Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on The Hill's Congress blog.
Analysts conjectured years ago that a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army named Caesar Acellam wanted to defect – and that he might be key to dismantling the group.
Last May, he came out of the bush. Within a few months, the U.S. military advisors who were deployed in late 2011 to help end the LRA conflict in Central and East Africa innovated a new technique for securing defections: using speakers mounted on helicopters to broadcast ‘come home’ messages. Acellam was one of the first people to fly over the Central African Republic to do a ‘live’ broadcast.
This innovation has proven to be highly effective. Many LRA who have since escaped mentioned hearing these messages.
In the coming days, the Obama administration will decide whether or not to withdraw the military advisors.
Amid the security challenges in Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, some individuals in the administration want to pull back the advisors. But the advisors are starting to have a transformative impact on efforts aimed at disbanding the LRA, apprehending the group’s senior leaders who are wanted by the International Criminal Court, and protecting civilians from LRA violence. They need more time to build on their successes, and withdrawing them prematurely would strike a catastrophic blow to current efforts.
One area in which their impact has been especially visible is in promoting defections from the LRA. Working with partners in the region, the advisors are recording new ‘come home’ messaging that is broadcasted via radio stations in LRA-affected areas and establishing sites where fighters can safely defect.
Last year, 20 Ugandan adult males defected or were captured, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker. (In 2011, there were just three.) This represents a major blow to the group’s size, strength, command, and cohesion, as Ugandan commanders and fighters are nearly impossible to replace.
The initiatives aimed at encouraging desertions are critical because they fuel the whole cycle: Each new defection can yield intelligence about the LRA that can be used to arrest the leaders and safeguard communities – and spur more defections.
The advisors’ impact goes well beyond promoting defections. The advisors are building rapport and trust with their partner forces, which is vital. They are keeping the Ugandan army – the only army regularly engaging in offensive operations against the LRA – committed. They provide essential advice and assistance, helping Uganda’s army track the group more effectively. The advisors are enhancing the gathering, analysis, and sharing of intelligence, including organizing meetings in which the key players come to the same table to share information and improve coordination.
Withdrawing the advisors before they can succeed in fulfilling the objectives outlined by President Obama and his senior officials would be disastrous. If they retreat, the Ugandan army would likely withdraw additional troops – and perhaps pull out altogether – given the other security concerns Kampala faces. This would be more than just a small setback. It would likely lead to the unraveling of the military operations and create an opening for the LRA to recruit, regroup, and reorganize. And that would be very difficult to reverse.
Beyond the LRA, the advisors’ mission has implications for broader efforts to promote stability in the region and could serve as a model for strategic U.S. support within and outside of Africa. As numerous conflicts threaten stability in Central and East Africa, ending the LRA conflict is within reach and could help to mitigate other conflicts in the region. The mission could also become a model for how the U.S. can most strategically support the efforts of governments to address crises – by providing strategic inputs that serve as ‘force multipliers’ for locally-driven solutions.
Beyond keeping the advisors deployed, the Obama administration should ensure that they can succeed.
First, the administration should support the establishment of an elite unit within the embryonic African Union Regional Task Force that would be trained by the advisors, tasked with apprehending the LRA’s senior leaders, and guaranteed access to any area in order to respond on a short-term basis to credible intelligence.
The U.S. should secure more troops from the governments of LRA-affected countries for civilian protection and intelligence gathering. To obtain real-time intelligence, it should task the advisors with increasing human intelligence gathering, further expand community radio networks and cell phone coverage in affected areas, and furnish satellite imagery and UAVs capable of seeing through the dense forest canopy. The U.S. should also extend the contracts for the helicopters it currently provides.
A year and a half ago, the U.S. committed itself to helping to end the LRA threat. The administration should now stay the course. If it does so, this conflict that has lasted for more than 25 years can finally be brought to a long-overdue end.
Photo: Ugandan soldiers tracking the LRA (AP)