American commanders believe that there are no more than 150 Lord’s Resistance Army fighters left in the Central African Republic and neighboring countries – although the LRA leader Joseph Kony is still at large.
Speaking to the US Senate on Thursday, General Thomas Waldhauser downplayed the LRA threat saying it now had only limited strength. But he did not point to any plan for the final defeat of the group.
Waldhauser, who is head of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), was giving testimony to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee about AFRICOM’s plans and “posture” for the coming year and beyond.
“In Central Africa, led by the efforts of Special Operations Command – Africa, we have focused on working with the African Union Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of the many illicit actors operating in the region,” he said.
The general referred to troops from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, which have all contributed toward the African Union force, saying these troops have “led military efforts to reduce the LRA’s safe havens, capture key leaders, and promote defections.”
American forces have played supporting roles with logistics, intelligence and training. “With advice and assistance from U.S. forces, the AU-RTF has been largely successful,” Waldhauser asserted.
“Through the combined efforts of military forces, civilian agencies, and non-governmental organizations, the LRA is not a threat to central governments and populations centers, but reduced to areas of ungoverned spaces. Today, although the group’s leader, Joseph Kony, remains at large, we estimate fewer than 150 Lord’s Resistance Army fighters remain, and communities are better prepared to protect themselves,” he concluded.
But a group that monitors LRA activities, The Resolve initiative, says the LRA is still a threat to civilians and cautions against drawing down troops prematurely.
Paul Ronan, a researcher and leader of The Resolve, agrees that the LRA have been weakened by Ugandan and US military offensives and defection messaging, citing the same estimate of 150 troops remaining, but he says that the effectiveness of military operations and the pace of LRA defections “has waned considerably in recent years.”
Ronan points out that the future of the US–Ugandan counter-LRA partnership is “in flux.”
“The Ugandan military is the only force in the region currently capable of pursuing Kony and the LRA, but Ugandan officials have announced plans to withdraw their troops from eastern CAR in 2017. President Obama made his counter-LRA strategy a priority within his broader agenda in Africa, but it is unclear whether the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump will re-authorize the deployment of US military advisers or continue funding defection messaging initiatives,” said the researcher in a recent report.
Ronan and other activists claimed in January that LRA forces abducted more than 500 civilians in 104 attacks in eastern Central African Republic in 2016—the most there in a single year since 2010.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was founded in northern Uganda and is led by a Ugandan native called Joseph Kony but the group longer has any presence in Uganda. It comprises a mix of Ugandans and fighters from other countries. Kony has been indicted for war crimes and many of his followers were forcibly recruited as children.
Years of joint US-African Union efforts to destroy the LRA have been stymied by the group’s guerrilla tactics and its propensity to retreat into harsh terrain and unstable or ungoverned areas. Several years ago Kony was rumored to be hiding in the Kafia Kinji enclave, a disputed territory occupied by the Sudanese army.