For good reason, we tend to be suspicious whenever the US military releases news on a Friday. Even more so when the news is unexpected.
Such was the case last Friday, when President Obama announced the deployment of 100 US service members to Uganda, ostensibly to assist a trio of African nations in hunting down the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal guerrilla army which takes refuge among the permeable and ill-guarded borders of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and the Central African Republic.
Of course, that’s not how the Twittersphere reacted to the news.
For starters, there’s the perennial backlash against anything associated with AFRICOM. Granted, it doesn’t help that AFRICOM’s had its share of self-inflicted public relations nightmares, such as this 2009 news story, run by the American Forces Network:
Nevertheless, you have to feel sorry for the Public Affairs department at AFRICOM, which routinely bears the brunt of tin-foil hat conspiracy theories about neo-colonialism. (Indeed, AFRICOM bashing has become a veritable hobby among some circles.)
Matters certainly weren’t helped by the fact that, in 2010, pundits debated the viability of sending US troops to the Congo to kill or capture LRA cult leader Joseph Kony, for whom the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in 2005.
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, referred to suggestions that US forces track down Kony as the “worst idea on the Internet today“, and invoked images of the ill-fated UN mission in Somalia. Aid blogger Lauren Jenkins also criticized the proposal. (And, in the process, mentioned the plethora of young Hollywood starlets whom John Mayer has boned.)
AFRICOM’s inexplicable unpopularity, coupled with a dearth of information on the US advisory mission, the unexpected announcement, and the relative obscurity of the LRA, created a perfect storm of amateur punditry.
Headlines announced that the US military was directly confronting the LRA, while some compared the deployment of 100 US advisors to Africa to the opening stages of the War in Vietnam.
But do we have any evidence–or even a good reason to suspect–that this deployment to Africa is anything more sinister than routine Foreign Internal Defense? After all, President Obama certainly isn’t the first US president to dispatch US forces to assist African nations in hunting down the LRA.
Though troops might be armed with “combat equipment”, that may be little more than body armor and sidearms. And US officials have hinted that only a handful might venture out on patrols with African partners.
What sorts of training might US advisers provide? More than likely intelligence processing and collecting, so vital in counter-insurgency and counter-guerrilla campaigns. And though the mission to the Congo might seem eerily reminiscent of recent US assistance visits to Yemen in 2009, which resulted in a persistent presence and a drone campaign, experts disagree that US assistance would escalate to that level. (For one, as David Axe notes, the terrain in the Congo is hardly conducive to drone surveillance)
Perhaps this is yet another example of the Obama Doctrine: foregoing troop-intensive interventions, and empowering regional partners to handle security threats. The payoff is high, and the relative investment–in terms of manpower and material–is minimal.
In an age of austerity, it’s what we ought to do.