It has been five months since 100 U.S. special operations forces were deployed to Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to advise Central African forces in combat against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) militant group. The stated goal of the October 2011 deployment was to increase the tempo and efficacy of those countries' operations against the LRA.
The special operations deployment is the largest and most sophisticated military deployment of U.S. forces to Uganda to date. While the deployment represents important foreign military support for Uganda, for the U.S. military it is a relatively low-cost operation with great potential for success. More important for Washington, the operation presents an opportunity for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to make political and intelligence gains in East Africa, the Great Lakes region and the greater Horn region, including countering China's increasing influence in the area.
Limited Threat of the LRA
Created in 1987, the LRA is a Christian resistance movement of the ethnic Acholi people, who hail from northern Uganda and southern South Sudan. Though once of great concern to governments in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, primarily Uganda, the LRA exists today as a low-level insurgency. The LRA is estimated to have only 200-300 fighters, and the group sustains itself by recruiting child soldiers during unsophisticated raids with machetes on villages in northwestern Uganda and the nearby corners of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Since the administration of President George W. Bush, the United States has contributed modest financial assistance, counterterrorism advisers and technical trainers to help Uganda in its operations against the LRA. Last October, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U.S. special operations forces would be deployed to help Ugandan and other regional forces combat the LRA through AFRICOM. The announcement was not controversial, but Stratfor believed that the United States had exaggerated the threat posed by the LRA.
Though the United States is hardly concerned about the threat of the LRA, the rebels have been a constant threat in northern Uganda. The administration of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly tried, without success, to eliminate the group. While the Museveni administration has significantly reduced the LRA's area of operations in Uganda, the group has continued its attacks in the northwestern extremes of the country and in the territory of Uganda's northeastern neighbors. With the help of AFRICOM, Uganda and other countries in the region have a chance to further reduce the LRA's area of operations.
Established in 2006 by the Bush administration and based in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM is primarily intended to help African security forces build up their capabilities to handle regional security issues. To complete its mission, AFRICOM needs stable African partners with access to areas of instability. Having such a partner is especially important at a time when the international community and Pan-African groups are calling for African-based initiatives to solve African problems. A committed political partner such as Uganda can legitimize and complement U.S. initiatives in Africa.
Uganda is a stable country in an unstable region and an ideal platform from which to assert U.S. regional interests. Its geographic location has proved useful in mediating issues in Sudan and the Central African Republic; in setting up security initiatives to fight smuggling from Northern Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and in facilitating training for African Union in Somalia (AMISOM) troops bound for Mogadishu, Somalia. Additionally, although Uganda is still a relatively new market for foreign investment — unlike its coastal neighbors — U.S. military investment will help strengthen the Ugandan government, making the country a more attractive destination for investment.
By deploying troops in three of Uganda's neighboring countries, where Uganda has had problems coordinating anti-LRA operations, the United States can facilitate joint operations that benefit Uganda. The presence of U.S. troops in Uganda also gives the country the ability to influence its neighbors by leveraging their military ties with the United States.
Washington hopes that by helping Uganda fight the LRA and harden its northern borders, it will strengthen the U.S.-Ugandan joint counterterrorism platform. A more stable joint platform would be useful for the United States when it comes to other instances of regional instability that are of greater concern to Washington.
South Sudan, Somalia and Chinese Influence
Despite its reluctance to offer ground support, the United States remains invested in the stability of South Sudan, Uganda's northern neighbor, and Somalia further east. The United States historically has been the largest aid donor for South Sudan, including during the period before 2011 when the country was an autonomous region in Sudan. The United States has been an advocate for South Sudanese sovereignty through the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council, but it has struggled to help the newly independent state as tensions have risen with Sudan over oil transport and border negotiations.
With no oil interests in the area, Washington has had few options to help South Sudan overcome its obstacles in negotiations with Sudan, including its limited ability to credibly threaten military action. However, by assisting the South Sudanese government to combat the LRA, the United States can help Juba as it struggles to unify against Khartoum.
The United States also has interests in facilitating stability in Somalia. AFRICOM has one dedicated base in the Horn of Africa — Camp Lemonier in Djibouti — and several forward operating bases in Ethiopia and Kenya that it can use in its mission to counter the al Shabaab Islamist militant group in Somalia. Although the Obama administration has been quick to point to its humanitarian and fiscal support for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, Washington has been hesitant to deploy troops in Somalia since the 1993 battle in Mogadishu that claimed the lives of 18 U.S. special operations soldiers. Having a new partner in the region offers the United States another way to influence the conflict in Somalia.
Since 2007, Uganda has been the primary provider of AMISOM troops and has trained Sierra Leonean and Burundian soldiers prior to their deployments to Mogadishu. The European Union and United States historically have helped Ugandan forces train AMISOM in Uganda. But Uganda's role in the Somali conflict is set to increase in light of the February 2012 announcement that AMISOM forces, with EU and U.N. Security Council funding, will add 5,000 soldiers and see a 200 percent budget increase. With an increase in AMISOM force capabilities and Uganda's role in training AMISOM forces, the United States can benefit from closer relations with Uganda.
Lastly, as China continues to establish a dominant position along the eastern coastline of Africa through aid and investment, Uganda can serve as a valuable economic counterweight for the United States. The growing economy of Uganda could increase trade within the East African Community (EAC), which comprises Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Exporting primarily through ports in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, the EAC still has problems accessing the markets of its interior members. Newly discovered oil reserves around Uganda's Lake Albert could open up new trade corridors and promote the creation of additional interior trade routes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, through Uganda, to Kenya and northern Tanzania.
The relationship between Uganda and the United States still has its challenges, particularly with regard to China's increasing economic influence in East Africa. But placing U.S. boots on the ground under AFRICOM strengthens U.S.-Ugandan political and military cooperation in an unprecedented way. While Washington further promotes Kampala as a key player in regional politics, Uganda is positioned to assist in the advancement of U.S. interests in the region.