“American, American, American” a group of enthusiastic children shout at a group of US troops at a dusty roadside in Obo. The once sleepy village in the southeastern corner of the Central African Republic (CAR) is now a logistical hub for joint US-Ugandan operations against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group.
The more-than-two-decades-old rebel group is known for its use of child soldiers to fill the ranks. More than 4,500 people have been abducted by the group since December 2008, and at least 2,300 civilians were killed over the same period. The United Nations estimates that 350,000 civilians have been displaced across central Africa because of LRA atrocities.
The excitement of the children I saw in Odo reflects new optimism among locals – and a renewed sense of safety. The arrival of US Special Forces has had a game-changing impact on the counter-LRA efforts. Their presence provides real hope for ending the rebel group and providing a brighter future for the thousands of people that suffer because of weekly attacks and lootings from the rebels. Local religious and traditional leaders have appealed to US advisers to stay, saying their security has improved. The Obama administration must heed this appeal and ensure that the advisers remain deployed until the senior leadership of the LRA has been removed.
A team of approximately 100 US military advisers was sent to central Africa in late 2011 to help African forces – mainly Ugandan – dismantle the LRA. The US advisers are based in field locations in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and at a tactical headquarter in Uganda. The advisers are combat-equipped but only authorized to use lethal force in self-defense. They rely on partner forces to fight the LRA, and the counter-LRA campaign has yielded measurable progress.
The LRA faces mounting pressure, and is weaker than ever before. Attacks are down by 53 percent since the advisers’ deployment, and LRA killings decreased 67 percent from 2011 to 2012. Reports estimate that only 200 – 300 fighters remain with the group and operate in the border region between CAR, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By contrast, regional counter-LRA military forces are growing stronger. The US advisers have provided hands-on military training for regional troops and have improved their jungle-tracking capabilities, intelligence gathering, and capacity to protect civilians.
Working together with regional forces, international organizations and local civil society leaders, the advisers have promoted LRA defections with “come home” radio messages, fliers and safe reporting sites where LRA fighters can surrender peacefully. The majority of LRA fighters were abducted forcefully – often at a very young age – and desire to escape, but their fear of punishment from rebel commanders or retaliatory attacks from local communities, make them stay with the group. Seventy-nine percent of LRA who surrendered in the past year cited come-home fliers as influential in their escape.
Keeping the US military advisers in place and allowing them to keep working with local forces to build their capacity to contain mutual security threats provides a sustainable and cost-effective model for future US military engagements of this nature. The model should be considered carefully, particularly as defense budgets shrink and appetites wane for direct US combat operations.
US advisers and their regional military partners still need support, because despite progress, the collective counter-LRA operations face severe challenges that hamper efforts to apprehend the senior LRA commanders.
Top leaders, including Joseph Kony, have found safe havens in southern Darfur and the Bas Uele district in Congo. LRA groups are able to move freely in south Darfur, growing vegetables to sustain their survival, and at times receiving medical and arms supplies from Sudanese forces, according to testimonies from LRA defectors. The Sudanese government denies these allegations and does not allow independent African Union and UN verification teams to access the area.
Meanwhile, new LRA safe havens are developing in CAR, where Ugandan counter-LRA operations were suspended from March to September, due to hostility from the Seleka leaders in Bangui who overthrew the previous CAR government in a military coup in March. The destabilized areas, which face humanitarian disaster, provide the LRA with ungoverned spaces to rebuild their forces.
US diplomats should work with UN and African Union partners to place diplomatic pressure on regional governments to support counter-LRA operations, by allowing access to all areas where LRA rebels have found safe haven.
US policymakers and the international community must continue to seek an end to the LRA. The excited and hopeful children in Obo deserve a bright future, and they deserve the right to grow up without fear of brutal LRA attacks. US advisers must remain deployed on the ground, and diplomats must renew efforts to foster regional cooperation towards ending the LRA.
Kasper Agger is a Kampala-based LRA field researcher with the Enough Project. He recently authored the report "Blind Spots: Gaining Access to Areas Where the LRA Operates" as well as "Completing the Mission: U.S. Special Forces Are Essential for Ending the LRA."