WASHINGTON – Intervening in a volatile and brutal crisis, President Barack Obama said Friday he has dispatched 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to support a years-long fight against a guerrilla group accused of horrific atrocities. Obama said they were sent to advise, not engage in combat, unless forced to defend themselves.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said the troops will act as advisers in a long-running battle against the Lord’s Resistance Army, considered one of Africa’s most ruthless rebel groups, and help to hunt down its notorious leader, Joseph Kony.
The first of the troops arrived in Uganda on Wednesday, the White House said, and others will be sent to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While the size of the U.S. footprint is small, Obama’s announcement represents a highly unusual intervention for the United States. Although some American troops are based in Djibouti and small groups of soldiers have been deployed to Somalia, the U.S. traditionally has been reluctant to commit forces to help African nations put down insurgencies.
It demonstrates the Obama administration’s escalating attention to and fears about security risks in Africa, including terror networks, piracy and unstable nations. The move was intended to show some engagement to lessen the impact of one of the worst protracted wars in Africa.
Obama declared his decision to send troops as in keeping with the national security interests of the United States. The White House announced it in a low-key fashion, releasing the Obama notification and justification of the troop deployment that the president sent to congressional leaders.
Pentagon officials said the bulk of the deployment will be of special operations troops, who will provide security and combat training to African units. The move raises the profile of U.S. involvement on the continent – and represents an apparent victory for administration officials who have argued for more-robust intervention in humanitarian crises.
The change in policy could reflect the long-standing concerns of a number of high-ranking Obama advisers 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. The Lord’s Resistance Army’s 24-year campaign of rebellion, rape and murder represents one of the world’s worst human rights crises today.
“This case is somewhat exceptional,” said Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are few more clear-cut cases of evil in the world today than the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
Downie noted that the U.S. has once before, at the end of 2008, sent advisers and logistical backup to help the Ugandan army root out the LRA. Intelligence leaks, poor cooperation between the Ugandan and other African armies, and bad weather hampered the operation.
Since then, nearly 400,000 people in northern Congo have been displaced due to the LRA’s activity, Downie said. He cautioned that the operation shouldn’t be viewed as short-term. Even if the LRA is disbanded quickly, the effects of years of war will require lengthy rehabilitation efforts.
Coming off the administration’s successful, if limited, intervention in Libya, the Uganda deployment represents a continued effort by Obama to use military force for humanitarian protection in areas where atrocities are occurring. Sending 100 troops may not be significant in terms of military numbers, but the composition of the force gives the United States a new counterterrorism foothold in a region of the world fraught with terrorist networks, pirates and unstable nations.
A special forces unit can be highly effective beyond what the number of soldiers might suggest. They are highly skilled in disrupting insurgency networks by discovering where rebels are based and how they procure guns, money and other logistical support.
The Lord’s Resistance Army has been pushing westward since it began its attacks years ago, and the administration and human rights groups say its atrocities have left thousands dead and have put as many as 300,000 Africans to flight.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court under a 2005 warrant for crimes against humanity in his native Uganda. A self-styled prophet who mixes Christian mysticism with politics, he is believed hiding along the Sudan-Congo border.