About a hundred US troops being deployed to Central Africa will be there for months — not years — and only until the national armies of the region are capable of dismantling the terrorist group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, a senior Pentagon official told Congress members.
“We’ve made very clear that this is not an open-ended commitment,” Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We agreed there would be review after several months to know whether our advisors are making significant progress.”
The US military and the State Department are working together on a four-point plan to help rid Central Africa of the LRA, headed by Joseph Kony, who has been indicted for international war crimes, Vershbow said. He appeared before the committee alongside Donald Yamamoto, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, to explain the operation President Barack Obama announced October 14,.
The US troops — mostly Army Special Forces — will work with the militaries of Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan to capture or kill Kony and other LRA commanders, Vershbow said.
The State Department will oversee the other three parts of the plan: to protect civilians, disarm and dismantle the LRA, and provide humanitarian relief to areas affected by the guerrilla militia, Vershbow and Yamamoto said. The LRA, they said, is composed mostly of kidnapped children forced to execute Kony’s terrorist tactics over the past 20 years. Tens of thousands of people have been murdered and as many as 1.8 million have been displaced by the LRA, which has attacked at least 240 times this year, Yamamoto added.
Kony was placed on a specially designated international terrorist list in 2008, but has no known ties to other groups such as Al-Qaeda or Al-Shabaab, Yamamoto said. Kony began the LRA — a terrorist group with no religious ties — in Uganda, but moved out of the country in 2006 to work in small groups in surrounding areas, he said.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has provided training and equipment to central African militaries, and those militaries have been successful against the LRA, which is down to about 200 core fighters and about 600 supporters, Yamamoto said. About 12,000 LRA fighters, he said, have left the group and been reintegrated into their home environments.
African militaries have developed capacities and work together in difficult jungle terrain, but need military assistance in merging intelligence with operations planning, Vershbow said.
With the consent of all the central African governments, some US troops already have moved into the affected area, Vershbow said. Most will stay in Uganda, but some will forward deploy with African troops, he added.
Under Obama’s order, US troops are limited to an advisory and assistance role, but will be armed and equipped for their own defense, Vershbow said.
“We’ve already seen a lot of progress by the Ugandans and other militaries in reducing the LRA’s numbers,” he said. “We think we’re building on a fairly strong foundation here. But those regional forces have been hindered by their inability to gather intelligence and turn into operational action.”
The cost and duration of the deployment is unclear, Vershbow said, but it likely will cost tens of millions of dollars and last several months.
“We will review it in a few months to ensure it is having success on the ground,” he said. “We define success, first and foremost, as to whether Kony and the other commanders are captured, the number of defections, and the ability of the African armies to succeed.”
The action is similar to those the US military undertook in training and equipping Georgian and Bosnian militaries in recent years, Vershbow said.
“What we’re doing in this specific case is a subset of broader efforts we’re making throughout Africa to promote the professionalization of those militaries and to solve their own problems,” Vershbow said.
“This will give greater military cooperation among the four key states involved … so we don’t have to intervene in the future,” he added.