Obama must learn from past mistakes in fight against Uganda's LRA
Obama’s deployment of 100 American military advisers to Uganda could help defeat Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. But things could also go horribly wrong. That's what happened before. Still, the factors that led to past failure can be clearly identified – and hopefully avoided.
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Another complicating factor is the current predominance of non-Ugandans in the LRA, including many abducted Congolese and South Sudanese. Any amnesty or prosecutorial effort must take this into consideration. Countries must collaborate to address the cross-regional nature of the problem.Skip to next paragraph
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Similarly, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs have stalled in Uganda and not been implemented in other countries where the LRA has abducted civilians. These kinds of programs need to be coordinated by a regional body like the African Union, with the US and other nations serving in an advisory capacity and offering financial support.
Failure to protect civilians
The fourth and most devastating shortcoming of the last coordinated international campaign was its egregious failure to protect civilians. It is imperative that this time troops are properly trained and mandated to protect population centers vulnerable to LRA reprisal attacks, even if that means there are fewer soldiers available to fight the LRA as a result.
For these four main reasons, Operation Lightning Thunder failed. After several botched attempts at killing or capturing Kony, including an aerial bombing campaign in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo that succeeded in destroying an LRA camp but also included significant civilian casualties, momentum for the operation quickly fell apart.
As the LRA realized that both the political will and military capacities of the three armies were eroding, it went on a rampage of raping, mutilating, and killing civilians it suspected of supporting the operation. The Americans, perhaps not realizing the complexities confronting them from the start, were swiftly criticized by human rights organizations for failing to help ensure the protection of civilians and for providing support and intelligence for an operation that led to widespread human rights abuses. By mid-2009, the operation was effectively over, leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths.
Lessons for this time around
As a new campaign begins, if Uganda, the US, and other partners heed the lessons of Operation Lightning Thunder, they may avoid its failures as well. From Somalia to the Balkans to Libya, US involvement in the internal wars and conflicts of other nations has proven long and costly. Although the intervention in Libya is hardly comparable to this very limited military engagement in Uganda, it may end up serving as a model for these types of operations.
As President Obama stated in his speech at the National Defense University on March 28, 2011, “In such cases, we should not be afraid to act – but the burden of action should not be America’s alone.... Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”
In other words: Learn from your mistakes. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Lead from behind. But do not be afraid to lead.
Nate Haken and Patricia Taft are senior associates at The Fund for Peace. Mr. Haken works on conflict assessment issues in Uganda. Ms. Taft served from 2008-2010 as an adviser to the government of Uganda on war crimes prosecution and its case against the LRA before the International Criminal Court.