The main thrust of the Kony2012 video is continued/increased US support for the Ugandan military-led mission against the LRA, with a strong emphasis on catching Kony. Given that framing, I will use this post to examine each component of that mission and what I see as the related advantages and disadvantages. According to the State Department, the US commitment is a multi-year strategy including four “pillars”:
- increasing civilian protection,
- capturing or killing Kony and other top LRA commanders,
- promoting LRA defections, and
- providing humanitarian relief to LRA-affected communities.
Once I’ve examined these, I’ll point out a few other key issues and provide some an update on how the mission is faring to date.
1. Increasing civilian protection: The US along with UN peacekeeping missions in the region are trying to improve the capacity of national governments to protect civilians in LRA-affected areas. There are also community-level interventions intended to improve protection in cases where the military is absent, including development of radio warning networks and improvement of cellular networks. Local and international non-profit organizations are assisting in these efforts.
Advantages: Protecting civilians is one of the basic roles of any government, and obviously anything that can be done to improve governments’ abilities to do this in Uganda, DRC, CAR, and South Sudan is a positive step.
Disadvantages: I can’t find any disadvantages if this is done well. The challenge here is illustrated by history. National forces in the region have an unfortunate record of failure when it comes to protecting civilians while pursuing the LRA. One of the most awful examples of this were the 2008 “Christmas massacres” when, following a joint Ugandan-Congolese military operation against the LRA, rebels retaliated, killing more than 865 civilians and abducting at least 160 children in northern DRC. These types of incidents have caused a severe lack of civilian confidence in governments’ abilities to adequately protect them while going after the LRA. While for the most part governments claim they are inadequately equipped to provide protection, some communities accuse leaders of neglect or, worse, deliberately failing in their duties to protect.
My 2 cents: It is fitting that this is the first pillar of the mission, and it must be a real priority. When civilians are not adequately protected, military pursuit of Kony has put communities at much greater risk of LRA violence. Many affected communities feel ambiguous about greater military intervention, and improving civilian protection would require major work and humility on the part of the Ugandan military. Mahmood Mamdani explains that the LRA continues to exist in large part because “the civilian population of the area – trust neither the LRA nor government forces.” If the government could create a transparent process to recognize and prosecute past, present, and future misconduct and atrocities committed by government forces, this could go a long way to building trust. So far, there are not many signs of such actions. Efforts to create early warning networks seem very wise and commendable considering protection failures by governments.
2. Capturing or killing Kony and other top LRA commanders: Since 2008, the US has provided over $40 million in logistical support, equipment, and training to support counter-LRA operations in the region. Most of this has been provided to the Ugandan military. Since October of last year, 100 US advisors are on the ground providing consultations.
Advantages: Capturing Kony would lead to him facing the charges against him at the International Criminal Court. Killing Kony would severely disorganize the LRA, as the group is largely reliant on the direction of Kony’s leadership.
Disadvantages: Kony’s army is large composed of abducted children from the same communities it attacks. Any attack on Kony would likely harm child fighters and other civilian prisoners of the LRA. Kony’s forces are famous for evading capture by dispersing into the bush then retaliating against civilians instead of military opponents (see “Christmas massacres” above). Many have questioned providing support to the Ugandan military, which does not have an admirable human rights record, historically or at present.
My 2 cents: I have mixed feelings about this, as do people in affected communities. It would be fantastic if Kony could be physically stopped in a way that would not harm a single civilian, abductee, or child, but this is quite unlikely. LRA survivor and director of African Youth Initiative Network, Victor Ochen, captures the unique hurt this situation causes in personal terms:
“As someone whose brother and cousin were abducted and who are among the thousands of disappeared whose fate is unknown, I join with other Ugandans who hope our relatives are still in captivity and will come back home alive. Any advocacy aimed at military bombardment of the LRA rebels remains therefore very sensitive throughout northern Uganda, and I imagine the DRC and South Sudan and Central African Republic as well, because thousands of children and adults have been abducted and have still not come home yet. My own father is deeply traumatized due to my brother and cousin’s abduction, and every time he hears about any report of killing LRA rebels he is not sure whom they have killed and wonders if people are celebrating his beloved son’s death.”
Further, the idea of further militarization of Ugandan security forces that have not hesitated to kill civilians and jail the president’s political opponents several times in the last year is not especially attractive. If there are tactical ways to further weaken the LRA by effectively cutting off supplies and increasing the rate of defections (see below), it might ultimately cause less harm than any mission resembling past Kony-capture efforts.
3. Promoting LRA defections:The US, UN, African Union, and national governments all participate in efforts to encourage LRA fighters to defect, return home safely (including repatriation), and reintegrate into their communities.
Advantages: Defections weaken the LRA. Replacing commanders is an ongoing problem, especially now that the LRA is fighting on non-Acholi turf, where it is more difficult to integrate locals into the structure and culture of the LRA.
Disadvantages: Though there are efforts to change this, some affected communities are understandably hostile to defectors. Before being taken away by the LRA, many were forced to commit unspeakable violence on family members, friends, and neighbors. Even if communities are ready to forgive, many LRA are not ready to forgive themselves and reintegrate. Communities that assist defectors are often targets of reprisal attacks.
My 2 cents: Military operations can improve by offering greater opportunities for safe surrender. Ensuring the safety of those who do defect and the communities they run to is paramount to the success of this goal.
4. Providing humanitarian relief to LRA-affected communities: In fiscal year 2011, the US provided $18 million in food assistance, humanitarian protection, health, livelihoods, and other relief assistance to LRA-affected populations.
Advantages: The large scale and long timeline of the conflict means that many of the most basic services and aspects of daily life have long been interrupted in affected communities. An entire generation has grown up in camps for internally displaced people and, in Uganda, are now returning to a life they’ve never known. Assistance is necessary to help return the economic and social lives of northern Ugandans to normal. In regions where the LRA is still actively attacking civilians, the focus is (and should be) on humanitarian assistance alongside some of the early warning programs mentioned above.
Disadvantages: Not many, aside from many of the usual (legitimate) questions raised about the means and ends of development aid. I won’t tackle these here.
My 2 cents: I cannot overemphasize the importance of support to displaced people, reconstruction efforts, and recovery programs. I cannot overemphasize that such efforts must be led, first and foremost, by local people. Even in the last few years, Ugandan and international efforts have made significant gains in reconstruction. There is still a long way to go, especially in reintegrating former LRA fighters and looking at justice on the community level. Local efforts to achieve these things deserve support.
5. Other key issues
These four elements of the mission come up short in a few ways, in my mind and that of others. Most importantly, they don’t emphasize regional cooperation enough, which will be a large reason for the success of goals 1, 2, and 3. In addition, there is not much open recognition of political aspects of any solution. There are historical layers to the tenuousness relationships between the governments in the region. Many politicians have played a perceived or real role in allowing this conflict to go on. Addressing this fact in order to restore trust in affected communities and truly establish justice for all involved is essential.
How’s the mission going?
Many thanks to this post from the excellent Justice in Conflict blog for much of the information that follows. The news since the introduction of US military advisers in Uganda last October is mixed. This is not to say their performance should be judged such a short time into deployment, just to update. Since the US deployment in October, the next two months sa
w the lowest number of LRA attacks for 2011. However, this year and even moreso in recent weeks, LRA attacks have increased.
Lack of coordination and territorial agreement among the four national armies concerned is a major concern. Most notably, during election season in DRC, the Ugandan military was forced out of DRC territory. All four involved armies lack technological capabilities, including the necessary transport to keep up with quick LRA movements and their nimble divide-and-hide strategy. The Ugandan military lacks adequate troop commitment in the north in part because it is heavily committed to fighting in Somalia. In order to evade intelligence-gathering by American equipment, Kony has adopted new communication systems that allow him to avoid using phones.
After some early glitches, civilian early warning systems are increasingly valuable. Some coordination problems remain, but today the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) centralizes regional data on LRA attacks. Moving forward, it will be important for communities to create preparedness plans of what to do in case of attack.
Efforts to encourage defections and escape from the LRA have seen some success. Several abductees have released or run away recently. Flyers and radio messages in many languages are going out to tell fighters and abductees that they have guaranteed amnesty unless they are indicted by the ICC. However, barriers remain. Reports by Resolve say that last year, “as many as 426 people escaped from the LRA, most of them Zande civilians abducted for short periods of time.”
The services for and treatment of defectors still could improve in many ways, but there is a lot of assistance reaching affected communities for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration programming as well as general recovery assistance. Northern Uganda has seen marked improvements in recent years as economic recovery efforts and other programming are underway. However, in places that are still actively in conflict and/or very removed from even the most basic infrastructure, recovery efforts and humanitarian assistance are limited.
Plans are in place to deploy 5,000 African Union troops, but there are many questions as to how the multinational force will be equipped and coordinated. The details and timeline of this intervention remain to be seen.
On a more micro level
For those of you looking to donate private money to an organization that is doing good work in the context of the LRA conflict, I suggest researching what various organizations actually do on the ground and who directs their efforts. Also, keep in mind that many local organizations in conflict areas do not have flashy websites or tax-exempt status in America. As a possible starting point, I did suggest several local institutions in northern Uganda that are doing good work in my last post.