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A multinational offensive aimed at wiping out Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels – and planned and equipped with U.S. support during the dying days of the Bush administration - has scattered fighters who have unleashed a wave of massacres on Congolese villages.
LRA fighters have killed nearly 900 people in reprisal attacks in northeast Congo since Ugandan troops, together with Sudanese and Congolese soldiers, launched a military operation in December against fugitive rebel leader Joseph Kony, whose two-decade insurgency has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted 2 million. (See Alertnet briefing for more)
Reuters reported on the U.S. involvement in December. The New York Times said recently that the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (Africom) had contributed intelligence, advice and $1 million in fuel. The Washington Post argues the operation has been so unsuccessful it amounts to little more than “throwing a rock at a hive of bees”.
Foreign Policy magazine said that the LRA, who failed to sign a planned peace deal in April, would be hard to stamp out and that the operation was putting the Pentagon’s reputation at risk.
There are sceptical voices in the blogosphere too.
“One of the first publicly acknowledged Africom operations has turned into a general debacle, resulting in the death of nearly a thousand civilians and sending untold numbers of children into sex slavery and military servitude,” Dave Donelson says on his Heart of Diamonds blog.
Writing in Uganda’s Monitor, Grace Matsiko said the offensive was proving a real test for officers of Uganda’s army (UPDF).
“Uganda should brace itself for a protracted war, should Kony and his top lieutenants continue to evade the UPDF dragnet,” the journalist wrote.
Meanwhile, aid agency MSF has accused the United Nations force in Congo, the world’s biggest, of failing to protect civilians from Ugandan rebel attacks – accusations the world body has rejected as totally unfounded. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also accused U.N. peacekeepers of inactivity and of living alongside the LRA for three years and doing nothing about the guerrillas.
While expressing his horror at the what he called ‘catastrophic’ consequences for civilians from the offensive, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes has said the joint force still needs to see the operation through.
Should the offensive continue or is it time to halt it? If so, what should be done about the rebels? How big an impact should the conduct of this operation have for the U.S. Africa Command’s future role?
The new U.S. command for Africa began independent operations on Wednesday, after being carved out of three other Pentagon units previously responsible for the continent. President George W. Bush originally wanted Africom to be based in Africa, and Liberia has offered to host it. But the plan met with considerable hostility on the continent, especially from big powers South Africa and Nigeria and oil giants Algeria and Libya. Many ordinary Africans were also cynical, believing Africom would be a cover for Washington to counter growing Chinese influence and control vital oil supplies from West Africa — expected to provide 25 percent of U.S. needs by 2015.
The hostility forced Washington to rethink its plans and Africom, expected to reach its full complement of 1,300 by the end of next year, began work from Stuttgart, home of the existing European command, although officials clearly expect to open a base in Africa sometime in the future. It also pushed U.S. officials to emphasise that there was no hidden agenda, that Africom would not threaten the sovereignty of any nations and that a base would not be built in Africa without the full agreement of potential host nations. They also said half of Africom’s leadership would be composed of civilian agencies including the State Department. Africom’s stated aim is to help African countries face everything from natural disasters to terrorism and its targets will including drug trafficking, arms smuggling and the kind of piracy now plaguing the waters off Somalia. Experts say U.S. forces have been cooperating quietly for years with African armies, particularly in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel where rebel and al Qaeda-affiliated groups operate. They say Africom got a bad press initially because it was associated with heavy-handed U.S. policy in Somalia and as part of the U.S.-led ”War on Terror”, but now Pentagon officials are treading more carefully, realising how sensitive Africans are about suggestions Washington is trying to dominate.