to capture Joseph Kony, who is under indictment for war crimes from the International Criminal Court. On Friday, President Obama announced he would be sending approximately 100 U.S. combat troops to "act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces." Special forces will be among them. The troops will not fire unless fired upon, but they will be able to provide much-need intelligence and organizational support to the Ugandan forces; they will also provide an important check on Uganda's troops, who might be tempted toward less-than-legal behavior as they crash around Central Africa.
They seem less than impressed with Obama's decision here:
Obama's decision to send 100 troops is a microscopically small deployment compared to the broader U.S. military diaspora: hundreds of thousands of troops in dozens of countries. The list of countries with around 100 or more U.S. troops might surprise you: Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, and Djibouti, to name a few. That list would probably be a lot longer if it included special forces deployment. Last year, Marc Ambinder reported that Obama had approved special forces bases and operations across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. But those operations, large and small, target terrorist groups and rogue states that threaten the U.S. -- something the Lord's Resistance Army could not possibly do.

If this if the humanitarian mission that the Obama administration says it is, and if it achieves the humanitarian goals it is setting out to achieve, it would be harder to find a more suitable target than the Lord's Resistance Army. Since World War Two, the U.S. has often presented its military, overwhelmingly the most powerful on Earth, as a force for good and global stability. In execution, it has been a force for furthering U.S., not global, interests -- just like every other national military. Some U.S. military actions, such as the intervention in Libya or the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, were sold as efforts for global peace, and that was probably part of the motivation, but they were also designed to promote American interests: to remove threats and replace them with friendly faces.

It's difficult to find a U.S. interest at stake in the Lord's Resistance Army's campaign of violence. The group could go on killing and enslaving for decades -- as they well might -- and the American way of life would continue chugging along. It's possible that there's some immediate U.S. interest at stake we can't obviously see. Maybe, for example, Uganda is offering the U.S. more help with peacekeeping and counterterrorism in East Africa, where the U.S. does have concrete interests, in exchange for the troops. But it certainly looks like a primarily or purely humanitarian military mission, if a very small one. The Obama administration is hoping that these 100 troops will succeed where past U.S. assistance against the LRA -- intelligence, satellite images, fuel, and millions of dollars -- has failed. Maybe they will and maybe they won't. But this seems to suggest a small but important shift in how, where, and why the U.S. uses applies military force.
Similarly, Hot Air is not exactly overwhelmed, though not necessarily underwhelmed, either.  I guess that means it's just plain whelmed.  And then there's J.E. Dyer:

The basic criticism is that the move repeats the worst error committed in past deployments of US troops: sending task forces too small to achieve anything decisive, and giving them vague, open-ended missions. The grand debacle of Vietnam started out in precisely this manner. As the troop levels expanded the mission crept ever outward, but only briefly ceased being vague and open-ended – when Nixon implemented a strategy designed to get a negotiated bargain so US troops could leave. South Vietnam fell less than three years later.

The other classic examples from recent years are the deployment of Marines to Lebanon, which resulted in the bombing of their barracks by Hezbollah in 1983 and the loss of 241 Marines, and the US deployment to Somalia in 1993, which ended with the bloody street battle in Mogadishu commemorated by Black Hawk Down, in which 19 Army soldiers were killed. Both of these deployments were characterized by vague, open-ended missions, and, in consequence, poorly conceived force levels and operational postures. Both ended with ignominious withdrawals.

But there are other reasons for concern. The most fundamental one, in my view, is that there is no real operational mission for the US advisers, as advisers and trainers. The State Department policy statement on the deployment is as non-specific as it’s possible to be while still using English nouns and adjectives. But it’s not just the vagueness of the mission; it’s the fact that, based on a military analysis of the situation, there isn’t one.
I don't know that I agree with that.  The US has had some involvement in the war against the LRA, just not boots on the ground.  And the statute certainly gives some guidance as to the mission.  But Dyer continues:

The big, strategic picture is that we are apparently proposing to transport the AfPak head-hunting model to Central Africa. The deployment envisioned would be suitable for using drones against the LRA leadership in the same way we have been using them against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban/Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It is not suited for anything else that would actually be of use, either to a well-defined mission or in the conditions on the ground. That the Obama administration is wedded to the drone-warfare method is flashing-neon obvious. But the question remains why we appear to be opening a new front with it in Central Africa.

The US troop footprint is reportedly intended to expand to South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Putting small troop contingents in any of them is dicey; putting them in DRC borders on idiotic. DRC has been wracked by civil war for years, and Uganda and Rwanda back warring factions in the country. It is not possible to “fight the LRA” in DRC without taking sides in DRC’s internal conflict. The US has effectively taken sides before, but not with US troops on the ground in DRC. With troops in country, the cost of taking sides would be higher by an order of magnitude.

Without dismissing the horrors perpetrated by the LRA, it is still possible to see another option. The Bush 43 administration put a great deal into Africa, building up the US engagement infrastructure there by beefing up diplomatic missions and creating Africa Command, along with service component commands; bolstering ties with African nations (including dramatic increases in our economic and military cooperation); and fostering and supporting African regional initiatives.

US support to the AMISOM effort in Somalia is one example to build on: the LRA problem is a natural fit for the African Union. An AU-managed effort, or even an ad hoc coalition of the nations affected by the LRA, is a better approach than deploying US troops to a single nation, with vague plans for expansion and no clear political scope delineated for the campaign.

In 2001, the US had been attacked on 9/11 by a terrorist force that used Afghanistan as a base and was materially supported by the Taliban. In 2011, the US is wholly unaffected by the LRA. Countering the LRA is a worthwhile cause to support, but it is one the African nations should have the lead on, in terms of political commitments and a defined plan. There is no evidence from the Obama administration’s announcement that they do. There is no reference to a regional coalition, to the African Union, or to an African initiative.

Indeed, the US action is strategically disembodied – like the “responsibility to protect” justification used for the Libya operation in March – in every aspect. The risk of mission-creep and situation-force mismatch is exceedingly high. We are right to be gravely concerned about where this is leading.
There is reason to be concerned.  But not every troop deployment need be a slippery slope.  I agree we should explore further diplomatic options in Africa in dealing with the LRA, especially given that we do not seem to have any important national interests here, but I'll give Obama the benefit of the doubt on this one for now.  The LRA is a bunch of really bad guys.  If we can get rid of them with minimal commitment and no pain for us, I say do it.

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