Late last week, President Obama informed the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, that he had ordered 100 troops to be deployed to Uganda with the mission of “removing” the Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony from the battlefield. The announcement has sparked quite a bit of confusion about why Obama would choose to deploy these troops now and what it means for American foreign policy as well as the war against the LRA. The ensuing response from media outlets and observers has been a number of contradictory statements most of which ignore key questions surrounding America’s latest African foray. This is a rough attempt to enter the fray and bring up some issues that have been neglected in opinions offered so far.
A Contradiction of Responses
On the one hand, some have said the provision of troops is unusual and remarkable. The Independent has a piece which characterizes Obama’s decision as a “surprising intervention.” Max Fisher maintains that it is a small but important shift in US foreign policy, because the Obama administration doesn’t have security interests in Uganda. As Fisher sees it, the US has no interests in what happens to Kony since the LRA “could go on killing and enslaving for decades — as they well might — and the American way of life would continue chugging along.” Others argue that Obama’s decision is symbolic of a new interventionist attitude with the finger prints of “liberal hawks” – Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and adviser Samantha Power – all over it. In contrast, Joshua Keating believes Obama’s “announcement is actually a bit less than meets the eye” given the long-standing cooperation between the US and Uganda in regional military affairs.
So, who is right? Does this mark an important shift in the “hunt for Kony” or is this just another unremarkable development? My short answer is that it’s impossible to tell at this time but a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. There are more questions to be asked at this point than answers to be given.
It is important to place Obama’s decision in context. The US recognizes the LRA as a terrorist organization and consequently views the Government of Yoweri Museveni as an important ally in the Global War on Terror. As such, the US has provided tens of millions of dollars worth of military “aid” to Uganda and “non-lethal military training”, which the Ugandan government has used not only to fight the LRA but to engage in areas where the US has resisted engaging in militarily, notably Somalia. As Matt Brown of the Enough Project concedes:
“The U.S. doesn’t have to fight al-Qaida-linked Shabab in Somalia, so we help Uganda take care of their domestic security problems, freeing them up to fight a more dangerous – or a more pressing, perhaps – issue in Somalia. I don’t know if [the Enough Project] would necessarily say that but it’s surely a plausible theory.”
The timing of Obama’s announcement was quite interesting and may be indicative of shifting political tides in Uganda. Acting Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem maintains that Uganda has been asking for US assistance for 20 years. So why did they manage to get it now?
Hey G.I. Joe – Welcome to Uganda but Don’t Slip on the Oil
Uganda has recently found large oil reserves in the country and in recent months, President Museveni has tightened his grip on an emerging industry which, estimates suggest, may produce between 2.5 billion to 6 billion barrels of oil. Uganda’s oil has been directly linked to the country’s security. According to an astute report in Uganda’s Independent, ‘Oil Could Cause War‘, significant deposits of oil in the Western part of the country are close to LRA-active regions of the DRC. Further, a WikiLeaks cable (dated March 13, 2008) describes a request by the Ugandan government to the US government “for assistance to train and equip a lake security force which could enforce Uganda’s territorial waters, protect Uganda’s oil assets, and reduce violent incidents.” While it was almost entirely ignored, allowing commentators like Fischer to conclude that the US has no interests in Uganda, it would not be surprising if oil played an important role in the US government’s decision to send troops to Uganda. As the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Emira Woods, stated:
“It goes back to one thing: oil. Lets remember Uganda has oil. It changes the calculus always with US foreign policy when it is a country that seems to be rich with this resource that has become almost an addiction for the US and the global economy.”
Be Careful: This is No Easy Mission
Don’t expect miracles just yet. Even if we discount reports that Kony is in Darfur (something former LRA rebel commanders confirmed to me), the areas of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR), where he may be, has amongst the least developed infrastructure and is perhaps the most lawless region in the entire world. While early reports suggest that the troops may travel outside of Uganda (something they would have to do to track Kony), it’s important to remember that they will need agreements with neighbouring states – not just Uganda – to do so. While the four LRA-affected countries have agreed to work together to fight the rebel group and appeared to welcome the decision to deploy American troops, it’s not yet clear to what extent US soldiers will be allowed operate on their soil. Additionally, the mainstream narrative which calls Kony a “lunatic”, “mystic” and a “bizarre terrorist” belies the LRA’s remarkable ability to avoid capture and death for almost thirty years. Getting one hundred troops into LRA affected areas to find Kony is like expecting to find a needle in a hay stack.
The celebration of the misguided belief that 100 American troops who, in the words of Obama, “will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defence,” could tip the balance in a conflict that has brutally ravaged East Africa risks being patronizing and prejudicial. The Ugandan military, the UPDF, couldn’t find or capture Kony in 30 years with thousands of troops. Massive military operations, most notably Operation Iron Fist (2002) and Operation Lightning Thunder (2008) failed not only to defeat the LRA but to capture or kill Kony.
So why should we believe that the US can somehow do it with 100 soldiers? Sure, they are better equipped and many genuinely believe that the US involvement could represent a turning point in the war against the LRA, but underlying this view is a sense that the US are “the saviours” and that the US “can fix this.” There is a fine line between patronizing African states and providing them with military and political assistance. In the end, a solution to the LRA crisis will be achieved not because of 100 military advisers, but because of the relentless efforts of the people of northern Uganda, the DRC, South Sudan and the CAR.
Justice: Getting Kony “Dead or Alive”
Obama’s orders to his troops are to “kill or capture” Kony. Sound familiar? The same phrase was most recently used in the hunt and assassination of Osama bin Laden. But if bin Laden was any indication, we know the chances of “capture” are slim, especially if US forces are directly involved in any actual operation to “kill or capture” Kony.
It is worth wondering what effects the US engagement in Uganda will have on achieving justice. In this light it is stunning that the major media outlets have almost entirely neglected to ask northern Ugandan civil society leaders their opinion on the decision to deploy troops and once again try to win the war by force.
Given Obama’s belief that anyone who questions the fact that killing bin Laden “should get their head checked”, it is feasible to surmise that if Kony is killed, the US administration will conflate it with an act of justice. For those who hoped to see Kony brought to account for the misery he wrought on Ugandans – whether in Uganda or at the ICC – US involvement would seem to make such aspirations less likely.
Baby Steps over the Mogadishu Line?
In terms of US foreign policy in Africa, I agree that the US engagement is significant – regardless of the Obama administration’s reasoning in doing so. It is a small but important sign that the US has become more willing to step over the Mogadishu line – intervening with actual troops on the ground in a “humanitarian” contexts. There should be little doubt that this show of confidence is related to what is largely perceived to be a successful intervention in Libya.
In the end, let’s not kid ourselves about the impact this will have on the fight against the LRA. One hundred troops is unlikely to tip the balance in the war against the LRA and Obama’s decision may be just as much about political and economic interests than about any humanitarian pretext. The benefits of strengthening a military and political alliance, and the possibility of strengthening economic ties outweighs the risks of creeping over the Mogadishu line.