The United States will continue to train local forces in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group active in central Africa, tempering the announcement last month that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from the region.
The announcement comes amid fears that the removal of U.S. trainers might create a security void that could revitalize the rebel group, which has operated for almost three decades in parts of Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Despite plans by the new Trump administration to rein in sprawling U.S. security commitments around the globe, including the 6–year fight against the LRA, there simply is no other global power willing and able to fill that gap.
In March, U.S. Africa Command stated that it would remove dozens of Special Operations Forces troops from the region. But on April 20, the U.S. appeared to take a step back from its previous assertion that the LRA no longer posed a serious regional threat.
“We obviously have concerns about the possibility of the LRA coming back to fruition,” Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, said in a phone briefing reported by Reuters. “We will continue to work with those countries with training and exercises,” Waldhauser continued. “We are certainly aware of the fact that we do not want to leave a void there.”
In a statement, Uganda’s military announced on April 19 that it would withdraw its troops from the Central African Republic, where they had helped search for Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the LRA and its self-proclaimed prophet. “Joseph Kony with less than 100 armed fighters is now weak and ineffective. He no longer poses any significant threat to Uganda’s security and northern Uganda in particular,” the statement said.
But a U.N. memo expressed concern about Uganda’s withdrawal, stating that it would likely “bolster the L.R.A. — likely leading to a rise in attacks against civilians and serving as a deterrent for future L.R.A. defections,” according to an internal memo reported on April 20 in the New York Times.
Kony rules over the cult-like insurgency that became infamous for kidnapping and recruiting tens of thousands of children to join his insurgency as child soldiers and sex slaves. The International Criminal Court charged Kony with war crimes in 2005, and the United States designated him a terrorist in 2008.
“Kony 2012,” a short video produced by U.S. nonprofit Invisible Children and released in March 2012, quickly went viral, racking up tens of millions of views within days. It sparked a grassroots campaign in the United States to get the U.S. government involved in the hunt for Kony, though the LRA has never tried to directly attack the United States or its overseas interests.
In October 2011, President Barack Obama deployed 100 U.S. troops to the region to help hunt down Kony, sending additional several aircraft and a contingent of Air Forces Special Operations forces in 2014.
But in January, the Trump transition team expressed doubt about the value of a continued U.S. role in the fight against the LRA, part and parcel of a radical reappraisal of what U.S. interests actually are.
“We’ve been hunting Kony for years, is it worth the effort?” was one of the queries included in a four-page document of questions about Africa the transition team sent to the State Department. “The LRA has never attacked U.S. interests, why do we care? Is it worth the huge cash outlays? I hear that even the Ugandans are looking to stop searching for him, since they no longer view him as a threat, so why do we?”
The Ugandans did indeed call it quits. But that, as the Africa Command made clear this week, just makes it all the harder — not easier — for U.S. troops to pack up and leave, too.
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