The Lord’s Resistance Army

President Obama announced on October 14 that he was sending approximately 100 military advisers to central Africa to assist in efforts to neutralize one of the continent’s most notorious rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Their main task will be to help the militaries of Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR) devise operations to kill or capture the LRA leadership and protect vulnerable citizens in the region. Although the advisers will be armed, they will not participate in combat operations.

Q1: What is the Lord’s Resistance Army?

A1: The LRA is one of a succession of armed groups that emerged in the Acholi district of northern Uganda in the late 1980s. Already poor and underdeveloped, Acholiland was politically marginalized when Yoweri Museveni, who comes from the southwest, seized power in 1986. The LRA’s recipe for reviving its fortunes was spiritual purification, to be achieved by violent resistance to the new government and an internal purge of those who collaborated with it. Its leader, Joseph Kony, is a self-styled prophet and medium whose spiritual powers elicit fear and devotion from his followers, many of whom were abducted as children in LRA raids on villages and schools. The LRA has carried out shocking atrocities, hacking off limbs and cutting off the noses, lips, and ears of its victims, in order to create fear among the general population and warn them against assisting the authorities.

A series of brutal counterinsurgency campaigns by the Ugandan military and the decision by the regime in Sudan to cut off critical financial and logistical support eventually forced the LRA to the negotiating table in 2006. The International Criminal Court also increased the pressure, issuing arrest warrants against Kony and four of his lieutenants for crimes against humanity. Peace talks got under way but dragged on without any outcome and eventually broke down in late 2008. This triggered a renewed military campaign that has reduced LRA numbers to between 200 and 400 fighters but has failed to kill or capture the senior leadership.

Since the mid-2000s, the LRA has migrated from its original base in Uganda, seeking refuge in the remote hinterland on the borders of the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. The group has long since abandoned any political agenda; its sole objective is to survive. Its main method for doing so is attacking and looting villages and forcibly recruiting young people as soldiers and sex slaves.

Q2: Why is the United States getting involved?

A2: The United States has been allergic to putting “boots on the ground” in Africa since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. This wariness persists, but there has been a slight shift under the Obama administration, which has placed a greater emphasis on the need to protect civilians and is ready to contemplate military action in support of that objective. The imperative of shielding the citizens of Benghazi from the attacks of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi was the justification for U.S. military intervention in Libya, although ground forces were not used in that instance.

In the case of the LRA, President Obama has been mandated by Congress to take action. In May 2010, Congress enacted the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and North Uganda Recovery Act, following a long campaign from human rights groups. The legislation called on the White House to devise a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the LRA, although it did not commit any funds to do so. In late 2010, the White House announced its broad approach, which contained plans to apprehend Kony and his commanders, encourage defections, protect civilians, and increase humanitarian assistance to regions affected by the LRA. The October 14 troop announcement adds details to this general plan.

In addition, the anti-LRA mission falls firmly within the core remit of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is to improve the capacity, effectiveness, and professionalism of African militaries so that they can ultimately deal with their own security challenges. The commander of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, is personally invested in defeating the LRA. During a recent visit to CSIS, he said that Kony’s activities should dispel any doubt that evil exists in the world.

Q3: What are the chances of success?

A3: The United States can draw lessons from a previous effort to eradicate the LRA, launched in December 2008. Operation Lightning Thunder was a joint offensive on an LRA camp in northeastern DRC, led by Uganda, the DRC, and South Sudan. Seventeen U.S. military advisers provided logistics, communications, and intelligence support. The mission was a failure. Leaky intelligence allowed the LRA leadership to get advance warning of the bombing raid that was supposed to begin the operation. Bad weather meant the air strikes were conducted with slower moving helicopters rather than Ugandan fighter jets, further reducing the element of surprise. Poor coordination meant the ground forces that were supposed to swarm into the camp immediately after the bombing raid didn’t turn up for a week. Finally, mutual antipathy among the three main militaries involved—those of Uganda, South Sudan, and the DRC—meant that Kony’s forces were allowed to slip across the border into South Sudan unchallenged. The costs of the failed operation were devastating for civilians. In the weeks that followed, almost 1,000 people were killed in a series of bloody reprisals in northeastern Congo. Since December 2008, the LRA has killed approximately 3,000 people and displaced 400,000 more, according to estimates by the nongovernmental organization Resolve Uganda, which monitors the group’s attacks.

This time round, robust safeguards will be required to protect civilians. And more emphasis will have to be placed on ensuring better cooperation among the participating militaries. The task will not be easy. One of the consequences of Operation Lightning Thunder was that the LRA scattered into smaller groups, making them much more difficult to track down. Kony himself is believed to be operating in the Central African Republic. The groups have discarded any communication equipment that would allow them to be traced and instead rely on runners to relay messages. In addition, the LRA is a hardened guerilla force used to operating in difficult terrain. It has survived against the odds for a quarter of a century. U.S. policymakers and military planners emphasize that there is no quick fix to ending the scourge of the LRA and that even the death or capture of Kony and his senior commanders may not be sufficient to finish off the group unless broader efforts are made to address the grievances that caused it to form in the first place.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Richard Downie