The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is one of Africa's most brutal militia forces.(1) It has plagued Central Africa, particularly northern Uganda, for over two decades. The group's tactics provide textbook examples of war crimes and crimes against humanity. When attacking civilians, the LRA instills fear by selecting random individuals for brutal executions. Children are abducted to serve as porters, sex slaves, and new militia. In order to indoctrinate child soldiers, young abductees are routinely forced to kill their own family members and other children, or be murdered themselves. Anyone caught trying to escape from the LRA is summarily executed. By contrast with other African rebel groups, which occasionally adopt such brutal tactics, the LRA has conducted such atrocities on a systematic and prolonged basis.
With intelligence and operational planning support from the United States, in December 2008, the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) launched Operation Lightning Thunder to attack LRA bases in the Garamba National Park of northeastern Congo, where the LRA had been located since 2005. The initial attack was intended to overwhelm the LRA and decapitate its leadership with a combination of airborne assaults and ground troop movements.(2) However, the top LRA leadership survived this initial attack, and LRA forces separated into small groups of dozens of fighters.
Nearly 2 years later, the LRA's area of operations has extended deep into the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), southern Sudan, and Sudan's Darfur region even though the LRA is now comprised of only several hundred members using small arms and light weapons. While pursued across the region by the UPDF, the LRA avoids direct confrontations and has sustained itself by attacking and pillaging villages in remote rural areas.
Working with and prompted by nongovernmental relief and advocacy groups, the U.S. Congress passed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, requiring the Obama administration to develop a strategy to "mitigate and eliminate the threat to regional stability" posed by the LRA. While the LRA does not present a direct threat to the United States, its territory, or its citizens, the group's operations have become a recurring concern for U.S. policymakers focused on peace-building and regional security in Africa. LRA attacks have exacerbated African civil wars, contributed to the enormous humanitarian crisis facing Central Africa, fueled tense regional relations, and challenged U.S. efforts to promote accountability for human rights abuses.(3)
On November 24, 2010, President Obama delivered his administration's counter-LRA strategic plan to Congress. The four highlighted objectives are to "(a) increase protection of civilians; (b) apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders; (c) promote the defection, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of remaining LRA fighters; and (d) increase humanitarian access and provide continued relief to affected communities."(4) This strategy is in line with a strong international consensus on the way forward to counter the LRA. While the United States is not committing its own forces to attack the LRA directly, and identifying resources to implement the strategy is an ongoing challenge, the extent to which the Obama strategy will improve anti-LRA efforts on the ground is not yet clear.
In order to assess the opportunities, challenges, and role that U.S. efforts can play in combating the LRA, this paper begins with an in-depth analysis of the militia, including its historical development, the inability of past offensives to succeed against it, and the current force disposition of the group. The paper then examines current U.S. and international thinking on how expanded efforts to counter the LRA could work best in the field. It highlights how U. …