The belief that the end is nigh for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a small but ruthless transnational armed group operating in four African states – underestimates its resilience and overestimates the unity and capability of the forces ranged against it, say analysts.
The LRA is seen as being in “survival mode”. It has a lightly armed 250-strong militia dispersed across a territory half the size of France, and uses “terror” tactics to subdue local populations and is facing a coordinated response from the armies of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Uganda and the USA.
In recent weeks African Union (AU) special envoy for affairs relating to the LRA Francisco Madeira, and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Abou Moussa have toured Kinshasa, Bangui, Juba and Kampala to discuss regional military cooperation, following authorization from the AU Peace and Security Council in November 2011, with the support of the UN, for them to deal decisively with the LRA.
Ashley Benner, a policy analyst at the Enough Project – a US NGO lobbying for an end to mass atrocity crimes – told IRIN: “The proposed AU intervention force will consist of approximately 3,500-5,000 troops from the four affected countries. The mandate and goals of the mission are to end the LRA, protect civilians, and lead to security and stability in the affected countries.”
The USA has deployed about 100 military advisers – they carry weapons for self-defence only – to assist the region’s military forces, but Benner said this would not be sufficient.
“The advisers need to be bolstered by more capable troops, greater intelligence and logistical capabilities, including helicopters, improved collaboration between regional forces, and increased efforts to encourage LRA members to leave the group,” she added.
Sandra Adong Oder, a senior researcher at the conflict management and peacebuilding unit at Pretoria-based think-tank the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN the same military actors involved in previous and failed attempts to eradicate the LRA were involved in the AU initiative, and asked: “It [the initiative] may be doing more, [but] is it any different?”
The LRA was also not a top priority for the four affected countries: Kony’s forces, were no longer operating in Uganda; they were more than 1,000km from Kinshasa and so not seen as a key security issue for the DRC; they are not threatening any economic interests or political constituencies in CAR; and South Sudan was grappling with more urgent security considerations, said Oder.
In a research note entitled The AU’s Regional Initiative Against the LRA: Prospects and Implications published on 30 January, Oder said: “The regional intervention force… is based on some assumptions that the LRA is an easy problem to solve, and that the insurgent group’s threat capability has been reduced. This may prove to be a grave mistake…
“The new force should therefore not merely improve on existing military operations, but needs to refrain from merely duplicating operational structures and techniques that do not work, while at the same time leaving the military command in the hands of national governments, which could fuel suspicion and intraregional tensions within the alliance, which in turn could severely limit cooperation and coordination – and hence the AU’s overall ownership of the mission…
“This time round, the consequences of another failure will be prohibitive, in the sense that once committed, the AU mission would then have to use all necessary force to avoid failure, and would be under immense pressure to escalate military involvement to ensure success,” the note said.
The International Working Group on the LRA, in a World Bank June 2011 report entitled: Diagnostic Study of the Lord’s Resistance Army, written by Philip Lancaster and Guillaume Lacaille, said: “It should be remembered that the LRA only has to survive to succeed…
“As long as it [the LRA] is present, it is capable of generating insecurity in the region. To survive, it needs only to avoid, as much as possible, direct contact with superior armed forces and continue to resupply itself from vulnerable civilians. As long as it retains the freedom to choose the time and place of its attacks, it retains the tactical and strategic initiative,” the World Bank report said.
In the past month, LRA Crisis Tracker, a real-time mapping platform for crimes committed by Kony’s forces, has attributed six deaths and 14 abductions to the armed group.
Uganda, the regional military power, is expected to take the lead role in the military operations by virtue of its acknowledged professionalism compared to the region’s other forces, and its close working relationship with US forces over the past few years, although its dominance in an intervention force could increase regional tensions, especially between Kampala and Kinshasa: Last year DRC President Joseph Kabila asked his counterpart Yoweri Museveni to halt operations in his country against the LRA by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), and it is unclear how this impasse will be resolved.
Oder said although the Ugandan army was “overstretched” with its commitments to the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it had a personal score to settle with the LRA, after previous encounters had exposed the “weaknesses, corruption and competences” of the UPDF. “It’s about saving face and pride,” she said.
A 2 February 2012 Enough Project report entitled Ensuring Success: Four Steps Beyond US Troops to End the War with the LRA by Sasha Lezhnev, said Uganda’s best troops were in Somalia and it did not have any bases in the DRC. “Some 90 percent of LRA attacks over the past six months have taken place in [DR] Congo… The shortage of troops is also hurting civilian protection efforts, which are in urgent need of a boost.”
Skilled bush fighters
The bush fighting skills of LRA fighters have been masked and overshadowed by their reputation as a ragtag bunch of bandits, marauding and raping, reliant on abducted children brainwashed into soldiering under Kony, and with an absolute disregard for human rights. The LRA is responsible for thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people across the four-country region.
“We have ample evidence from reports of the past 20 years that the LRA are a force to be reckoned with. Ruthless as they are, their tactics are well adapted to the terrain and the nature of the forces they face,” Philip Lancaster – former head of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration division of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), the predecessor of the current UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), and coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on the Congo – said in an August 2011 article entitled the Lord’s Resistance Army and Us.
“The LRA make deliberate use of terror to tie up military forces and survive by hit-and-run attacks that are well-planned and flawlessly executed,” he wrote.
LRA fighters value reconnaissance, are skilled in ambush techniques and the evasion of air surveillance, are trained in both irregular and regular forms of warfare and have adapted to different climatic regions from rainforests to arid wastelands. “Their extraordinary ability to survive, even when constantly on the move, gives LRA fighters an edge over all pursuing armies,” the World Bank report said.
The notion that the LRA’s estimated 250 fighters and their dispersal into small cells indicates weakness, is misleading, the World Bank report said. “While the LRA has been weakened over the past two years, it is premature to regard them as lacking capacity, since the number of the core fighters is not much lower now than what it has been throughout the years.”
The response to any concerted military effort against them is likely to be accompanied by the LRA’s “very crude way of operating” in using civilians as targets, Oder said.
The Ugandan 2008 offensive against the LRA, Operation Lightning Thunder, resulted in a sharp rise in the number of LRA attacks on civilians, rather than a drop-off: There were two successive Christmas massacres in 2008 and 2009.
“These events, particularly the massacre of December 2009 in the Makombo area of Haut Uélé, DRC, provoked questions about the wisdom of offensive operations against the LRA without adequate accompanying measures to protect civilians in the area of operations,” The World Bank report said.
“The military response from UN peacekeeping and national forces has been totally inadequate insofar as they focus on providing limited static defence of a small number of civilian settlements. The LRA just find the ones that aren’t protected. Since none of the armies deployed have a policy of pursuit after attack, the LRA consistently escape with loot and abducted recruits,” says Lancaster’s article.
“A major component of the military operations to apprehend Kony and his senior leadership should be civilian protection,” said Benner.
Kony, an indicted war criminal, has also received an unexpected boost from the undermining of Uganda’s Amnesty Act with the trial of former LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo, which “is further worsening chances that LRA fighters will come out; the case has sparked fear of prosecution among the LRA ranks,” the Enough Project report said.
The UN Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (UNDDRR) exercise has been viewed as a major weapon in deconstructing the LRA through its propaganda campaign to encourage defections.
The Enough Project report quoted a former LRA captain who had defected from the armed group. “I spent 18 years with Kony. The only thing that can be effective now against the LRA is the gun. Don’t leave the UPDF alone – the international community should step in. US advisers won’t be effective, though. You need joint troops from other countries. Kony doesn’t fear the US advisers because he knows the number [of Ugandan troops and US advisers] now is small. One LRA unit can defeat 10 UPDF units.”