President Obama’s deployment of troops to Africa to help hunt down leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is being applauded by human rights groups but questioned by realists. Meanwhile, White House officials have minimized the significance of the deployment and have accused the media of blowing the issue out of proportion.
The President outlined his moral rationale for committing 100 Special Forces personnel to train Ugandan troops in a letter to Speaker of the House Boehner, noting that the LRA has “murdered, raped, and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women and children in central Africa”.
The pseudo-Christian terror cult led by Joseph Kony has enslaved 66,000 children in its 20-year campaign according to The Survey of War Affected Youth.
Human rights groups have praised the president for showing the courage to tackle an issue where the U.S. has no material interests at stake — it appears, at least on the surface, to be a purely humanitarian endeavor.
A National Post editorial was blunt: “He (Kony) is richly deserving of the attention that President Obama has seen fit to arrange for him.” The piece also states:
Whenever critics of American foreign policy denounce the Iraq war or even the Afghan campaign, there typically is a casual insinuation that these are colonial or quasi-colonial undertakings aimed at stripping the local nation of its resources. Yet the truth is that most interventions, including those in Haiti and Kosovo, involve parts of the world that have little strategic or mercantile value. Uganda is a perfect example: This is not a war for oil, or diamonds, or any other commodity. It is a mission to fight human suffering.
Realists argued that the mission will not protect U.S. interests, which should be the foreign policy litmus. Bill Roggio, the managing editor of The Long War Journal, called the Obama administration’s justification “puzzling”, especially since the LRA does not pose a national security threat to the United States.
Obama claimed in his letter that U.S. forces will not have a combat role and will act as advisors focused on the goal of “removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA”.
Senator John McCain wasn’t convinced and is concerned Obama’s plan risks miring the U.S. in a protracted war, telling CNN on Sunday: “I worry (that) with the best of intentions we’ll somehow get engaged in a commitment that we can’t get out of. That’s happened before in our history.”
Richard Downie, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program, said the U.S. military doesn’t have a stellar track record in Africa, where the specter of the 1993 Blackhawk Down tragedy in Somalia looms large.
Downie pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor how the U.S. sent advisers to help coordinate attacks against the LRA in 2008 and the mission ended up being a “complete fiasco”, as LRA leadership escaped and later took revenge, killing thousands of civilians in the following weeks.
Morehouse College professor Laura Seay was also skeptical:
“Kony is a brilliant tactician and knows the terrain better than anybody. He surrounds himself with scouts who have what amounts to an early warning system, which is how he’s eluded capture for so long. Kony also operates in some of the least-governed areas of the world’s weakest states. Many of these places have no roads, infrastructure… This will not be easy for only 100 U.S. forces to carry out, especially given language barriers.”
However, Obama’s approach is likely based on Realpolitik, argues Associated Press East Africa bureau chief Jason Straziuso, because the move is likely payback for the sacrifices Ugandan troops have made in Somalia on behalf of America’s war on terror.
Others would argue that simply gaining a foothold in Africa could help ensure regional stability, which is in America’s best long-term interests.
Politically for Obama it’s a prudent move, because few will object to helping regional security forces eliminate a group with one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Not to mention, looking ahead to the 2012 campaign it helps bolster Obama’s resume as being tough on defense when combined with recent Al Qaeda assassinations he’s ordered and the Libyan intervention (albeit, verdict pending).
Helping to manage the risk is that Uganda and the newly created nation of South Sudan welcome the U.S. forces – part of the importance the White House has placed on seeking clear partnerships before deciding to act in light of their problems in the AfPak region.
The shift in policy from disengagement will help assuage long-standing concerns of a number of high-ranking Obama advisers, as Mark Smith and Bradley Kapper contend in an AP piece today, who have been “left scarred by the U.S. failure in the 1990s to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda and the belated action to finally halt the violence in Bosnia.”
A senior military official said Obama’s decision should come as a surprise to no one, considering the mission has been pending for well over a year, but special ops forces weren’t available before now.
Plus, State Department officials indicated that the new troop deployment was part of a larger anti-LRA strategy dating back to the Bush administration.
In fact, according to Straziuso, U.S. legislation passed last year with huge bipartisan support which called for “the coordination of U.S. diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military efforts” against the LRA.
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