President Barack Obama has decided to send 100 Special Forces troops to the Heart of Darkness in order to defeat evil. That, at any rate, is how critics of the president's decision to help the Ugandan army track down Joseph Kony and his gang of psychotic murderers known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have described the undertaking. As Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, put it at a congressional hearing earlier this week, "What is the strategic interest of the United States in doing this? I mean, there are lots of unpleasant people in the world.... The United States obviously cannot try to dethrone every one of them."
The Obama administration, of course, repudiates this narrative. A senior administration official blandly reassured me that the troop commitment constitutes the same "capacity-building" efforts the Pentagon has undertaken elsewhere in Africa, and even offers "a unique opportunity for our guys to train" -- in a vast, trackless jungle in pursuit of maybe 250 lunatics. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow told Congress that "it is in the interest of the United States to lend our support to partners in Africa so they can address threats to their citizens and help achieve the conditions necessary for regional security and broad-based development."
Well, come on. This is not a training exercise, and the deaths of literally millions of civilians in central Africa over the last 15 years has had little discernible impact on American national security. In fact, the President has dispatched troops to the jungle and mountains of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and southwestern Central African Republic (CAR) to fight evil -- and he should be congratulated for it. The moral case for action against the LRA is much stronger than, say, the case for joining the NATO bombardment of Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya. No less important, the Obama White House, State Department, and Pentagon have designed a complex and sophisticated approach that seems to have a real chance at bringing the LRA to book.
The LRA stands out even among the amoral hierarchy of the bandits and self-styled insurgents who roam Africa's Great Lakes area. Despite its "Christian" rhetoric, the group has no program save for killing and raping, and abducting children as slaves and soldiers; atrocities, that is, are not the means to some programmatic end, no matter how ugly, but the end itself. The group's top leaders, including their apparently charismatic supremo, Kony, were indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, but have eluded capture. The United States has targeted them before. In late 2008, the George W. Bush White House provided crucial intelligence support for Operation Lightning Thunder, a Ugandan campaign to attack LRA forces by air and ground. The mission was a complete fiasco: Kony smelled out the attack and fled, and the Ugandans failed to get the support of their neighbors in Congo and South Sudan, while keeping U.N. forces completely in the dark. The LRA scattered throughout the region and proceeded to carry out a series of gruesome killings as retribution for the invasion.
Operation Lightning Thunder was a ham-fisted response to a very complicated problem. In an April 2010 report, the International Crisis Group suggested that any future U.S. attempt to rout the LRA should focus on "civilian protection" rather than just hot pursuit, and proposed that the United States send a team to the battlefield to coordinate intelligence from armies throughout the region and help the Ugandans put their soldiers where the bad guys are. That is more or less what the Obama administration has decided to do.