Last week, we released our March 2017 LRA Crisis Tracker Security Brief, which highlights an alarming trend of violent attacks by multiple armed groups in eastern Central African Republic (CAR). Yesterday, research organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing an uptick in retaliatory attacks against civilians in central CAR over the last three months. This concerning rise in violence comes just as U.S. and Ugandan counter-LRA efforts have been winding down, leaving tens of thousands of civilians without protection.
In the last month, both the U.S. and Uganda have announced decisions to conclude efforts to apprehend Joseph Kony and end the violence of his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Within months, Uganda troops will withdraw from eastern CAR and U.S. military advisers will withdraw from eastern CAR, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan, despite the fact that the LRA remains a significant threat to communities in the region. The withdrawal of these two key players will place a greater burden on already under-equipped United Nations peacekeeping forces to fill in the security vacuum and protect civilians, even as the Trump Administration has proposed cutting US funding to UN peacekeeping forces. The LRA and others, including armed groups currently active in central and eastern CAR, will likely take advantage of the situation to target vulnerable communities in central Africa with increased violence.
As local populations become more vulnerable to violence without the presence of well-equipped security actors in the region, community-based protection and violence prevention initiatives are more important than ever before. That’s why we are as committed as we’ve ever been to our programs in the region.
With your support, our Invisible Children team will continue to expand programs like our Early Warning Radio Network, ‘Come Home’ Radio Defection Messaging, and Community Resilience Committees to ensure that the central African families left behind are equipped with the tools and information necessary to keep their families safe and reduce the threats still posed to them.
Read World Politics Review’s interview below with Paul Ronan, Invisible Children’s Director of Research and Policy, for more on the implications of U.S. and Ugandan withdrawal from counter-LRA efforts and consider making a donation to our programs to ensure that communities in central Africa have access to the tools and information that can help keep their families safe.
What Did the U.S. Mission Against Joseph Kony Accomplish?
May 2, 2017 – World Politics Review
Uganda recently began withdrawing troops from the Central African Republic that had been tasked with hunting Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group. Kony founded the LRA in 1987 in northern Uganda, and his fighters became notorious for abducting children and forcing them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. The rebel leader remains at large, but Uganda’s military recently said the group’s “means of making war against Uganda have been degraded” and that LRA commanders had “been killed, captured or surrendered.” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, offered a similar assessment when announcing in March that U.S. forces were ending their operations against the LRA. In an email interview, Paul Ronan, director of research and policy with Invisible Children, the advocacy group that in 2012 made a widely viewed film about the LRA, discusses the current strength of the LRA and lessons that can be drawn from the intervention.
WPR: What is the current state of the LRA, and how much of its decline was attributed to the intervention or to other factors such as Uganda’s amnesty program?
Paul Ronan: With fewer than 140 fighters currently within its ranks, the LRA is at its weakest point in decades. Kony commanded nearly 3,000 fighters at the group’s peak in the late 1990s, and as many as 400 in 2011 when then-President Barack Obama deployed U.S. Special Forces to assist Ugandan troops in counter-LRA operations.
It can be surprisingly difficult to distinguish between the role of offensive military operations versus defection initiatives, such as Uganda’s amnesty program, in weakening the LRA. Often it takes a combination of push factors, such as military pressure, and pull factors, such as amnesty, to convince LRA fighters to defect. From 2011 to 2014, intense U.S.-supported Ugandan military operations not only killed several senior LRA commanders, but helped encourage dozens of fighters to defect. When the pace of military operations lagged in 2015 and 2016, the rate of defections slowed as well. U.S. military advisers, as well as civil society groups, have also expanded “Come Home” messages with leaflets, radio broadcasts and loudspeaker announcements from helicopters. Such messages help active LRA members to overcome their fear of defection, often by featuring family members from back home or former LRA combatants.
Recent defectors have also cited Kony’s progressively erratic and brutal leadership style as a reason they quit the rebel group. Kony has executed at least five LRA fighters, and even one of his own wives, in recent years. In 2014, disgruntled LRA commander Achaye Doctor escaped with a dozen fighters, a move that enraged Kony and led him to threaten Achaye’s long-time friend, Dominic Ongwen, with execution. Fearing for his life, Ongwen fled and was taken into custody by U.S. forces. He is now standing trial at the International Criminal Court, while Achaye and his followers are operating independently as a splinter LRA group. In 2015, several of Kony’s bodyguards attempted to assassinate him before defecting to U.S. forces.
WPR: What is the likelihood that, in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. and Ugandan forces, Kony and the LRA can regroup and resume large-scale massacres?
Ronan: The deployment of U.S. military advisers in 2011 had an unmistakable dampening effect on LRA massacres. LRA forces killed 2,830 civilians from 2008 to 2010, including during the infamous “Makombo Massacre” in December 2009, in which at least 321 Congolese civilians were brutally murdered. In the nearly six years since U.S. Special Forces have been deployed, LRA forces have killed a total of 183 people.
Unfortunately, the decline in headline-grabbing massacres has yet to translate into improved day-to-day security for many communities in eastern Central African Republic and northern Democratic Republic of Congo. The LRA may have shifted toward less aggressive tactics—such as small-scale looting and abduction raids—but the cumulative impact of such attacks is still staggering. LRA forces abducted more than 750 civilians in 2016, the highest annual figure since 2010. Abductees included dozens of children whom Kony ordered his fighters to integrate into the LRA, though some have since escaped. Even for adults kidnapped for only a few days or less—the vast majority of abductees—being held captive by the LRA is a traumatic experience.
Without the presence of U.S. and Ugandan troops in the field, the LRA forces will likely continue to disrupt the lives of Central African and Congolese civilians. It’s also possible, though unlikely, that Kony will order a resumption of large-scale massacres. And despite its reduced fighting capacity, the LRA retains the ability to execute such orders—the Makombo Massacre was carried out by just 25-40 LRA fighters.
The withdrawal of U.S. and Ugandan troops will also provide an opening for other armed groups, such as ex-Seleka rebel factions, to strengthen their foothold in southeastern Central African Republic. If they succeed, expect to see intensified sectarian conflict in the coming months that will place minority groups like the Peul in grave danger.
WPR: Are there lessons from this particular intervention that international partners including the U.S. could apply to other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa?
Ronan: The U.S. and regional partners failed to end the LRA threat, and now Kony is essentially getting a free pass to do even more damage. Still, the 6-year operation has highlighted lessons that can be applied to other crises. The deployment of U.S. Special Forces was part of a comprehensive, interagency approach that included expanded humanitarian and protection programs, and diplomatic efforts to encourage the African Union and regional governments to place a higher priority on protecting civilians from the LRA. Interagency cooperation between the U.S. advisers, the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and USAID has been especially critical in encouraging defections from the LRA and providing reintegration assistance to LRA escapees and their home communities. Components of this model can be useful in undermining support for other extremist groups, such as Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.
With U.S. Special Forces withdrawing, the State Department and USAID will shoulder a heavier burden in responding to the LRA crisis even as President Donald Trump’s proposed budget threatens deep cuts to their funding. To meet this challenge, they should build on existing, cost-effective programs that seek to reinforce community-based early warning, as well as reintegration and protection programming that utilizes existing local capacities to reduce civilian vulnerability to armed groups. These programs are crucial not only for strengthening communities’ resilience to the LRA, but also to a host of other armed groups that operate in the region, including heavily armed poachers that loot communities as they seek to acquire ivory and other illicit natural resources. Such a model can be utilized in other areas of Central African Republic, Congo and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa where U.S. agencies will have to find a way to address intensifying humanitarian and protection needs with reduced budgets.