U.S. troops serving as advisers in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) are beginning to deploy from Uganda to LRA-affected areas to support ongoing regional military efforts to stop the organization's ability to terrorize civilians in an expansive, remote jungle region and to bring its leaders to justice.
Active for 25 years, the LRA has been responsible for abducting more than 66,000 youth and forcing them to become child soldiers or sex slaves, and continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of South Sudan. The International Criminal Court has indicted the LRA's top leaders -- Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen, and Okot Odhiambo -- for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
President Obama announced on October 14, 2011 that a small number of U.S. military personnel would be deployed to help advise the security forces of Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan in their joint efforts against the LRA.
Since that time, the U.S. military has been coordinating with the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) to lay the groundwork for forward deployments to field locations, and "starting this month, teams of the advisers are beginning to deploy to LRA-affected areas," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said in a speech on December 7.
Carson said there has been media confusion and there have even been "conspiracy theories" concerning the U.S. deployment. He clarified that the U.S. personnel are in the region "to play a supportive role to the UPDF and national militaries pursuing the LRA," and that their mission is "focused on the LRA and the LRA only."
Only a portion of the 100-person force will actually travel to field locations to serve as advisers, while the rest will be in Uganda to perform logistical and other functions in support of those advisers, he said.
"We are not sending any personnel into their countries without their consent. We have also made clear that this operation is contingent on their sustained commitment and cooperation toward ending the LRA threat," Carson said.
After reviewing ways to improve U.S. support to national militaries in the region and increase the possibility of apprehending or removing top LRA commanders, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) ultimately recommended that "sending a small number of U.S. military advisers to work with these national forces, both at headquarters and the field level, could enhance their capacity to coordinate and fuse intelligence with effective operational planning," Carson said.
Carson said the advisers are mindful of the fact that the LRA has sometimes responded to military campaigns by increasing its attacks against civilian communities. "We have ensured that our military advisers are sensitive to the challenges of civilian protection and are incorporating protection considerations into all training and operational planning," Carson said.
In addition to sending the advisers, the United States is trying to address the LRA threat through nonmilitary means. "As regional actors increase military pressure on the LRA, it is critical to complement that effort with an increased push for LRA fighters and abductees to defect and escape," Carson said.
"In the last two months, we have seen the release and defection of dozens of women and children from the LRA's ranks in the DRC," Carson said. "We urge those remaining in the LRA's ranks to seek opportunities to escape, and take advantage of offers of reintegration support."
Many LRA members want to leave but are afraid of what will happen to them if they return home, so the Obama administration is funding rehabilitation programs for abducted youth and their reunification with their families.
"The LRA's actions are an affront to human dignity and a threat to regional stability," Carson said. A future that is free of the group "is possible."