How the US-Ugandan strategy of chasing the LRA backfires

While the Ugandan and US strategy of chasing the brutal Lord's Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony, has produced some attrition, it has also generated a massive recruitment campaign by the LRA.

By , Guest blogger

Given yet another famine emergency in the Horn of Africa, seemingly endless violence in the Middle East, and the number of wobbling economies in both Europe and North America, it is understandable that concern about an obscure group of African bush fighters seems limited to a small band of Africa nerds. But the surpassing indifference to the plight of the Azande people, who appear to have been left to the tender mercies of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is so far below the low standard of response common to these sorts of problems that it simply can’t be allowed to pass without comment.

In addition to a long running insurgency that savaged northern Uganda for over 20 years, the murder and mayhem caused by the LRA across south eastern Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past few years was serious enough to bring both houses of the American Congress to set aside partisan politics long enough to agree on legislation.

At about the same time, in August 2010, an international working group comprised of the US, UK, and EU governments with participation from the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping and the World Bank, alarmed at the reports of LRA atrocities, assembled around consensus on the need for effective coordination across all the agencies and governments involved.

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The UN Security Council weighed in again in July 2011 with a second resolution calling for the LRA to disarm and praising the actions taken so far by governments, international agencies and NGOs to address the harms inflicted by the LRA. The Security Council particularly praised the efforts of the AU to organize a coordinated military and diplomatic response.

But what, exactly, has been accomplished?

More press releases, more declarations of intent to capture or kill Joseph Kony, more empty assurances of imminent victory and yet another round of search and destroy operations led by the Ugandan Army. None of this is new and all of it has failed in the past.

The Azande people, an historically marginalized ethnic group of hunters, herders, and farmers living in the border regions of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan have been targeted for special attention by the LRA, are caught in the yawning gap between rhetoric and action. I am reminded of the feeling of abandonment felt by the few who stayed on the ill-fated UN Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda as the outside world decided that their reports of genocide must somehow be exaggerated. Have we all become so cynical that we will let a whole people suffer like this – again?

While the challenges of taking effective action in such a complex environment are indeed daunting, it is the shallow understanding of the military dimensions of the problem that is so disappointing. We have ample evidence from reports of the past 20 years that the LRA are a force to be reckoned with. Ruthless as they are, their tactics are well adapted to the terrain and the nature of the forces they face. And yet the proposed military responses under the new AU offers no new troops, no new thinking and no sign of serious military technical analysis. A cynic might be led to think that no one really wants to look at the problem carefully out of fear of being called to do more than they might want to.

The LRA make deliberate use of terror to tie up military forces and survive by hit and run attacks that are well-planned and flawlessly executed. The military response from UN Peacekeeping and national forces has been totally inadequate insofar as they focus on providing limited static defense of a small number of civilian settlements. The LRA just find the ones that aren’t protected. Since none of the armies deployed have a policy of pursuit after attack, the LRA consistently escape with loot and abducted recruits.

Chasing the leaders, which seems to be the strategy preferred by both the Ugandan People’s Defence Force and the US military, is a hit or miss approach that will call down more attacks on unprotected civilians as the LRA instrumentalise them to send their twisted message and replace battlefield losses by abducting new fighters. While the Ugandan/US strategy has produced some attrition, it has also generated a bloody response and a massive recruitment campaign that seems to have gone unnoticed.

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During interviews conducted as part of some recent research on this subject, UPDF officers presented slides showing the numbers of LRA killed or captured but nothing about the numbers recruited. Subsequent questions revealed that the UPDF were not really interested in recruitment. One suspects a repetition of the ‘victory by body count’ strategy that failed so spectacularly in Vietnam.

It is clear that there will be huge difficulties in finding the right kinds and numbers of troops that would probably be needed to be effective against the LRA. However, it is also clear that repeating failing strategies, no matter whether through the AU or some other agency, will not work – unless exceedingly lucky and Kony and his key leaders are all killed at once.

As a matter of simple logic, and as a first step, the question of who needs to act should be informed by an analysis of what kinds of action are likely to succeed. This could be achieved by competent technical research conducted by one of the military forces involved and it would cost very little when compared with the cost of poorly aimed military strikes. Yet, it doesn’t seem to have been done. Even the wealth of intelligence available from the UPDF has not been shared with the other armies now engaged and so each of them, including the UN Peacekeeping forces, are learning about the LRA the hard way. And learning very slowly.

Nor does anyone appear to have conducted a formal command estimate of the LRA problem. Normally, no serious army would take on any mission without analysis and yet the forces engaged against the LRA seem to be operating on the premise that it’s easier to fight than to think. Surely this must have something to do with political interference with what should be a normal military staffing action. Isn’t it time they are allowed to devote some thought to the battle plan before more civilians pay the price for the inevitable next round of blunders?

As frustrating as the problem of the LRA is, it is also a fascinating mirror reflecting political dynamics in the West. The nub of the political problem could be understood as a manifestation of the hypocrisy of our times. It is as simple as the old children’s story about a village of mice deciding that the solution to their cat problem is to make it wear a bell. The problem seems solved until one of them asks who is going be the brave soul to hang a bell on the cat. In the LRA case each affected state has other priorities and no third party state is willing to commit political or military resources to give either the UN or the AU a real hope of success.

But everyone involved is too polite to point out that neither organization has the capacity it needs and won’t unless someone steps up to take the responsibility to ensure that it does.

“Who shall bell the cat?” But, it would seem, in this case, we haven’t even started looking for a bell.

-- Philip Lancaster, a guest blogger on Jason Stearns' blog Congo Siasa, was Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s Military Assistant in Rwanda before the genocide in 1994 and served as the head of the UN mission in Congo's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration division.

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