DAKAR (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s deployment of 100 military advisers to help defeat Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) may yield him a popular foreign policy win but risks triggering more violence if it fails.
In a letter to Congress on Friday, Obama said he authorized the mission to help local armies hunt LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose rebel sect is blamed for years of abductions, killings and acts of brutality in remote central Africa.
While the United States has assisted unsuccessful local efforts to snare Kony since 2008, the announcement was seen as potentially significant if it heralds a renewed commitment to end a two-decade-long scourge to regional security.
“If there were suitable special forces with the right equipment, it would be possible to take him out,” said Tim Allen, professor at the London School of Economics.
“I would hope that this statement indicates there is enough intelligence (on Kony) to do that,” said Allen, co-author of “The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality.”
Kony has long eluded efforts to snare him and obstacles could still hold the U.S. initiative back from a stated goal of removing him from the battlefield — whether that means dead, or alive and bound for the International Criminal Court.
Kony emerged in the late 1980s as a leader of a rebel group in northern Uganda’s Acholiland opposed to President Yoweri Museveni, attracting supporters with a creed based on a mix of mysticism and apocalyptic Christianity.
Over the years the LRA become known for chilling violence including what human rights groups say were the abductions of thousands for use as child soldiers or sex slaves, brutal club and machete attacks on victims.
Ejected from Uganda in 2005, the LRA has since roamed the remote jungle regions straddling Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, terrorizing local communities and mostly out of reach of over-stretched armies.
“The end-result of attempts to capture him was that he would escape and the casualties were the children — his tactic was to put them up front,” said Heloise Ruaudel of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center, formerly Special Assistant to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Uganda from 2003-2005.
While the number of LRA fighters has ebbed and flowed over the years, sometimes numbering hundreds and other times thousands, its impact can be disproportionately severe.
Past attempts to defeat them militarily have tended to result in retaliation taken out against local villages, Ruaudel noted.
Much will also depend on how the new U.S. forces choose to interpret the mandate for the new deployment.
While the United States has for the past three years offered what Obama called “limited U.S. assistance” to regional military efforts, the new force puts 100 mostly special force troops out in the field in a close-up support and advisory role.
Barred from taking on the LRA directly in anything but strict self-defense, the question remains as to what this will add on top of logistical support already being provided.
While the deployment has invited comparisons with the surgical strike Obama successfully used to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, even providing indirect support for a similar assault in Africa would be harder to explain if it backfired.
“It will be very difficult for the U.S. to significantly change the way they engage,” said Mareike Schomerus, Research Consortium Director of the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics.
“A U.S. soldier getting killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo would not be conducive to Obama’s re-election,” said Schomerus of a scenario that would bring flooding back painful memories of U.S. personnel killed in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.
Yet aside from the security gain to the region of catching Kony, the political pay-off to Obama would be significant.
While violent rebellions abound in Africa, the LRA has caught special U.S. attention to the extent that a Hollywood movie, “Machine Gun Preacher,” is currently treating audiences to the tale of ex-biker-gang member’s efforts to take them on.
Allen at the London School of Economics said lobbying by groups such as Christian advocacy group World Vision had kept the issue so much at the forefront of U.S. attention that he had packed out lecture halls when speaking on the LRA there.
“It has become a cause of young people,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg Editing by Maria Golovnina