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Why Obama’s War in Uganda Isn’t Just About Humanitarianism

Despite lingering concerns about the cost and scope of the mission, President Obama’s recent decision to send 100 combat-equipped Special Forces to quell the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA—a group of insurgents marauding around Central Africa—was met with a decent display of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill this past month. Senator Jim Inhofe is on board. So is Obama’s old nemesis, John McCain, albeit with reservations. (As for Rush Limbaugh—well, he’s getting plenty of pushback from his own side of the aisle.) And cooperation on this issue is nothing new: Last year, in May of 2010, Obama signed into law the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, a piece of legislation which had overwhelming bipartisan support, and which gave the White House the mandate it needed for the current deployment.

It’s no accident that conservatives and liberals alike feel compelled to intervene in this conflict. For years, they've been hearing reports about the terrible crimes perpetrated in Uganda by the LRA. (The country is a favorite destination of evangelical missionaries, many of whom have publicized the crisis in D.C.) Over the past several decades, the militia—whose purported goal is to overthrow the Ugandan government and create a Christian theocracy ruled by its long-time leader Joseph Kony—has displaced millions from their homes and murdered tens of thousands. The LRA has also specialized in particularly heinous acts of brutality: grotesque mutilations (the routine slicing off of victims’ lips and ears), pre-pubescent child soldiering, forced fratricide, and the widespread massacres of entire villages—all done with the goal of cowering civilians into submission and swelling the ranks of its forced conscripts.

And yet, while U.S. activism has largely been couched in the language of humanitarianism, there are also important, and surprising, strategic issues at stake. Of course, eliminating the LRA will bring a measure of peace to Central Africa. But the Obama administration’s deployment is also intended to counter the regional ambitions of the rogue state of Sudan, and to maintain stability in the newly independent country of South Sudan. In that way, the humanitarian rhetoric in Washington has deflected attention from some of the major rationales for the military mission—and it may confuse how we eventually evaluate its success.

FOR MOST OF SUDAN’S post-colonial history, the country has been in the throes of civil war, pitting different regions against one another, but especially the South against the North. Historically, Uganda, which was Sudan’s southern neighbor, had backed the South in these conflicts.

When Uganda’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, swept the state in 1986, he made a renewed commitment, both logistical and material, to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, which at the time was only the latest in a string of southern rebels fighting a quasi-secessionist war against the Sudanese government in Khartoum. (Today, the SPLM/A is the main governing party in the newly independent Republic of South Sudan.) President Museveni had a strategic rationale for intervening in Sudan, but he was also motivated ideologically—that is to say, by the perceived racism of Sudan’s Arab-dominated government. In an official Ugandan government profile, Museveni proudly declares himself “a lone figure in speaking out against the human injustice meted out on the Black people of Southern Sudan by racial bigotry.”

In the early 1990s, though, Khartoum retaliated against Uganda’s sponsorship of the SPLM/A by becoming a patron of the Lord’s Resistance Army just across the border in northern Uganda. If Uganda was motivated to support the SPLM/A for ideological reasons, Sudan’s support for the LRA was tactical. As far as Khartoum was concerned, the LRA was basically a quasi-mercenary force for hire—a group whose longevity and relevance depended on its ability to attach itself to a well-resourced patron. It should go without saying that Khartoum’s support for the LRA is one reason why the group has survived for so long.

This support waned in the years after 9/11, given the Sudanese government’s desire to avoid being blacklisted as a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. (The LRA made the U.S. State Department’s Terrorist Exclusion List, which was created in 2001 by the Patriot Act.) But with relations between the U.S. and Sudan fraying in recent years—because of the Darfur crisis, the subsequent ICC arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir, and the U.S.’s strong diplomatic and financial support for a viable South Sudan—Washington is concerned that it no longer has the influence over Khartoum it once did. Indeed, many policymakers worry that the LRA could, once more, serve Khartoum’s purposes, this time in destabilizing an already weak South Sudan, or wrecking havoc along the disputed border between the North and the South.

Indeed, there are suggestions that this is already happening. When I recently met with the spokesman for the Ugandan military, Col. Felix Kulayigye, he noted, “We don’t have any proof of direct involvement [between the Sudanese government and the LRA], as of now, although Khartoum still runs an office that was coordinating the LRA with the Sudanese armed forces. We have no clear evidence that the cooperation is active. That said, among those of us who know Joseph Kony [the leader of the LRA], we believe he’s been buying time, hoping that one day he’s going to get another godfather to sustain him.”

In addition to this strategic rationale, there are sound tactical reasons for Washington to strike against the LRA right now, and eliminate it for good. For starters, the group is weaker than it’s ever been. Reportedly, it only has a few hundred fighters scattered throughout the region (primarily in Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan; the Ugandan military managed to expel the group from its borders back in 2005, and will lead the current military operation). Multi-nation peace talks involving the militia, which were held between 2006 and 2008, have also failed—although most agree that they were flawed. In any case, the fact that three of the senior-most leaders of the LRA, including Joseph Kony himself, all have ICC arrest warrants hanging over their heads means that a negotiated settlement of any kind is highly unlikely. During the peace talks, the group’s leaders intimated that they had no intention of standing trial at The Hague.

That said, the specter of another military offensive against the LRA raises some uncomfortable questions about Washington’s intentions and capabilities. Back in December of 2008, the U.S. provided intelligence and logistical support for an offensive code-named Operation Lightning Thunder, which targeted the LRA’s camps in eastern Congo. The initial attack, however—which was led by the Ugandan military, but involved the armies of Congo and South Sudan—was severely botched. Not only did the LRA’s top leaders escape unharmed, but the three regional armies failed to secure the civilian communities surrounding the camps. Shortly after the initial incursion, the LRA went on a murderous rampage, attacking several Congolese villages and killing almost 900 people in a span of just a few weeks. Given this recent history, it’s fair to ask how, exactly, this current deployment will be any different—aside from the fact that more U.S. troops will be offering intelligence. As Norbert Mao, a well-respected politician out of northern Uganda, told me: “If this is going to be Operation Lightning Thunder Part II, then it may be costly to the reputation of the U.S.”

But ultimately, while military force is necessary to stabilize this corner of Central Africa, it won’t be sufficient. Currently in northern Uganda alone, tens of thousands of repatriated ex-combatants are roaming around the countryside, most without employable skills or a way to make a living. The government’s Peace, Recovery and Development Plan, meanwhile, is poorly managed. And the United States’s own “recovery” component of the LRA Disarmament Act has yet to be articulated. All this matters because the LRA itself emerged from the ashes of earlier rebel groups in Uganda that the government thought were demobilized and disbanded. As Mao put it, “If people are not reaping the peace dividends, another Joseph Kony could always emerge. It has happened before.”

But that relative neglect may itself be an indication of American priorities. Whatever else happens in northern Uganda and the greater region after the mission is complete, the Obama administration will celebrate what else they’ve accomplished—namely, eliminating a threat to South Sudan, and dealing a blow to Khartoum. That’s not the stuff that humanitarian interventions are made of, necessarily, but it may be enough for Washington to call a victory.

Elizabeth Palchik Allen is a freelance writer and research associate at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment in Kampala, Uganda. Follow her one Twitter @alleneli.