During last Friday's whistle-stop visit to Uganda, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to be drawn on any questions relating to the hunt for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Nevertheless, over recent months, a number of details have begun to emerge about both the pattern, and the progress, of the operation. In particular, in late May, the US Army's Special Operations Command in Africa (SOCAFRICA) provided the first update on its own deployment of 100 Green Berets to the region (who having arrived in the field in November last year, are acting as military advisers to various regional armies). The update confirmed a number of important details, including the fact that the US Special Forces, despite being primarily based in Entebbe, Uganda, have established a number of forward operating bases ('Combined Operations Fusion Centres') in areas of LRA activity: the borderlands between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. The SOCAFRICA statement also claimed some initial successes for the US deployment, arguing that it has already assisted regional armies to improve their tracking and pursuit of LRA elements, and has thus enabled them to increase the pressure on Kony’s men. Indeed, the US statement even went as far as to say that as a result of the new joint operations, the LRA has now been reduced to ‘survival mode’ only.
When President Obama first announced the Green Berets’ deployment in mid-October, many commentators initially dismissed the move as largely symbolic, and as aimed primarily at assuaging US-based anti-LRA lobby groups. In particular, the operation was criticized for being based out of Entebbe - which is several hundred miles away from the DRC-CAR-South Sudan border zone - for the somewhat passive role in which it cast the US troops (at the time, US Assistant Secretary of Defence Alexander Vershbow was keen to stress that the Green Berets would not directly engage the LRA, but would instead act only as trainers and advisors to regional militaries), and for its ‘time-limited’ mandate. In addition, the deployment looked unlikely to achieve much in a context in which the Ugandan Army (UPDF) – who had been the primary trackers of Kony’s men in recent years – were beginning to draw down their own anti-LRA operation, in light of growing fatigue and indiscipline amongst its expeditionary force, and due to the UPDF’s growing commitments elsewhere.
However, in recent months both the US deployment, and the regional military efforts that this is designed to assist, have received a major fillip from the enormous public and NGO response to Invisible Children’s ‘KONY 2012’ campaign video. Specifically, the huge amount of interest that the video has generated – which following its uploading to YouTube in early March, has been viewed over 92 million times – has done much to galvanize US policy-makers, in particular, into developing a more robust response to the LRA crisis. Moreover, these efforts have fared well with a White House administration keen to demonstrate its own tough stance on foreign policy matters in the run-up to November’s presidential election. It is in this context, then, that in late April President Obama made a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington DC, in which he indicated that the Green Berets’ mission was to be both expanded, and extended (and in relation to the latter, he explicitly removed the former ‘time-limit’ on the operation). Since then, the US force, although continuing to avoid any direct engagements with the LRA, has also become more active in the field, especially in the area of intelligence gathering (and SOCAFRICA's recent statement also stated that the US are now planning to increase its surveillance overflights of the LRA-effected areas as well). The public response to KONY 2012 has also helped to galvanize Kampala into renewed action against the rebel group. Thus, in late March, President Museveni announced that the UPDF would be contributing the lion’s share of troops to a new 5,000 strong African Union (AU) force to take on the LRA. Although details of the AU mission have yet to be finalized, this will likely involve both a reallocation of the 1,500 or so Uganda soldiers currently based in the LRA-affected areas, and a further UPDF deployment to the zone. For its part, the Congolese Army (FARDC) had already deployed their elite, and US-trained, 391st Battalion to the LRA-affected areas in order to bolster their own efforts against Kony’s men. At the time of their deployment, in April 2011, the 391st Battalion replaced former units of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) who although formerly integrated into the FARDC, largely operate outside of its command and control structures. But since early March, these troops have become much more active in their anti-LRA activities, and have received additional anti-insurgency training from the Green Beret trainers (at a UN Stabilization Mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, Operations Centre in Dungu Town, in Haut-Uele District). In all of these ways, then, it is worth noting that Invisible Children’s campaign, whatever its other shortcomings, has been highly successful in achieving its primary objective, of achieving an expanded US operation in Central Africa, in support of regional militaries’ own anti-LRA efforts.
Moreover, over recent months, all of this reinvigorated military activity has resulted in a number of significant successes. For example, when on 10th March, a detachment of LRA fighters tried to attack a village along the road between Dungu and Faradje Town, they were repelled by an FARDC patrol (who also killed 2 LRA cadres in the process, and recovered a number of weapons). However, even better was to come in on 12th May, when another group of 30 LRA fighters was ambushed by a UPDF patrol on the banks of the River Mbou (on the CAR side of the border with the DRC). In the ensuing exchanges, the Ugandans captured 3 of the rebel fighters – among them one of the LRA’s most senior commanders, and one of Kony’s most trusted aides, Maj.-Gen. Caesar Achellam Otto. Subsequent accounts of Achellam’s arrest were somewhat confused on the question of whether the ambush and capture had been a chance event, or whether it was the result of an intelligence-led operation. In addition, at least one commentator, Angelo Izama, of the Kampala-based NGO Fanaka Kwawote, suggested that Achellam may have even handed himself in – having been seen as a potential defector for several years now (and the relatively comfortable conditions in which the Maj.-Gen. has been held since his arrest may be further evidence that such a deal had indeed been done). Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances of Achellam’s capture, there is little doubt the arrest has done much to further the impression that the net is indeed now closing on Joseph Kony himself.
Yet whether all of this means that the LRA really has indeed now been reduced to ‘survival mode’ remains unclear. Certainly, recent months have also seen the group narrow its area of operations. Thus, although Kony himself may now be in Darfur, and at least some of his men remain in the CAR, since the turn of the year most of his group’s 200 or so remaining fighters have been concentrated in a relatively narrow corridor running roughly west-east from Bangadi Town, through Dungu, to Faradje, in North-eastern DRC. Moreover, although these fighters (who now operate in cells of between 3-30 men) have continued to carry out large numbers of attacks against civilian populations, recent predations have involved much lower levels of violence that has become the norm in recent years. For example, in 33 LRA attacks carried out in North-eastern DRC between Jan-March 2012, 3 civilian deaths were recorded. Most of the attacks appear to have been orientated towards the looting of supplies, rather than to the abduction of additional fighters (as would have been the case until just a few months ago). However, whether this narrowing of territory, and reduction in levels of LRA violence, can be seen as a result of external pressure being brought to bear on the rebel group – through more effective patrolling of surrounding areas, and a stifling of supply lines – remains unclear. Certainly, this is the story that both SOCAFRICA and the UPDF are keen to promulgate to the world’s media. Yet it is just as likely that these developments are instead an outcome of tactical decisions made by Joseph Kony himself – perhaps made in the context of last September’s ‘council of war’ of senior LRA commanders (held in the CAR) – both to concentrate his remaining force in the dense forests around Dungu, and to try to gain the support of surrounding populations there (which will become more important over time, especially if the LRA remain in Haut-Uele for an extended period of time).
As US intelligence gathering gains pace, and as regional military efforts become more coordinated, both as a result of US training, and in line with the AU’s new plan, pressure on the LRA will certainly increase. However, with the possibility of further material support from Khartoum – who continue to view the LRA as a useful proxy against the South Sudanese Army (SPLA) and the UPDF – Kony may decide to ‘bide his time’, by simply ‘bedding down’ his force in the least accessible parts of Haut-Uele until the current challenges have passed. Certainly, this sort of tactic has worked very well for him in the past. However, whilst this development might bode well for local civilian populations in the short term, it will also do little to diminish the LRA’s overall, and ongoing, capacity for violence.