Forgotten Missions

Out of the headlines but not out of action, the U.S. military is still engaged in long-forgotten interventions.

Photo by MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images

Remember the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in April by Boko Haram? They’re mostly still missing. The world’s attention has moved on, but the U.S. military is still flying reconnaissance missions looking for them. It’s also still searching for Joseph Kony, the murderous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that first operated in Uganda but has since moved into a handful of other central African countries. Like the missing schoolgirls, Kony once inspired a viral social media campaign but lately has garnered little attention. Authorities think he’s hiding in Kafia Kingi, a contested area along the Sudan-South Sudan border where U.S. and African Union troops have little access.

In this crisis-heavy summer, once high-priority missions are quickly falling off the public’s — and sometimes the national security establishment’s — radar. Even the biggest of U.S. military missions –Afghanistan, where roughly 29,000 U.S. troops are deployed — seems to be on Washington’s back burner compared with Ukraine and the threat of the Islamic State. But the commanders running these operations, as well as the personnel carrying them out, certainly haven’t forgotten.

The Pentagon’s top five "forgotten missions" follow.

The missing Nigerian schoolgirls:

In April, Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, kidnapped nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls in Nigeria. Spurred to action by a global social media campaign with the hashtag "#BringBackOurGirls," Barack Obama’s administration deployed manned and unmanned aircraft to help find the girls. It also dispatched advisors from the State and Defense departments as well as the FBI. In late May, 80 troops deployed to Chad to support and maintain unarmed Predator drones providing the mission with surveillance.

Approximately 60 girls have escaped, but the rest remain missing. Meanwhile, the United States flies manned and unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance flights 32 to 42 hours a week, according to the Pentagon. And the personnel sent to Chad are still there. U.S. Africa Command also has approximately five people on the State Department-led interagency coordination and assessment team at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to assist the Nigerian government.

"While this effort is not an open-ended mission, there is also no specified end date," a spokesman for Africom told Foreign Policy.

The hunt for Joseph Kony:

In October 2011, President Obama sent a military team of 100 to help African forces track down Kony, who officials thought was hiding in the jungles of central Africa. This March, the president authorized more troops and the use of V-22 Osprey aircraft to aid the mission.

Today, the Obama administration is evaluating the mission, which is authorized through Oct. 25, and, as the administration routinely does, is considering whether to extend it. In the meantime, a new team of advisors is scheduled to replace the current team in September.

"The momentum for the mission within the administration is still high, at least for the moment," said Sasha Lezhnev, associate director for Congo, the Great Lakes, and the LRA at the Enough Project, an advocacy group focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity.

Congress is also still on board. Before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this month, 76 House members sent Obama a letter supporting the ongoing operation.

Kasper Agger, who also works for the Enough Project and is based in Kampala, Uganda, said that though Kony remains at large, the mission is still largely viewed as successful.

"If you just look at the number of attacks, abductions, and killings done by the LRA, they’re down by 80 to 90 percent over the last three years," he said.

Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons:

Almost a year after a sarin gas attack unleashed by the Syrian government killed more than 1,400 civilians outside Damascus, the Defense Department quietly announced last week that Syria’s most dangerous chemicals had been neutralized. U.S. civilian and military specialists began destroying the stockpile in early July aboard the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. container ship specially outfitted for the mission. Now that the mission is complete, the ship and its crew will soon return to the United States. Meanwhile, several reports claim that the Syrian government may still be using chlorine gas against rebels in opposition areas.

NATO air policing:

Following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in March, the United States contributed more F-15 fighter jets to NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission, which began several years ago as a way to guard the airspace of NATO countries that don’t have their own air-policing assets. In April, NATO tripled the number of aircraft involved from four to 12.

In the meantime, the United States has stepped up its activities elsewhere in the region. Also in March, the Pentagon announced that 12 F-16 fighter jets and about 300 U.S. troops were heading to Poland in response to the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. In October, approximately 600 new soldiers will rotate through to take part in training exercises aimed at reassuring European allies.


After 13 years of war and a force that once numbered 101,000, approximately 29,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. Combat operations are set to end in December. Then the Obama administration plans to leave behind 9,800 troops through the end of 2015. But first Washington needs a signed bilateral security agreement from Afghanistan outlining the terms and conditions for maintaining a U.S. troop presence.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the negotiated agreement, but both presidential candidates — Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — have promised to. The problem is that an international audit of June’s runoff election is ongoing, and until it’s complete, no winner can be declared. The pressure to name a victor is growing. The United States wanted someone named president in time for next week’s NATO summit. Meanwhile, Karzai says he’s stepping down on Sept. 2 no matter what.

Sometimes being forgotten is not a bad thing:

These stories have fallen off the front page, but the military doesn’t forget a mission just because it stops attracting headlines, said Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security. "These missions require real manpower and resources and often subject our fighting men and women to real risk."

And sometimes the lack of media attention signals a level of success, said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who’s now dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. They could fall off the charts "because the media loses interest as the story line becomes routine — or at least not disastrous in the day-to-day sense," he said, citing the NATO air-policing mission in Eastern Europe and the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

"The other reason is the simple press of the news cycle and the lack of new information to feed the 24-hour demand," Stavridis said. "I would put Joseph Kony and the Nigerian schoolgirls in this category." Still, there is an issue of limited capacity within the national security establishment, he said. "We have lots and lots of staff people working all the issues all the time, but a very limited number of high-level decision-makers."

The decline in the Defense Department’s budget makes it even more important for officials in Washington to routinely review the department’s ongoing missions, said Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

"These shouldn’t be forgotten. When a higher priority pops up, it should not be off the table that we pull out of something and we hand it off to a regional ally or another partner," he said.

Following the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu, also known as "Black Hawk Down," in 1993, the Pentagon rethought how to manage smaller missions, deciding to name them small-scale contingencies.

Mogadishu taught the United States that its military and political leadership must ensure that all the relevant tracks of an operation — humanitarian, diplomatic, and military — are integrated and in sync, Pavel said.

In Somalia "those got out of whack because no one was watching them on a day-to-day basis," he added.

Pavel said the sheer number of these missions today reveals a United States that is reacting to events rather than getting out ahead of them.

"I think the lack of strategy is contributing to this phenomenon," Pavel said. "The world’s a little less certain right now, and without a strategy to help policymakers make sense of what’s going on in the world, we’re going to be reactive."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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