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.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
Girls displaced from their villages by the Lord's Resistance Army in this file photo.

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.

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.

These are unlikely to become troop-intensive operations. In Libya, the US has provided only a handful of ground forces to assist the State Department, while US airstrikes have pummeled pro-Qaddafi forces and drones have beamed back intelligence, all in the name of protecting civilians.

The US military will likely need to become more accustomed to sending smaller groups of troops into areas where they may encounter combat – reinforced by UAV drones for intelligence and possibly armed overwatch – as budget pressures intensify, analysts say.

That’s because counterinsurgency, which was the US strategy for protecting the population in Iraq and early in Afghanistan, is a troop-heavy and extremely expensive endeavor. Now, US strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere is shifting to a combination of counterterrorism – taking out the bad guys with surgical Special Operations and drone strikes – and counterinsurgency where possible in the larger population centers, as US troop levels permit.

Indeed, Obama made it clear, too, that the Special Forces will be aiding local troops in protecting civilians.

For the continent of Africa, where the specter of the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” US military tragedy in Somalia looms large, 100 Special Forces troops are “obviously significant – it’s not everyday that the US commits troops to the ground in Africa,” says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program.

Even so, it is not likely be an easy operation. An estimated 300 to 400 LRA forces remain in the region, and they are dispersed in ungoverned territory, Mr. Downie notes. The US has sent troops to aid the fight against the LRA before: In late 2008 the Pentagon provided some 20 advisers to help coordinate a strategy for attacking the LRA. “In that effort the US was a little more hands off – they provided communications, logistics,” he says.

“It was a complete fiasco,” Downie adds. The LRA's top leadership managed to escape and later took their revenge, directing the killing thousands of civilians in the north of Congo in the following weeks.

As a result, the LRA dispersed into three to five small groups, Downie says, spreading out over “a very wide area – it’s going to be a matter of tracking these guys down in very tough jungle terrain.”

Senior defense officials argue that asking US special operators to train local forces is in many respects a return to their original mandate, which has expanded in the wake of stepped-up strikes on insurgent leaders. The question, say analysts, is how Special Forces – worn down after a decade of wars on two fronts – will respond to the new demand.

It helps, analysts add, that Uganda and the newly created nation of South Sudan welcome the US forces – part of the importance the White House has placed on seeking clear partnerships before deciding to act.

Obama,, for his part, argued that the intervention against the LRA is a matter of national security. Critics aren’t so sure about that. But the White House has a congressional mandate: Lawmakers in May 2010 authorized the president to come up with a regional strategy for dealing with the LRA, after nongovernmental organizations and evangelical Christian groups pleaded for US intervention there.

“That’s why we have these 100 troops sent out there,” says Downie. “This is the first substantial follow-up we’ve had since then.”

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