In the week since the White House announced the dispatch of 100 U.S. troops to Uganda to battle the Lord’s Resistance Army, longtime Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi met a bloody end, apparently brought about by vengeful Libyan fighters but aided by NATO airstrikes, which forced his fleeing convoy off the road. In Slate, the journalist Fred Kaplan declared interventions like the ones in Libya and Uganda to be “the future face of American warfare.” But are they? And will the intervention in Uganda work as well as the one in Libya did? Herewith, the five things you need to know to answer those questions, or at least to impress the water cooler:
1. Rush Limbaugh really is a big, fat idiot.
Let’s make sure this is really, really clear. Despite what you may have heard from the king of conservative talk radio, Joseph Kony, the founder and messianic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has no redeeming qualities. He has no defenders, only allies of convenience – in some ways he is the Gaddafi of African guerrilla movements. His soldiers are recruited through horrific violence – forced to kill and rape their families, neighbors and fellow soldiers. Victims and perpetrators are both Christians. For more than a decade, he has united Americans from Madeleine Albright to Franklin Graham in trying to help Uganda dislodge him and care for and rehabilitate his victims.
2. The conflict has devastating national and regional implications.
The LRA has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for 20 years. After 2008, Uganda succeeded in forcing Kony to operate from abroad, but this has had devastating regional results: Since September 2008, the LRA has killed more than 2,300 people, abducted more than 3,000 and displaced more than 400,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic.
Since Southern Sudan gained its independence earlier this year, it appears that Khartoum—which once funded the LRA as a proxy to fight against its enemies in the south—has withdrawn its support. But southern communities continue to be attacked – which in turn has resulted in the creation of informal local militias, the “Arrow Boys,” to defend against LRA marauders. This is destabilizing in itself, and strains an already under-resourced Southern Sudan security establishment and UN peacekeeping operation – not what a weak new state needs.
The LRA has taken similar advantage of the lack of state control in Eastern Congo, where militias affiliated with and/or fighting against as many as half a dozen regional governments operate with near-impunity. Oxfam says that 90 percent of the 3.3 million people in the Haut and Bas Uele territories live in fear of attack, and attacks have risen more than 50 percent in 2011.
3. U.S. national security interests – welcome to the 21st century.
I hear the realists saying that, surely, by the standards of the Sudan or Congo conflicts those numbers are rather small; and the humanitarian situation, though tragic, certainly doesn’t justify the presence of U.S. ground troops.
But the standard-issue realist concerns do, in fact, apply in this situation. The countries affected by the LRA together make up one-sixth of African territory and 163 million people. They are resource-rich, in the case of Sudan and DRC, and strategically-located on the Christian-Muslim fault line in the case of Southern Sudan and Uganda. They can be a source of economic vitality for the continent – or they can be sources of out-migration to Europe, disease, desertification and instability.
Several are also caught up in fighting extremist groups. Even as it struggles to protect its own citizens, Uganda has recently sent troops to Somalia to join regional efforts against the al-Shabab militants there. Americans are likely to have forgotten, but al-Shabab claimed credit for suicide bombings targeting Ugandans who had gathered to watch the 2010 World Cup final, killing 74 and injuring 70 more – a tragedy relatively larger than the Oklahoma City bombings for a nation of 32 million people. Thus the U.S. has both an immediate interest in shoring up the security of a regional ally, and a longer-term interest in ensuring that Shabab or others don’t gain nay new footholds.
And don’t underestimate the humanitarian concerns here.. As the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has written of action against the LRA, “If a humanitarian military operation is ever justified, it is justified in this case.” Liberal and conservative Christian and humanitarian groups have argued this case jointly for over a decade. It is a hard-bitten realist or pacifist who can read the accounts of survivors and not want to pick up a gun. There is, moreover, the more realist question of whether Africans perceive the West and the U.S. as indifferent to crimes against humanity when committed in their neighborhoods, and whether it matters to the future of U.S. partnerships whether they are right.
4. But will it work?
These arguments pre-suppose that 100 U.S. troops will tip the balance decisively, and that the LRA can be destroyed and stability restored to the region. Unfortunately, the verdict is out on that, for two reasons. First, the George W. Bush Administration, Uganda, and regional allies tried this in 2008, with a smaller number of U.S. advisers. The campaign was marred by poor coordination and limited intelligence-sharing, and became a grinding war of attrition. Kony was driven from the country but not killed, nor was his organization destroyed. Instead, the LRA embarked on a spree of revenge killings against civilians. It is unclear whether all those shortcomings can be repaired by the presence of more US advisers.
Second, a lightning strike that killed or captured Kony might well not end the suffering. The International Crisis Group has pointed out both that Kony’s followers are likely to go on marauding and killing without him, and that the insurgency sprung from and flourished on the economic and social marginalization of northern Uganda, as well as lawlessness in eastern DRC. Washington cannot solve those problems; is it preparing the necessary regional and international support to do so? Does it have the bandwidth, and civilian resources, to take on such a task? And, given the security concerns outlined above, is it willing to put pressure on the aging and increasingly-dictatorial ruler of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni?
5. A new paradigm for war – maybe, maybe not.
Kaplan argues that the interventions in Uganda and Libya and the use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan foretell a future of “advise and assist” American actions in which military budgets shrink dramatically and interventions “don’t neatly fit the familiar categories of ‘realist,’ ‘moralist,’ or ‘neoconservative.’”
Isn’t it pretty to think so? Of course, Kaplan acknowledges that “advise and assist “ isn’t a new paradigm. It didn’t cut defense budgets in the Cold War, and by itself it won’t now. And given the morally problematic nature of drones, targeted killings, and extra-territoriality, it is no ethical panacea either. Plus there is the abiding question: what interests justify putting American lives at risk? These complexities won’t go away, and will only figure more heavily in how Americans think about the use of force–whether it is deployed via drone or a military advisor–in our name.