One of the first publicly-acknowledged AFRICOM operations has turned into a general debacle, resulting in the death of nearly a thousand civilians and sending untold numbers of children into sex slavery and military servitude.
The New York Times reports that the newly-organized US military command for Africa, AFRICOM, bankrolled the largely-botched joint Ugandan-Congolese-South Sudan campaign to wipe out Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army, which has been using the DRC’s northeastern Haut-Eule province near Garamba National Park as a safe haven since it fled Uganda in 2005. AFRICOM said it supplied $1 million worth of gasoline, satellite phones, intelligence, and 17 military advisers to help in the planning, although no US personnel were involved in the fighting. Despite the US support, the LRA eluded the attackers and turned on the civilian population in retribution.
The anti-LRA campaign, bombastically named “Operation Lightning Thunder,” was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. The joint Ugandan-Congolese forces hoped to surprise Kony in his lair in the Garamba forest on December 14. The plan was to bomb his headquarters, then move in with land forces to wipe up the remains. Instead, as has been reported, weather got in the way and apparently word got to Kony and his troops in plenty of time for them to flee. The air attacked flattened basically empty huts and the ground forces captured a small pile of discarded weapons and supplies.
The LRA scattered in angry groups bent on destruction. The effect of the operation can be described as what happens when you throw water on a pan of burning grease: potential death goes everywhere.
The Congolese and Ugandan command had made no plans to cut off fleeing elements of the LRA, so the rebels scattered throughout the countryside in a rampage of fresh violence. Villages were pillaged and burned, hundreds of civilians murdered and raped, and an undetermined number of children were kidnapped, tactics the LRA has used throughout its twenty-year history. A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, says more than 50 villages in the area have been attacked. Kony disappeared.
Since the disastrous initial strike, Ugandan officials have touted a string of “victories” in which dozens of rifles and stores of food supposedly left behind by the fleeing rebels have been captured. A couple hundred LRA soldiers have reportedly surrendered.
In the meantime, the official civilian death toll is 900 and 100,000 people have been driven from their homes.