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Cara Jones

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Obama, the LRA, and Future Interventions in Africa

Posted: 10/26/11 04:51 PM ET

As reported by CNN, ABC News, and other sources including this one, Barack Obama has sent one hundred "combat-ready" troops to Central Africa to provide technical assistance to forces trying to counter notorious northern Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group. The LRA, a group loosely centered around extreme religious views, has been active since the late 1980s, engaging in a low-intensity civil war with the Ugandan government. They are accused of multiple atrocities, including child abduction for the purposes of creating combatants and massacres of entire villages within the Gulu region. They also exploit Uganda's weak borders to receive and provide support to other rebel groups in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all other countries containing regions rightfully known as 'conflict neighborhoods,' where arms markets make for easy supplies of weapons and cash to fight wars.

What does this seemingly small intervention in a largely overlooked corner of the world mean for the U.S.? Why are we now sending troops, however small the number may be, to fight a largely unknown organization in an area that has been awash with blood for the past two decades?

Justification for intervention is easily traceable to Obama's signing of the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which "expressed support for increased, comprehensive U.S. efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability." Tellingly however, although the LRA has been active since then, the U.S. has remained silent on problems in the area, as nothing 'new' has happened, by which I mean that in recent weeks there has been no shocking event -- or at least no event(s) more shocking than usual -- that would spur a change in U.S. posture since the largely symbolic signing of this act.

What has changed?

I would argue the setting of the stage for greater U.S. involvement in Africa began with the terror attacks in the Ugandan capitol of Kampala during the World Cup in July 2010, which killed upwards of 75 people. Al-Shabab, the Somali-based terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened future attacks on fellow East African Community member nation Burundi, which also sent troops to the African Union Assistance Mission to Somalia in the summer of 2010. At roughly the same time, South Sudan voted to secede, while areas of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo continued to be unstable as pockets of active rebel violence continued sporadically. With the official succession of South Sudan in 2011, border regions between the now separate countries quickly devolved into violence. Finally, the 'Arab Spring' taking place to the north not only provided inspiration to many in Central Africa but created a relatively new model of U.S. policy toward politics on the continent, as we sent technical assistance to Libya as a part of NATO.

So, while there has been no specific event to trigger U.S. intervention in Africa's ongoing troubles, the time to address any number of issues is ripe. There is the potential to bring some stability to a long-suffering area. There is the fact that LRA leader Joseph Kony is a particularly vicious character who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for numerous crimes against humanity, including murder and child abuse. There is, also, the LRA's proximity to the Horn of Africa and particularly Somalia, a country now known mainly for its failed state, its piracy, and its export of terrorism.

Is it overly cynical to wonder if 'assistance' in Uganda and Central Africa is the start of the U.S. gearing up for the next logical stage of the now-nameless 'War On Terror'?

It's certainly possible that the president recognizes the practical advantages 'assisting' the region could have in regard to global terrorism. The practicality of such a move, assuming that it is simply the beginning of something larger, should be measured against the myriad of problems still another front presents logistically, economically, and in regards to public support. And there is the perhaps greater problem that our dealings in Africa, military or otherwise, are never easy.

The last serious 'boots on the ground' U.S. mission in Africa was as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Somalia (UNASOM I and II) in the early 1990s, an involvement which ended with the horrific events dramatized in the film Black Hawk Down. The subsequent withdrawal of the U.S. from future conflicts in the region included turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, civil wars in the Central African Republic and Cote D'Ivoire, and the Congo Wars (1996-1998) and (1998-2003), which combined have killed upwards of 4 million people. The internal politics of the U.S. and the lack of connection between black Africans half a world away and mainstream America simply led to a path of non-intervention; after Somalia, there were practical concerns as to the abilities of outside troops to affect change in African politics, but the truth of the matter was, it was an investment in peace and development the U.S. was then unwilling to make.

For better or worse, this could be changing. The U.S. has given approximately $45 million in military aid to fight terrorism in Uganda and Burundi in recent months. And while the White House has stressed the limitation of our involvement in the fight against the LRA, there has been no mention as to whether or not the president has closed the door for expansion of the mission or for other 'assistance' elsewhere in Africa.