Last month, President Obama signed a bill to send roughly one hundred military advisors to Uganda to help the country combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. The mission is intended to assist Ugandan troops without directly engaging the LRA, a militant organization waging war on the Ugandan government. The group has committed a slew of atrocities, including murdering and torturing thousands of civilians. It is notorious for kidnapping and conscripting children to fight as soldiers. With that small deployment of mostly special operations soldiers, Obama accomplished two major aims. The mission demonstrates an intelligent and responsible act on the part of the Obama administration to both comfort a regional ally and increase US soft power in the region, which has notoriously avoided active military engagement in Africa in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1994.
First, Uganda has been a US ally in fighting anti-American non-state actors in the region. Thousands of Ugandan troops are committed to pacifying Somalia, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). These troops directly engage al-Shabab, an Islamic militant group fighting for control of Somalia and associated with al-Qaeda. While the American ambassador to Uganda estimated in a cable that, thanks to previous US support, only about 300 LRA militants remain, their existence still threatens the civilian population who remember the horrendous crimes the LRA has committed and is still committing. The increased US support demonstrates a mutual agreement between the two countries; in return for fighting a war in Somalia, Uganda receives military aid in the form of everything but combat troops in fighting what Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni deems the most important issue affecting the country.
Second, the US also demonstrates a resolve to punish instigators of crimes against humanity. US military intervention in Africa has been minimal since US soldiers were killed in action during what started as a humanitarian mission in Somalia, even though multiple periods of civil war, famine and genocide have occurred on the continent during that time. This deployment may signal to the world that the US is taking a more active role in combating the atrocities arising from warfare on the African continent.
While a small deployment in no way constitutes a dramatic policy shift in military aid towards African nations, it is still indicative of a shift in US policy. Increasing support for Uganda in spite of a crippling budget situation shows that the US remains committed to fostering peace in the region.
However, what matters most in the short term are results on the ground, and that means stopping the LRA and preventing them from harming the civilian population. Given the track record that the Ugandan forces have had in combatting the LRA—it has been steadily declining to its current all-time low thanks to all-out efforts by the Ugandan military and government to fight them—this increased support may very well be the final push necessary to capture Kony and end the LRA.
Lucas Chan is a freshman in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs Online.