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Obama Administration Deploys Combat Troops to Central Africa

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama has authorized the deployment of approximately 100 combat troops to central Africa to aid in the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony.

Via CNN, here’s the text of the authorization:

“In furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy, I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. I believe that deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa.

On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces. Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The support provided by U.S. forces will enhance regional efforts against the LRA. However, although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice,
and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense. All appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their deployment.”

This is a major development. While the proposed troop deployment is small, it’s a major change in the way US foreign policy operates in sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from the US’s long-running shadow war in the Horn of Africa, the United States military has generally disengaged from most of the African continent — though the Pentagon consolidated US military activities on the continent in 2008 with the activation of AFRICOM, most of sub-Saharan Africa, along with Latin America, has been implicitly established by a series of administrations as peripheral to US interests.

AFRICOM emblem. It is unclear if deployed forces will fall under AFRICOM command.

AFRICOM emblem. It is unclear if deployed forces will fall under AFRICOM command.

The Obama Administration’s troop deployment to central Africa appears to have little escalation potential. Unlike past US advisory deployments that escalated to heavy combat commitments, the LRA does not appear to have the military capabilities to inflict severe enough casualties among deployed advisory forces to motivate greater US involvement in the region. However, that doesn’t mean that this deployment is not potentially problematic. I addressed this issue last year (slightly edited for clarity):

“The LRA isn’t motivated by ideological beliefs; because it’s basically a criminal gang that that doesn’t credibly claim to represent anyone, it doesn’t enjoy any meaningful support among the local population. [Proponents of US operations against the LRA] claims that an American led intervention against the LRA could be fought with a small commitment of Special Forces soldiers over a short time frame. The problem with these arguments is that we’ve heard them before — they are at their core the same we heard in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Certainly this is a different situation; an intervention against a small violent organization with the approval of the local government is obviously much simpler than an full-scale invasion and installation of a democratic government where one has never existed before, so the claim that an American war in north Congo would be simpler is much more credible. But [war proponents] seem to discount all we’ve learned about small wars in the last decade. Any counterinsurgency effort is bound to be both more complex and more costly than planned. And counterinsurgency is the correct term for a US intervention in Congo — despite its lack of local support and militarily experienced leadership, the LRA is an entrenched fighting force with deep knowledge of their environment, probably making any attempt to kill the LRA’s leadership a much bloodier and more costly effort than [anti-LRA advocates’] best-case-scenario proposal.”

Of course, the Obama Administration’s proposed deployment falls far short of a CT operation. However, even advisory missions are investments in the outcome of a foreign conflict. This makes them vulnerable to an escalation dynamic: because advisory deployments publicly invest the US in a successful conflict outcome while often falling short of the force threshold needed to actually influence it, they create the potential for a frustratingly unsuccessful mission that encourages US leaders to ‘raise the stakes’ of their investment. This is exactly the dynamic that encouraged the gradual escalation of US combat commitment in Vietnam — few in the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations intended the US to fight a full scale ground war in southeast Asia. But advisory, and later limited combat, missions in South Vietnam invested US credibility in the outcome of the conflict, a credibility problem that effectively committed the US to future escalation in the absence of immediate success. Restricting the publicity of limited deployments can reduce this future commitment problem; it appears that this is what the Obama administration is attempting to do with its limited and gradual deployment of troops to central Africa. But administration and military officials should be aware of this commitment dynamic, and be prepared to disengage and accept the reputation costs of public failure if the mission appears unable to achieve success.

***

For those who are counting, the US has been involved in combat operations in 10 countries in the past three months: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and now Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the DRC.

Update: Of course, Rush Limbaugh is not happy about the Obama Administration’s decision. Via Kevin Drum:

“Is that right? The Lord’s Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We’re gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.”

This argument is disgusting. There are many reasons to oppose deploying combat troops to aid central African governments’ efforts to decapitate the LRA. The fact the the LRA claims to be Christian is not one of them. Of course, the majority of US wars have been fought against Christians, but that isn’t important. Limbaugh and other American conservatives are invested in a narrative of Obama as an outside “other”. An integral part of that narrative is Obama’s status as a foreigner, a status that requires him to fall outside of what many conservatives see as America’s explicitly Christian normal. For this narrative to be persuasive it must be be universal — in the religious clash of civilizations, Obama’s with them, not us.

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