Obama’s decision to deploy 100 Special Forces soldiers to Uganda, as advisers in the regional fight against the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army, has drawn criticism and concern across the political spectrum. There are good reasons for that.
The basic criticism is that the move repeats the worst error committed in past deployments of US troops: sending task forces too small to achieve anything decisive, and giving them vague, open-ended missions. The grand debacle of Vietnam started out in precisely this manner. As the troop levels expanded the mission crept ever outward, but only briefly ceased being vague and open-ended – when Nixon implemented a strategy designed to get a negotiated bargain so US troops could leave. South Vietnam fell less than three years later.
The other classic examples from recent years are the deployment of Marines to Lebanon, which resulted in the bombing of their barracks by Hezbollah in 1983 and the loss of 241 Marines, and the US deployment to Somalia in 1993, which ended with the bloody street battle in Mogadishu commemorated by Black Hawk Down, in which 19 Army soldiers were killed. Both of these deployments were characterized by vague, open-ended missions, and, in consequence, poorly conceived force levels and operational postures. Both ended with ignominious withdrawals.
But there are other reasons for concern. The most fundamental one, in my view, is that there is no real operational mission for the US advisers, as advisers and trainers. The State Department policy statement on the deployment is as non-specific as it’s possible to be while still using English nouns and adjectives. But it’s not just the vagueness of the mission; it’s the fact that, based on a military analysis of the situation, there isn’t one.
The Lord’s Resistance Army has been plaguing Uganda, South Sudan, and other adjacent nations in Central Africa for nearly a quarter century. The armed forces of the regional nations have been fighting it very nearly that long. They know far more about its methods – and about their own terrain, populations, and other combat conditions – than US Special Forces do. Combat skills training and orchestration of the battle plan are not what the regional armed forces need help with.
Certainly the 100 soldiers being deployed are too small a contingent to have a decisive tactical effect against a scattered, indigenous guerrilla force that roams over large swaths of territory. To a fight like this one, the US force primarily brings sophisticated equipment.
Two aspects of the sophisticated-equipment advantage are obvious. One is essentially political: the communications suite back to the US theater commander and the US chain of command. Uganda doesn’t need cell phones, GPS, or signal encryption technology; the Ugandans can buy those things from vendors in Uganda. It’s the guarantee of US engagement, with the presence of a force that can raise Commander, US Africa Command in Germany 24/7, that makes a strategic difference to the leadership in Kampala.
The other equipment aspect is smart-targeting technology – principally drones, for reconnaissance and attack. And that begs the question what the mission is. Does the Uganda deployment represent an expansion of drone warfare to a new guerrilla problem, one unrelated to the global war on terror? Has the GWOT been redefined to include the Lord’s Resistance Army? What is the US strategic interest being served here? What is the strategy?
Americans have generally tolerated the expansion of drone warfare to Yemen and Somalia, on the theory that Al Qaeda and its associates (e.g., the Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia) have to be pursued into their bases of training, recruitment, and operational planning. Al-Shabaab is on the very fringe of justification by the needs of the GWOT, but the group ticks two boxes: the GWOT, and the pacification and unification of Somalia. US policy has pursued the latter on a desultory basis for nearly 20 years; since midway through the Bush 43 tenure, our approach has focused on giving material support to the African Union’s mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
(Al-Shabaab also – indirectly – ticks the antipiracy box, in the sense that stabilizing Somalia is a general measure to quell piracy.)
The LRA, however, does not export terrorism. Nor does it harbor or support international terrorists. Locating a justification for a poorly defined US mission against the LRA is hard enough. Seeking analogies by which to justify the use of the Obama administration’s favorite technology is equally hard. What drone-reliant situation is the LRA’s similar to?
If you had to pick one, you’d probably suggest that of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Haqqani network in Pakistan. The tactics of the AfPak predators are by no means identical to the LRA’s – the LRA roams territory on a somewhat migratory basis, slashing and burning with the methods of a raiding force – but the threat to rural populations and to the authority of central governments is similar.
It’s worth noting, at this point, that what the LRA is specifically not similar to is Al-Qaeda in Yemen (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). AQAP hides out in Yemen, training and planning attacks on the US; it does not make a practice of slaughtering the Yemeni population. The LRA also has significant differences from Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Al-Shabaab, unlike the LRA, seeks to establish a shari’a state, and makes itself strategically vulnerable by trying to enlarge its held territory (including overtures of political leadership in the capital) and attempting to rule the people on it. Al-Shabaab makes itself a conventional target in a way the LRA does not.
The big, strategic picture is that we are apparently proposing to transport the AfPak head-hunting model to Central Africa. The deployment envisioned would be suitable for using drones against the LRA leadership in the same way we have been using them against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban/Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It is not suited for anything else that would actually be of use, either to a well-defined mission or in the conditions on the ground. That the Obama administration is wedded to the drone-warfare method is flashing-neon obvious. But the question remains why we appear to be opening a new front with it in Central Africa.
The US troop footprint is reportedly intended to expand to South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Putting small troop contingents in any of them is dicey; putting them in DRC borders on idiotic. DRC has been wracked by civil war for years, and Uganda and Rwanda back warring factions in the country. It is not possible to “fight the LRA” in DRC without taking sides in DRC’s internal conflict. The US has effectively taken sides before, but not with US troops on the ground in DRC. With troops in country, the cost of taking sides would be higher by an order of magnitude.
Without dismissing the horrors perpetrated by the LRA, it is still possible to see another option. The Bush 43 administration put a great deal into Africa, building up the US engagement infrastructure there by beefing up diplomatic missions and creating Africa Command, along with service component commands; bolstering ties with African nations (including dramatic increases in our economic and military cooperation); and fostering and supporting African regional initiatives.
US support to the AMISOM effort in Somalia is one example to build on: the LRA problem is a natural fit for the African Union. An AU-managed effort, or even an ad hoc coalition of the nations affected by the LRA, is a better approach than deploying US troops to a single nation, with vague plans for expansion and no clear political scope delineated for the campaign.
In 2001, the US had been attacked on 9/11 by a terrorist force that used Afghanistan as a base and was materially supported by the Taliban. In 2011, the US is wholly unaffected by the LRA. Countering the LRA is a worthwhile cause to support, but it is one the African nations should have the lead on, in terms of political commitments and a defined plan. There is no evidence from the Obama administration’s announcement that they do. There is no reference to a regional coalition, to the African Union, or to an African initiative.
Indeed, the US action is strategically disembodied – like the “responsibility to protect” justification used for the Libya operation in March – in every aspect. The risk of mission-creep and situation-force mismatch is exceedingly high. We are right to be gravely concerned about where this is leading.