In a seemingly surprise move last week, President Obama announced that he would be sending 100 U.S. combat forces to Uganda and parts of Central Africa. The mission: to assist in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army and the takedown of its leader, Joseph Kony.Not unexpectedly, the announcement elicited criticism from some wary of expanding America’s involvement with foreign conflicts, drawing on the nation’s long sense of war fatigue. Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said that engaging American troops in a fourth simultaneous conflict was “historic” (though Politifact notes that having troops engaged in four simultaneous conflicts has actually been the norm since 1993). Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh also made headlines last week when he accused Obama of “attacking Christians.” Senator John McCain cautioned: “I worry about with the best of intentions we somehow get engaged in a commitment that we can’t get out of, that’s happened before in our history.”
But by and large, human rights organizations have applauded the announcement, taking into consideration the relatively small number of troops dedicated to the mission and President Obama’s reassurance that that the U.S. forces “will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self defense.” Human Rights Watch declared that “arresting Kony and other senior LRA leaders would reaffirm that those who commit mass atrocities will face justice. It will also help end the scourge of one of the most brutal rebel groups in Africa.”
In the meantime, the move puts a renewed spotlight on the Lord’s Resistance Army, the decades-long war that has targeted African civilians and the brutal tactics of the group’s leader, Joseph Kony.
The LRA, a fanatical rebel group created in 1987, has been fighting the Ugandan government to establish a theocracy based on the biblical Ten Commandments. In the long conflict that has pervaded central Africa, the LRA has notoriously engaged in a range of human rights abuses, including kidnappings, mutilations, rape, killing and the use of child soldiers. An estimated 30,000 people have died at the hands of the LRA. Kony has proclaimed himself to be a “spokesperson of God,” and in 2005 was indicted with an official warrant for arrest by the International Criminal Court. In recent years, the LRA has diminished in size, though it has spread its operations outside of Uganda, occupying the nebulous border region between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
The LRA’s practice of kidnapping children and forcing them to kill others has been widely documented. The 2003 documentary film “Invisible Children” focuses heavily on the LRA’s recruitment of child soldiers and has hosted screenings at churches and college campuses nationwide for the past several years. A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch documents several testimonies of former LRA child soldiers. One 11-year-old boy who escaped the LRA after having been kidnapped described his experience:
After they captured me, they told me they wanted me to be a soldier. When I protested and told them that I was too young, they stabbed me under my eyes with a bayonet. Then they took me to their camp. While I was there, they gave military training to all the children. We were in teams, and each team had to come in at certain times for training, and to kill people. They treated their victims like animals and told us, “When you kill someone, it’s like killing an animal.
Combating the LRA has been a priority for many members of the federal government, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who have both made public remarks about the LRA. In February 2010, Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying, “I have been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge.”
The U.S. provided support to the Ugandan, Congolese and southern Sudanese armies to launch Operation Lightning Thunder, a ground offensive against the LRA. However, the mission failed to bring down Kony, and the LRA intensified its campaign of violence against civilians.
Last year, the Senate unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which affirmed the U.S.’s commitment to help remove Kony from power and eliminate the threat of the LRA in the region. President Obama signed the Act in March 2010.