AFRICOM’s Ugandan Blunder

In early February, The New York Times released information detailing the involvement of the U.S. military in the bungled Ugandan mission to oust the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from northeastern DR Congo. Seventeen military advisors from AFRICOM worked closely with the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) to plan the attack, which the United States further subsidized through the donation of satellite phones and $1 million worth of fuel. Although the United States has been training the Ugandan military for years, this is the first time it has directly assisted in carrying out an operation.

News reports from the ground indicate that, largely because of the poorly executed military incursion, the LRA initiated a series of retaliatory attacks against Congolese civilians, killing nearly 1,000, displacing over 180,000 to date, and abducting hundreds of new child soldiers. Complaints also emerged that the Ugandan and Congolese forces involved in the operation did little if anything to protect civilians, leaving them vulnerable to the LRA’s killing spree. By any reasonable definition, Operation Lightning Thunder was an abject military failure.

So why did General William Ward, commander of AFRICOM, consider the operation a success? He testified publicly that the operation has been “positive in so far as disrupting the activity of [LRA rebel leader Joseph] Kony,” and “positive in addressing some of the training and recruiting practices that he and his element have performed.”

Yes, the operation was conducted with cooperation from the Congolese and Southern Sudanese governments, which is indeed something to be celebrated. However, their involvement was minimal at best, and the Pentagon did more to help the UPDF plan their flawed strike than to encourage regional cooperation. General Ward even mistakenly said that it was DR Congo and Rwanda who joined Uganda in the operation, not Southern Sudan. Perhaps their participation was so small that it was forgettable, perhaps it was a slip of the tongue, or perhaps it was intentional. In any case, his statement that “Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo came together to look at a way to deal with the problem of the LRA” gave the impression that AFRICOM’s commander knows less about African military operations than Jeffrey Gettleman at The New York Times.

General Ward made his statements at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 17, in front of a panel of senators. Members of Congress, who are often incapable of keeping up-to-date on Africa-related issues, accepted his words, though they were incorrect in many respects.

Having heard Ward’s positive assessment of Operation Lightning Thunder, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) praised the effort as a “huge success,” and remarked at how wonderful it is that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame both have military backgrounds. Museveni has received ample military support from the United States during his multi-decade rule, despite his intentional marginalization of northern Uganda. Kagame, meanwhile, received training at Fort Leavenworth only to go on to invade Eastern Congo.

The UPDF officially withdrew from DR Congo in mid-March, having accomplished nothing it set out to do. Kony remains in command of the LRA, and his forces continue to raid villages and abduct children. The LRA recently took 25 children from a village in northeastern DR Congo. Thus, not only was the initial attack deeply flawed, but the sustained military presence did nothing to stop LRA activity, despite what General Ward might have said.

AFRICOM is working very hard to downplay its role in the Ugandan operation, and to highlight the scant positive outcomes rather than to present the realities on the ground. This biased approach isn’t only detrimental to historical record and to peace in the Great Lakes Region, but is a dangerous basis for future relations between the public, Congress, and the Pentagon on Africa issues.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Beth Tuckey is the associate director of Program Development and Policy at the Africa Faith and Justice Network in Washington, DC.