By John Vandiver for Stars and Stripes STUTTGART, Germany — It’s not exactly a call to arms, but it doesn’t sound that far off either.
In a little-noticed piece of bipartisan legislation introduced this spring — the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act — a group of U.S. lawmakers is urging the Obama administration to form a strategy for taking out one of the most dangerous rebel leaders roaming the jungles of Africa: Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
"Kony’s removal is essential to peace in the region," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who was one of many Republican and Democratic politicians issuing statements following the bill’s introduction.
Kony, who leads a ragtag rebel army largely made up of abducted child soldiers, is perhaps the most vilified man in Africa, where for the last 20 years he has sought to overthrow the government in Uganda. In the process, his soldiers have killed thousands and caused more than 1 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
The fate of the bill, which enjoys the support of such unlikely pairs as Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., remains unclear.
But it does raise questions that go to the heart of the debate surrounding the new U.S. Africa Command and its mission on the continent.
AFRICOM’s stated purpose is to help its partners countries, through various training missions, develop the capacity to provide for their own security and protect their own borders. But should AFRICOM also be involved in the business of taking out rebel leaders? Particularly ones like Kony, who have been universally condemned for committing horrific atrocities?
Indeed, Kony’s LRA allegedly has abducted some 30,000 children over the years and been accused of murdering and raping thousands. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony accusing him of crimes against humanity.
Since 1987, Kony has been leading his army like a cult leader, telling his child soldiers to paint crosses on their chests for protection from enemy fire. Former abductees have described him as a mystic, possessed by spirits and capable of foreseeing the future. Strangely, one of Kony’s sons was named after a U.S. president: George Bush. It’s unclear which Bush was the inspiration.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against Kony, opinions are split over how deeply AFRICOM should get involved in such cases.
On one side are some humanitarian organizations that see the U.S. military as a resource that could be used for ending the chaos and terror Kony has unleashed for two decades.
But others fear such engagements would damage AFRICOM’s credibility as an organization geared toward helping African countries solve their own problems.
"They cannot be in this business. They basically have to be involved in the capacity building. Period," said James Carafano, a scholar with the Heritage Foundation and former army lieutenant colonel who was an early advocate for the formation of AFRICOM. "The whole notion of AFRICOM is to not get involved in these things. It would be like SOUTHCOM getting involved in the Honduran coup. They’re not going to touch that."
Yet AFRICOM, though only in its infancy, has already been called upon to provide support for operations against Kony and his LRA.
In late 2008, regional governments asked the U.S. to provide nonoperational assistance for a mission dubbed Lightning Thunder. The Ugandan military led the operation, which included elements from southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was an unusual demonstration of cooperation between those countries in the hunt for Kony.
And it went badly wrong.
AFRICOM, which had no command and control authority over the mission, was tasked by the National Security Council to provide the Ugandans with logistical and advisory support. The command’s involvement was limited to providing some maps, satellite phones, GPS receivers and about $1 million in fuel for vehicles.
A team of advisers also was dispatched to the region and provided feedback on the Ugandan plan.
The operation, however, failed to capture Kony and many of his fighters fled their camps.
In their flight from the Ugandans, the LRA fighters killed hundreds of civilians — a signature LRA response when it is assaulted, according to humanitarian rights groups that track the LRA’s movements.
Critics of the operation argue that the mission failed to adequately plan for securing the surrounding civilian population.
Despite its limited involvement, as news spread of the civilian slaughters, AFRICOM took heat.
"We were very critical of Operation Lightning Thunder," said Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve Uganda, an advocacy group. "We had hoped any involvement of U.S. AFRICOM would have led to a more effective operation and led to the capture of top commanders."
Poffenberger said he sees an opportunity for AFRICOM to get more involved in the hunt.
"But I think it has to be done right and with internal partners and the backing of region," he said.
Julia Spiegel, Uganda-based expert on the LRA for the Enough Project — an organization that seeks to bring awareness to cases of crimes against humanity and prevent genocide in Africa — says Kony’s tactics of targeting civilians are well known. Any planning must take that into account.
"I think this is an opportunity to take stock of what happened and move forward in a more productive fashion," Spiegel said. "It makes sense for AFRICOM to engage in a greater way. A little would go a long way, from planning and resourcing to execution."
Feingold, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, made similar comments on the Senate floor when the legislation was introduced earlier this year, saying the U.S. has a responsibility to help bring the rebel war to its end.
"I believe supporting viable and legitimate efforts to disarm and demobilize the LRA is exactly the kind of thing in which AFRICOM should be engaged," Feingold said.
At AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, officials declined to comment on the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, saying it would be inappropriate to weigh in on pending legislation.
Earlier this month, Feingold elaborated on what he hopes the legislation will accomplish and described its limitations. In an op-ed article published at Huffingtonpost.com, the senator said that the bill does not sanction any specific military operation.
"Instead, it seeks to push a comprehensive approach in which military activity would be one component within a larger framework," Feingold wrote. "Such an approach, though, should also include humanitarian components and support for credible diplomatic efforts to press for a viable political solution."
But critics worry that the bill would damage the military’s youngest command if it becomes law.
"Sometimes I wonder if these people want to kill the command," Carafano said of the bill’s supporters. "I’m horrified anytime we get into legislating operational activities. That gets very dangerous."