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What US manhunt for LRA leaders reveals about Obama's war strategy

Obama is sending 100 Special Operations Forces to central Africa to help track down leaders of the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), a brutal guerrilla group. Surgical strikes at enemy leaders are emerging as the preferred US strategy.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 15, 2011

Girls displaced from their villages by the Lord's Resistance Army in this file photo.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

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Washington

As 100 US Special Operations Forces begin deploying to Africa to help local troops pursue the brutal leader of a murderous rebel group, a clearer picture is emerging of America’s preferred warfare strategy in a time of fiscal restraint: fewer troops, more drones, and the aggressive targeting of enemy leaders by special operations forces.

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In a letter sent to Congress on Friday, President Obama made clear that the specific goal of US forces is to help in “the removal from the battlefield” of Joseph Kony and other senior leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that has killed thousands of civilians, routinely raped women, and abducted hundreds of children.

This hunting of Mr. Kony and his cronies will involve US intelligence support, according to senior defense officials, probably in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, such as the Predator.

US troops will deploy to Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the new nation of South Sudan.

Pentagon officials emphasize that US special operators will not fight – unless they are forced to defend themselves.

“We stress that these US troops will be working to advise and assist regional efforts, not acting independently,” says a senior defense official.

Even so, US Special Forces will bring with them “appropriate combat equipment,” Mr. Obama noted in his letter. What’s more, the mandate for the Special Forces on this mission – ”advising forces that are actively pursuing the LRA” – is relatively aggressive, analysts note.

Outlining in his letter a case for more robust US intervention, Obama made a similar argument – specifically, that past efforts to eliminate Kony have not been robust enough. Since 2008, the United States has provided military assistance to the region to the tune of some $33 million.

Even when coupled with “some limited US assistance,” however, “regional military efforts have thus far been unsuccessful in removing” Kony “or his top commanders from the battlefield,” Obama argued.

Special Operations Forces have been in great demand, particularly in the past few months. The Uganda operation is reported to have been in the works for some time, but that Special Forces didn’t have troops available until recently.

This mission comes on the heels of the US drone strike that killed American-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, and the US Navy SEAL Team 6 attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and on countless first- and second-tier insurgent leaders throughout the border regions of Afghanistan.

At the same time, the US is showing more willingness to intervene in countries where the threat of mass killing of innocents looms large. Defense officials foreshadowed a plan like this latest for Uganda in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review – a document that highlights US strategic intent – which made “preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities” a Pentagon priority.

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