Beyond the debt, the rallies, and the latest Republican remarks, one may have noticed two quieter developments in Eastern Africa recently. In the course of the past week, two military interventions have emerged in this region. One originates in the United States, where 100 military advisers were just deployed to Uganda for the purpose of training Ugandan forces in their fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda. The LRA is a guerrilla organization under ICC-indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, infamous for its humanitarian abuses and use of child soldiers. In the east, we saw another intervention, this time out of Kenya. Following several high-profile kidnappings of Westerners in recent weeks by Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-associated Islamic Fundamentalist group in Southern Somalia, Kenyan troops have invaded Somalia.
Both of these interventions possess highly symbolic qualities: for the United States, memories of military action in East Africa reignite paradoxical but sobering images of both American engagement and American apathy in Mogadishu and Rwanda respectively. In addition, the use of military advisers already has some worried about the potential of escalation into a greater conflict, conjuring up images of Vietnam, another conflict initiated by the deployment of non-combat personnel. Meanwhile, Kenya’s recent intervention is arguably even more emblematic. The recent invasion of Somalia is the first Kenyan military deployment into a foreign country since it first became independent in 1963.
This is the tale of two very different interventions. One appears humanitarian, looking at addressing a concern beyond its borders, only providing military advisers. The other is in the name of self-defense, providing boots on the ground to address the issue. However, both are actually, beneath all the polish and the rhetoric, two military commitments to which domestic populations possess strong negative stigmas, justified as a response to even more galvanizing symbols on the ground.
In Uganda, this symbol is obvious. Joseph Kony and the LRA have become emblems of the unrest and humanitarian crises in central Africa. However, to say that this gesture of the United States is purely humanitarian would be extremely myopic. The reality is that Uganda is not as clear a dichotomy between good and bad as much as we imagine, given the heinousness of Kony. Yoweri Museveni, the leader of Uganda for the past 25 years, is no Joseph Kony, but he likewise possesses a greatly tainted record. Grasping onto his power with an iron fist since coming to power in a 1986 coup, Museveni has fielded a long list of accusations, from the indictment of Museveni by the International Court of Justice for war crimes and the massacre of civilians to the continual use of child soldiers to the obstruction of democracy in Ugandan elections.
While many in the United States viewed the decision to commit advisers to Uganda as sudden, this is perfect timing in Museveni’s eyes. The publicity boost that would result from a stronger offensive against the LRA would be an opportune distraction from the riots around the country protesting food prices and corruption as well as a chance to pacify Uganda as he prepares to take advantage of recently discovered oil reserves. Rather than seeing a US-Uganda partnership as purely humanitarian, it is useful to note the interests and roles that both possess in the larger theater of East Africa.
Within this environment, Uganda has taken a strong presence in Somalia, supplying over 3000 troops to support Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). This has resulted in retaliatory attacks from Islamic fundamentalist groups in Somalia, including several bombings in Kampala during the World Cup last year. Considering the interests of the US in the region of supporting the TFG against Islamic fundamentalist organizations in Somalia, Ugandan involvement could be considered as a channel for the United States to challenge groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia without using American manpower. Even if it is radical to suggest that the deployment of advisers as a pre-discussed exchange for Ugandan troops in Somalia, it cannot be ignored that these interests play into the overall relationship between the two countries, therefore making it difficult to completely divorce the justification of the two policies.
In Kenya, the deployment of troops must be viewed through a similar filter. The immediate justification of the invasion was the abduction of foreigners in the past month, seen as a threat to Kenya’s invaluable tourism industry. However, one must note the decisiveness of Kenyan action despite the existence of doubts regarding the culpability of Al-Shabaab, who has consistently denied involvement in the kidnappings. The reality is that this justification can be easily dismissed as the utilization, or at worst, fabrication, of an act of aggression worthy of breaking with the Kenyan aversion to foreign military involvement, the recent invasion being the first since Kenya’s inception in 1963.
A look in Kenya’s history will reveal that Kenya has put its army on standby to invade Somalia in the past, including notable examples in 2009 and 2006. It would not be an illogical suggestion that the recent developments are not a shift in policy, but simply the manifestation of existing interests as a result of the caliber of the latest accusations against Al-Shabaab. After all, the unrest in Somalia puts a tremendous toll upon Kenya, with 380,000 residing in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world and a problem exacerbated by the mass exodus of Somalis as a result of the 2011 droughts in Somalia. This assertion is only corroborated by reports of collaboration between Kenya and the TFG, who possess interests far more suited to Western, and Kenyan, interests. The abductees are used as symbols for the realization of long-standing interests of Kenya within Somalia, interests that are not publicly discussed as justification for its actions.
However, assuming that these operations succeed, it’s very hard to ignore the potential spillover benefits of the recent Kenyan and United States military actions. Joseph Kony has been an indefensible monster in Uganda, ravaging the helpless population for the last 25 years. Likewise, Al-Shabaab has also committed an array of human rights abuses, prolonging the gruesome anarchy that now exists in Somalia. If either of these actors can be eliminated, it is hard to imagine how these developments do not improve the overall welfare of the world. However, considering the underlying narratives that are forgotten in the discussion of these two interventions, we are once again reminded that if we seek to achieve these humanitarian goals, perhaps a certain measure of transparency may have to be sacrificed.
Often, democracy precludes a government’s ability to do otherwise. With that said, these interventions are no guarantees. Al-Shabaab has proven highly resilient to foreign incursions, including in response to the Ethiopian invasions of Somalia in 2006, and will pose a challenge to a Kenyan force strong in technology but often viewed as inexperienced. Meanwhile, Joseph Kony has become adept at navigating the dense forests and porous borders around Uganda’s northern region, foiling a US effort in 2006, with many suggesting that he may no longer, in fact, be in Uganda at all. If these actions truly improve the welfare of this region, it’s still probably worth a shot, although with caution. After all, humanitarian groups may applaud the recent developments, but should we turn a blind eye to the concealed layer of justification, it may all come down to a simple reality, a simple question we must now pose:
If we trust our governments to unilaterally decide foreign affairs in their interests, can we trust these decisions to consistently align with the common good?
If the answer to that is not yes, then perhaps with the recent East African interventions of the US and Kenya, we’ve just gotten lucky.