Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In case you're just tuning in, a few weeks ago Michael Wilkerson wrote a piece for FP entitled "Why Can't Anyone Stop the LRA."  I quibbled with a few points, and wrote up my objections here on D&D.  Michael got wind of my response and wrote a supremely cogent rebuttal on his own blog, at which time the sheer hell of finals derailed me from ever posting a response.  Here, slightly belatedly, is my answer (could we call it a re-re-response?).

While it's tempting to allow this to degrade into a snarky blog-war, (because, let's face it, that's fun) I prefer more serious analysis, and in fact Michael and I agree on most points.  And even where our opinions differ, I wouldn't say we disagree so much as we have slightly different interpretations.

We agree (and Michael, please correct me if I err here) that the regional governments, South Sudan, CAR, and DRC, are extremely weak.  Michael notes that "regional governments are working together - at least on paper" and I agree, and it seems as though we concur in our analysis that this coordination is, practically speaking, essentially worthless.

We also share the belief that if the U.S. was seriously committed the LRA would soon be eliminated.  He has a great line here about the level of American commitment:

But that’s akin to saying if Congress really wanted to balance the budget it would eliminate corn subsidies. There may be a lot of truth there but that doesn’t put it very far within the realm of political possibility.
I agree wholeheartedly here; and Michael I would like to eventually discuss the merits of the increasing U.S. military presence in Africa.  My point in raising the specter of greater U.S. involvement in the chase for Kony is to critique those very factors that make it an infeasible outcome - America has the power to catch Kony, but not the will, and this must be considered among the sad reasons the LRA is still at-large.

But we do have our disagreements.  At the end of his rebuttal, Michael objects to my characterization of the Ugandan forces as "rag-tag" and points to the presence of former LRA fighters in their midst to substantiate his point.  I respectfully disagree.  Perhaps the term "rag-tag" is altogether too vague.  I take the point that these are not bottom-of-the-barrel troops - certainly these Ugandan units are superior to their Congolese colleagues.  And they appear to be better behaved than other branches of Ugandan military, which committed innumerable human rights violations in the campaign to chase the LRA from Uganda.  The Gettleman article Michael cites even quotes a representative from Human Rights Watch praising their behavior, a welcome change from the past.

But talk about damning with faint praise - those are some weak comparisons.  Militarily, perhaps the best way measure of the competence of the Ugandan troops is to look at their results, and they are not positive.  Kony is still roaming free, and reportedly has popped up everywhere from the DRC to Darfur.  And even with logistical aid from the U.S., as Michael touts, and intel contributions prior to Operation Lightning Thunder, they have been unable to corral Kony.

This is where Michael and I differ most sharply, though on a theoretical rather than practical level.  I believe that part of the reason the LRA remains at large is a failure to accurately conceptualize and analyze them as an organization.  The LRA lacks serious political goals (Kony occasionally pays lip service to the idea of ruling Uganda, but his actions belie that goal).  Nor do they have the support of the populace, on ethnic or ideological lines, to conduct a classic Maoist Peoples War.  But, on the other extreme, they don't seem to be engaged in criminal trafficking except to support their own existence.  In short, who the hell are the LRA?  If they aren't traditional insurgents or guerrillas, but they aren't criminals, who are they?

This is not simply an academic question.  How can you effectively target a group if you don't understand their motives and goals?  Overlooking the nature of the LRA is one of the reasons Operations Lightning Thunder was such a spectacular failure.  The Ugandan military (and, presumably, their U.S. supporters) were stuck in the old RMA mindset about the superiority and universal applicability of air power.  The massive bombing raids that characterized the operation would have been appropriate for the skies over Nazi Germany, but not for finding and eliminating a small group of fighters.  New enemies call for new tactics, and that lesson has gone unheeded.

There is some promise of innovation in the Ugandan's use of former LRA members as trackers, but it is an incredibly risky move and I think it also speaks to the paucity of ability among Ugandan units.  I have seen no coherent attempts to understand the existence of the LRA as anything but a band of cult killers and their brainwashed followers.  Even if that is their raison d'etre, there needs to be some work done on utilizing that information to form a coherent strategy.  Simply hunting Kony across such a vast area with little idea of where he will go next, or why, is an awfully tall task.

I don't pretend to know how to understand the LRA, and so I'll bounce that (possibly impossible) question back to Michael.  But I do think it's important to become familiar with the enemy, otherwise any strategy risks being misguided. 

In the final tally, Michael and I seem to see eye-to-eye on most aspects of the LRA.  But, Michael, what do you make of the LRA, and can we use that information to better formulate a strategy for stopping them?


Caroline said...

Dave, Thanks for writing about this important topic on your blog. I generally agree with your arguments here but have to disagree on a few points.

First, you say "America has the power to catch Kony, but not the will." I agree with you that the US will never deploy troops to capture or kill Kony. No matter how many human rights organizations jump up and down decrying the abuses of the LRA, the US will never deploy troops to capture or kill Kony. I am less certain, however, that the US actually has the power to do so -- effectively. Granted, I am not an expert on the tactics and capabilities of US Special Forces, but if faulty US intelligence was one of the reasons why the attack on Kony in December 2008 failed so catastrophically, I am not confident that the US is the best candidate for capturing him. In order to carry this out, the US would have to spend a significant amount of time gathering intel on a region of northeastern Congo and southeastern CAR that I am almost certain they are not familiar with. I highly doubt the US would commit Special Forces to spend the required amount of time gathering this intel if they did decide to launch an operation. And if they don't gather the intel, the operation will no doubt fail. Again.

This leads me to my second point. I believe discussing the military option surrounding the LRA is not a constructive debate. Neither the US nor the EU will commit the time or troops needed to capture Kony, so any operation they launch would likely fail. Continuing the debate on the military option, in my opinion, is not the direction the debate should be going. I realize there are strong vested interests in Uganda that encourage this debate, but it is a dangerous one. One glance through the Human Rights Watch reports on the consequences of the December 2008 operation should lead readers to understand that pursuing this route is both foolish and highly irresponsible given the civilian costs.

What then is the solution? I don't have an easy one. I would advocate for a return to the negotiating table, an increase in MONUC deployments (with contingents ready to use force to defend civilians) to areas at risk from LRA attack, an increase in Ugandan and possibly Rwandan deployments to Obo in CAR, and strong US, EU, and AU pressure on Khartoum to stop its recently renewed support to the LRA. All of these efforts should be focused on the protection of the civilian population, not on killing Kony. Pursuing the military option is entirely irresponsible and disregards the reality of civilian life that is lost in its wake.

Thanks in advance for considering my comments.

Catie Corbin said...

This question may sound dumb, but has anyone thought to debrief the escapees? I mean, it seems like if we're trying to understand the LRA, we should go ahead and ask them. The war's been going on for 23 years...so it seems impractical to study the original sources of the conflict. It inevitably has evolved. So my question is: what are we doing to better understand the LRA...if that is what you say we need to know in order to eventually bring this debilitating conflict to an end?

Dave Reidy said...

Caroline -

Thanks for reading and contributing, I think you introduce some valid arguments to the issue. Instead of replying here, I've highlighted your comments and responded in a new post - http://demagoguesanddictators.blogspot.com/2010/05/lra-continued.html. I hope you to stay involved and continue to contribute your thoughts, as you obviously understand the issue and have significant value to add to our understanding.


Dave Reidy said...


Thanks for reading and no, that's not a dumb question. My background in that area is limited, so perhaps someone else has more information, but my understanding is that there has been some debriefing done. See the Gettleman article I linked to in the post for a bit more detail. I don't know how much has been done in terms of interviewing them or who has done it, so perhaps there is scope for more investigation. It does seem that the information that has been gathered indicates that most Kony's fighters truly believe he is a mystical and powerful leader, impervious to bullets and blessed with foresight. How much of this is due to brainwashing/drugs I have no idea and wouldn't know where to begin to understand that aspect. There seems to be little information about his overall strategic goals, which may mean that they are confined to a select cadre of leaders close to Kony or that they don't exist.

Excellent point.

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