Fighting the Lord's Resistance Army Will Take More Than Guns

For the Obama administration's new mission to work, it will have to take central Africa's other problems into account

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Ugandan army soldiers escort civilians after a nearby attack by the Lord's Resistance Army / AP

On October 12, President Barack Obama announced he would deploy a combat-equipped team of U.S. military personnel to central Africa. As the President specified in his letter notifying congressional leaders of the operation, the team is the first part of what will total approximately 100 U.S. military personnel, who will "act as advisers to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership" of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group from northern Uganda that has since spread to other parts of central Africa.  The deployment of our troops is no panacea, but they will play a critically important role by providing the involved regional militaries with greater access to desperately needed intelligence and information. Clearly, there are risks involved, but the president's initiative is ultimately the right decision.

For more than two decades, the LRA has terrorized the people of northern Uganda and now central Africa more widely, brutally killing thousands, and leading directly to the displacement of 1.8 million people. In recent years, the LRA has moved out of northern Uganda and deep into central Africa -- laying low in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo while replenishing their ranks by attacking remote Congolese villages and crossing into the Central Africa Republic and South Sudan to initiate similar brutality.

The president's deployment of military advisers to the region is a significant step. But the ultimate success of that mission will depend not only on how our advisers carry out their assignment or on whether key leaders of the LRA are caught once and for all, but also on whether the United States pursues other policies critical to sustainably solving the problem at hand. We can't end the threat that the LRA poses solely by the barrel of the gun. The U.S. will also have to scale up equally important diplomatic and development initiatives throughout the region.

In 2009, I introduced legislation with former Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas that laid out just such a strategy. That bill, the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, passed Congress with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by President Obama last year and, in October, cited as the strategic foundation of the recent deployment.

While our bill authorized a comprehensive set of policies necessary both to help remove the threat of the LRA and address the conditions out of which the LRA emerged, it also gave the administration discretion to determine the most effective way forward.

The mission that the president has assigned our military personnel will be challenging. The traditional, binary, all-or-nothing approach to military missions is based on bitter experience. But this mission is different. Even though U.S. military forces will be forward deployed with regional African militaries, their focus will be on facilitating better information-sharing among the African forces. In doing so, the hope is not only to stop the LRA but to also encourage greater protection of innocent civilians who might otherwise be attacked.

There are good reasons to be reluctant about limiting the engagement of military personnel when we assign them a task, and the current deployment to central Africa will be a test of whether we are capable undertaking this kind of alternative mission. Located in difficult and remote terrain, it is likely to be a difficult undertaking. But the strategic rewards for our country -- of being able to use our military in this non-traditional way and in a manner that supports greater protection of civilians -- can be enormous in other areas, especially in addressing our highest national security priority, namely the threat of terrorist networks.

To achieve a long-term, sustainable solution, though, we will need to do more. It is essential that the Ugandan government address the conditions out of which the LRA emerged and which could give rise to future conflict if unchanged, including progress on basic development needs and addressing historic problems of marginalization. Other governments in the region must begin to fix the lack of governance and weak security infrastructure that has enabled the LRA to thrive within their borders. In each country, this means focusing on the core rule of law institutions, reforming the security apparatus, and genuinely addressing political and economic grievances.

Inevitably, this will require our assistance -- both technical and financial -- that can help to stabilize and strengthen not only the government but civil society as well.  Given the current fiscal climate, we must commit to providing support in a manner that ensures transparency and accountability -- and is crafted in close coordination with those on the ground. A failure to address the underlying political grievances in northern Uganda and throughout the broader region could lead to new conflicts in the future, undermining the success we all hope our military personnel will have.

Presented by

Russ Feingold, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1993 to 2011, is the founder of Progressives United and a visiting professor at Marquette University Law School. He is also author of the forthcoming book While America Sleeps, scheduled for release in February 2012.

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