Fighting Fire with Water

ON OCt. 14, 2011, President Obama sent a letter to Congress saying he was sending two teams of “U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment,” plus communications and logistics staff, to Uganda. The total of about 100 troops are there “as advisers to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony” and other leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The importance of international attention to the LRA cannot be overestimated. Kony and the LRA have abducted more than 25,000 children, many of them from Northern Uganda, using them as soldiers and sexual slaves. The LRA has been marauding there—and more recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central Africa Republic, and South Sudan—for more than 20 years.

After years of urging U.S. attention to the violence perpetrated by the LRA—and hearing some voices in the region that supported the U.S. action—many human rights groups, including Resolve, the Enough Project, and Invisible Children, welcomed Obama’s decision.

But careful listening to important local religious leaders should raise some serious questions. On Oct. 24, the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a northern Ugandan group that includes leading Catholic, Anglican, and Muslim clergy from the area, issued a statement thanking the U.S. president and Congress for their “attention to the plight of our people,” including “efforts to achieve reconciliation and meet humanitarian needs in LRA-affected regions,” but expressing concern about “the military nature of the current strategy.” They wrote, “As history has taught us, military intervention is not the way to resolve the LRA conflict and achieve a sustainable peace. In the past, such approaches have directly resulted in the intensification of LRA violence and the increased endangerment of civilians.”

The leaders go on to point out that “while many have lost hope in any peaceful resolution to the conflict, the reality is” that the peace negotiations that took place from 2006 to 2008 “are responsible for the relative calm being experienced in northern Uganda today.” Those negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, almost bore fruit; but an indictment of Kony by the International Criminal Court spooked him, and the LRA never returned to the negotiating table. Even this incomplete process, however, caused the situation in northern Uganda to improve markedly.

In contrast, according to the ARLPI, Operation Lightning Thunder, a military offensive against the LRA from December 2008 to January 2009, dealt a “devastating blow” to those still working on peace talks.

The regional conflict has roots and dynamics that go beyond the LRA issue to deeper historical grievances. In September 2010, as the Obama administration’s strategy was being developed, representatives of the ARLPI came to the U.S. to present recommendations from organizations in the DRC, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Uganda. The leaders were very clear: They rejected military operations against the 200 to 300 LRA combatants across four countries. They stressed creating an environment conducive to effective peace talks—and the need to investigate charges that the government of Sudan in Khartoum was helping supply the LRA as it attacked villages in South Sudan.

As John Ashworth, an analyst who has worked for decades with the church in the region, wrote in response to the U.S. troop deployment, “While one welcomes increased international engagement on the LRA conflict, one wonders whether military escalation is the solution. Churches have consistently called for a negotiated solution, along with increased protection and humanitarian assistance for the affected population.”

Senior LRA leadership might be captured or killed—but there may be long-term undesirable consequences to increasingly militarized U.S. involvement in Africa.

Marie Dennis is co-president of Pax Christi International. She was director of Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns when it co-hosted a 2010 U.S. delegation of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative.

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