International Order & Conflict

Eliminating The Lord’s Resistance Army Once And For All

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Last week, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would send about 100 troops to central Africa to assist regional forces combating the Lord’s Resistance Army. The decision mirrors a recommendation made in a Stimson Center Spotlight Analysis earlier this year. The following analysis was originally posted on May 24, 2011.

By Guy Hammond – Over the past year, Congress and the Obama administration have taken several laudable steps to address the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act,” signed into law in May 2010, required the US government to develop a regional strategy in support of multilateral efforts to eliminate the LRA threat.

LRA Motivations and Patterns of Violence

The number of LRA fighters destabilizing central Africa has reportedly dwindled from its peak of an estimated several thousand fighters in 2003 to roughly 200-400 fighters today. Under the leadership of Joseph Kony, they operate in small sub-groups in the weakly governed border zones between the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. They have largely avoided direct confrontation with national militaries or UN peacekeepers and instead have preyed on weaker targets, the civilian population.[1] Despite their small numbers, the group continues to kill, maim, and abduct civilians. The LRA has killed almost 3,000 people and displaced 400,000 since December 2008 and in just the first three months of this year, the LRA attacked 107 times, leaving 68 killed, 37 wounded, 178 abducted, and an additional 38,000 displaced persons.[2]

The LRA has abandoned any real political agenda and does not seek to rally popular support. On the contrary, the LRA’s primary motivation is survival of the organization, which it accomplishes through terrorizing and pillaging civilians. It replenishes the rank and file through forced abduction and gleans intelligence about the forces pursuing it while discouraging civilians from giving those forces intelligence in turn. Raids increase LRA finances and operational support through forced labor and confiscation of goods. Cohesion within LRA units is maintained through intimidation, punishment, mandatory participation in brutality, and the sharing of the “spoils of war.”[3] As such, political negotiation directly with Kony and senior leadership has proven fruitless in the past and holds little hope for the future.

US Strategy and Efforts to Date

In November, the Obama Administration delivered to Congress a “Strategy to Support the Disarmament of the Lord’s Resistance Army.” The multi-year strategy outlines future U.S. support to regional and multilateral action through several lines of effort (political, military, aid, and otherwise). The document details four objectives focusing on the protection of civilians; apprehension of Kony and senior commanders; promotion of defection and disarmament of LRA fighters; and increasing humanitarian access. However, in practical terms it largely reinforces U.S. efforts ongoing since 2008 to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) in hunting Kony and his leadership cadre. While the UPDF campaign has led to LRA defections and dwindling numbers, it has not successfully disarmed the LRA or prevented attacks against civilians. The elusive guerrilla fighters have exploited both difficult terrain and the shortcomings of the UPDF.

Recommended Priorities for the Next Year

Keep the pressure on Kony. Some advocates observe LRA retaliatory violence against civilians following UPDF operations and argue that counter-guerilla operations should be stopped. This argument ignores what US officials appear to acknowledge, that if counter-guerilla operations letup, the LRA will only consolidate its forces and abduct more civilians to replenish its ranks. Therefore, the USG should stay the course and continue to support UPDF operations targeting LRA leadership for capture, supplementing this effort with incentives for safe escape/surrender to the rank and file.

Immediately deploy military advisors to support the UPDF. The US strategy acknowledges that the UPDF deployment into LRA affected territories is not an everlasting commitment. And yet the US has only incrementally increased support to the UPDF over the last 2.5 years, contributing to the UPDF’s limited success. There is cause for concern of human rights abuses by the UPDF at home and abroad, but communities in LRA affected areas continue to voice their desire to have the UPDF deployed nearby rather than other national militaries. The UPDF is far from a perfect military machine but it may be the best military option in the region.[4] Therefore the US should realistically assess the abilities of the UPDF and quickly augment them by supplying a small team of US military advisers to provide intelligence and planning/advisory support. Ideally, over the next two years funding should be allocated for training programs for UPDF, including human rights training.[5]

Make good on early commitments. The White House strategy outlines “priority actions” in LRA affected areas, including: increased access to telecommunications; increased mobility/access of protection actors; enhanced coordination and collaboration of forces in the area; and increased opportunities for LRA fighters and associated persons to safely defect and escape. The US supported initiatives have yet to satisfy the basic elements of an early warning system-essentially, reliable and open lines of communication and reporting between all protection actors and LRA affected communities. Implementing NGOs in LRA affected areas should not wait for the USG to take the lead, and should start/continue building this early warning network.

Search for and secure international funding. In an environment of austerity, the USG must genuinely seek financial partners committed to implementing the less controversial aspects of this multi-year strategy and should coordinate its own efforts with those of others, including the World Bank and European Union.

Photo caption and credit: ENTEBBE, Uganda – Brigadier General Michael Callan, 17th Air Force vice commander, reviews a formation of the Ugandan People’s Defence Force in Entebbe, Uganda, May 25, 2010. Members of U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) air component Air Forces Africa met with senior embassy and Ugandan officials to discuss current and future engagement activities between Uganda and the United States. (US Air Force photo by Major Paula Kurtz)

[1] For more on the LRA see: Ledio Cakaj, “The Lord’s Resistance Army of today,” The Enough Project, November 2010.

[2] UN OCHA, “LRA Regional Update: DRC, CAR and southern Sudan,” March 2011, available here:

[3] For example, a fighter’s demonstration of “courage” on the battlefield may earn him a “bush wife” or sex slave. For more on the LRA and the strategic logic for violence against civilians, see Max Kelly, “Protecting Civilians: Proposed Principles for Military Operations,” (Washington, DC: The Stimson Center, spring 2010), available here:

[4] The U.S. has reportedly trained a battalion of troops from the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo (the FARDC) to deploy to LRA affected areas. Given the FARDC’s poor record elsewhere, this effort will benefit the local people only if these troops continue to be closely monitored and advised.

[5] The example set by the British International Military Assistance Training Team efforts in Sierra Leone (2000-2002) is a successful example to draw on (see Walter Grady Roberson, “British Military Intervention into Sierra Leone: A Case Study,” Thesis presented to the Faculty of the US Army  Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth Kansas, 2007). Over a two-year period, the British trained multiple battalions of the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). After their training, and with the help of a British Brigadier to draft an operational plan, the SLA successfully dismantled the Revolutionary United Front. N.B. While this example demonstrates the utility of embedding military advisors and conducting training for national forces, the LRA are different than the RUF in that they do not have clearly vulnerable supply lines (to be attacked by COIN forces) like the RUF.


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