By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff WriterWashington,
26 October 2011
Lord’s Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony has terrorized citizens of Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan for more than two decades. The LRA is believed to be responsible for the murder, rape and kidnapping of tens of thousands of men, women and children, and the International Criminal Court has indicted Kony and some of his senior commanders for crimes against humanity.On October 14, President Obama announced an expansion of U.S. support for its central African partners who have been trying to end the LRA’s threat to their populations. Approximately 100 U.S. military advisers are being deployed to assist forces of the four countries that are fighting the LRA and want to bring Kony and his top commanders to justice.
U.S. lawmakers in the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee met October 25 to hear from senior Obama administration officials about the U.S. deployment and its mission. Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida described the LRA as “a predatory guerrilla force which has perpetrated some of the most deplorable human rights atrocities known to man.”
Approximately 80 percent of the LRA is composed of abducted children, who are forced to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves, she said. “These children are forced to commit atrocities in front of their families and participate in bizarre indoctrination rituals before being forced to fight,” she said, and even if they manage to escape it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to return home.
“We are not here to today to determine whether Joseph Kony is evil. We know that he is,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Alexander Vershbow, who is assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, said the deployed American personnel will be working in “an advisory and liaison role” with the regional militaries who are countering the LRA, with the goal of strengthening information-sharing, operational cooperation and the overall effectiveness of the region’s efforts.
After years of hard work, those militaries have been able to significantly reduce the LRA’s strength, he said, but despite being weakened, Kony and his top commanders remain at large and “continue to direct the group’s members to commit unspeakable atrocities.”
Vershbow said the U.S. advisers would help fill “key capabilities gaps” by enhancing the regional forces’ ability to “fuse intelligence with operational planning,” which up until now has been “the main handicap to finishing the job” against the LRA.
“The Ugandan and other regional militaries would benefit from increased capacity to acquire and process actionable information on the locations of LRA leaders and to convert that information quickly into operational plans,” he said. “The U.S. advisers deploying for the operation have the right skill sets to help address these capability shortfalls, and the specific timing of this deployment was predicated in part upon the availability of the appropriate U.S. forces.”
Vershbow said most of the 100-member team will be carrying out logistical and other support functions for the few who will actually be advising regional militaries in the field, and he said none of the U.S. forces are being sent to engage LRA forces in combat.
The State Department’s Donald Yamamoto, who is principal deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, told the committee that the deployment of the U.S. military advisers will “increase the likelihood of successful military operations” by regional militaries after years of pursuing Kony and the LRA “across a vast area of densely forested and difficult jungle terrain.”
“As long as the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, and other top commanders remain at large, the LRA will continue to pose a serious regional threat which undermines stability and development,” he said.
Yamamoto said the United States is also continuing its existing programs to help central African communities who have been victimized by the LRA. The Obama administration is helping communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo develop protection plans and join an early-warning network by setting up high-frequency radios and mobile phone towers, and hopes to expand the network to the Central African Republic as the country’s telecommunications infrastructure is expanded.
The United States is also working with regional governments to help LRA fighters peacefully disarm, leave the organization and return to their homes. “Over the coming months we will continue to work with the regional governments to ensure that the rank-and-file fighters and abductees who escape the LRA have the necessary support to be reunited with their families and reintegrated into normal society,” Yamamoto said.
Ranking committee member Howard Berman of California said he believes it is “squarely” in the U.S. national interest to answer central African nations’ need for assistance and build up their capacity to “fight bad actors on their own.” The LRA “poses a significant threat to the stability of central Africa,” he said.
“I’m very hopeful that the administration’s comprehensive strategy, including the deployment of a modest number of combat-equipped advisers, will finally help turn the tide in the struggle against the LRA,” Berman said.