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Field Dispatch: Chasing the Lord’s Resistance Army

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Field Dispatch: Chasing the Lord’s Resistance Army

Posted by Kasper Agger on November 9, 2012

Field Dispatch: Chasing the Lord's Resistance Army

Approximately 1,500 Ugandan soldiers based in central Africa form the backbone of the forces pursuing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. The Enough Project embedded a researcher with these troops in August to get a close-up view of the challenges they face in the effort to defeat the LRA. The deployment of 100 U.S. special forces advisors has helped address some of the Ugandan troops’ issues, but our researcher still identified continuing needs for better access to LRA-affected areas, enhanced human and aerial intelligence, increased air support, and improved road infrastructure. A more robust role for the U.S. advisors than is now provided for by the Obama administration would additionally allow them to operate in the field with regional forces and could speed the successful conclusion of the mission.

At the end of August and into early September 2012, the Ugandan army had two consecutive military engagements with the same group of fighters from the LRA. This was unusual: The common pattern is that the highly mobile LRA rebels manage to escape following their rare encounters with Ugandan military forces. Usually unwilling to directly confront trained troops, the decentralized LRA bands more typically attack undefended civilian villages for supplies and captives.

The first of these two unusual clashes with the Ugandan People’s Defense Force was on August 24 in the dense forests of the Central African Republic—70 kilometers south west of Djema, an area with regular LRA activity in 2012. Official Army spokesman Colonel Felix Kulayigye indicated that the Ugandan Army was on the trail of Dominic Ongwen, a top LRA commander who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. The second clash followed a few days later on September 4, when the Ugandan forces attacked the Ongwen camp. Three rebels were killed and two others—a 6-year-old child and a 19-year-old boy—were rescued, and military items were recovered. The Ugandan Army, eager to publicize this rare event, was quick to present a picture of Col. Joseph Balikudembe, overall commander of the Army’s operations in central Africa, proudly showing off his capture: several rounds of ammunition, three AK47s, two solar panels, seven rifles, a walkie-talkie, and a rocket-propelled grenade round.1 In the press release, the Army officials explained that Dominic Ongwen had survived, but made it clear that, “The Ops squads maintain pressure to capture Dominic alive or dead.”
Interviews with the captured rebels and with recent defectors confirmed that the group was indeed headed by Ongwen, who was wounded, and that his escape from the attacks had been narrow.3 Since those military encounters, though, the Ugandan Army appears to have lost track of Ongwen. The unfortunate fact is that the escape of the Ongwen group is the norm in the hunt for the LRA rather than the exception. The fight against the LRA is not going well in part because the Ugandan soldiers on the ground in central Africa face multiple logistical and intelligence challenges, which severely hamper their ability to locate and fight the rebels efficiently.

This report details those challenges and is based on the Enough Project’s recent embedding with the Ugandan Army. It draws on interviews with commanders and soldiers and their military and civilian partners in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.