World — October 18, 2011 8:53 pm

Behind Two Military Interventions in East Africa


Pictured: Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla organization in Uganda indicted on Human Rights abuses.

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.


Photo Credit

  • Guest

    Interesting take on an ignored issue in an ignored region.

  • Guest

    Best Zhou

  • Interested

    I think you bring up an interesting point, but you certainly seem to have a few key points wrong. First of all, Joseph Kony and the LRA haven’t been in Uganda since 2007, that is very public information. He has wreaked terror on CAR, the DRC and Sudan. (You can see their most recent attacks at

    Also, there has been a UPDF presence in Somalia since the LRA left Uganda (in 2007). This was so that Museveni could continue to get his funding from the US. So long as he says he’s fighting “terrorists,” the funding continues to pour in. But this recent deployment is separate to that. 

    The issues within Uganda you bring up are extremely important. Museveni is no saint by any means, and the US has ignorantly (as previously mentioned) funded his regime for years now (a whole problem in itself). But again, because the LRA is no longer in Uganda (our advisers are meeting there so they can train the UPDF soldiers, while a few have already deployed out to the broader regions where Kony is supposed to be) this doesn’t cover up his faulty leadership. Now the public eye is on Uganda, more than ever.  

    Another thing, it is understandable that the public hesitates and worries when they hear “military advisers” because, yes, like we saw in Viet Nam, that was supposed to be our extent of involvement then and we all know what happened. However, in this case, we are not seeking a regime or government change in a country (like we did in Viet Nam). We definitely need to learn that it’s not our place to force our form of government on other people. With the LRA, who are scattered throughout Central-East Africa, they have no political motives or purpose. They are terrorizing a helpless region and most recent reports suggest that there are 200-400 fighters left in the LRA.

    This recent deployment also was in DIRECT response to a bi-partisan piece of legislation (The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act) which was passed UNANIMOUSLY in Congress last year. This has been something in the making for years now. The bill was written by its authors in direct response to the American public pressuring our government to do something about Kony, on humanitarian grounds, and the bill first calls for his apprehension and secondly for recovery for the region. It’s nice to see the President follow through with this. You must realize that it is a humanitarian effort. There is a lot of crossover of all the political and religious issues taking place in East Africa, that is certainly true, but to link the two you’ve discussed here just simply does not add up. I cannot speak to the Kenyan deployment, but seeing as how you’ve had a few misguided speculations and incorrect pieces of information regarding Uganda, I will do research elsewhere about it. 

  • Benjamin Zhou

    Thank you so much for your lengthy comment.  I definitely appreciate the extra perspective since I have no doubt that I do not have omniscience (or anything remotely close) when it comes to this situation.  However, I have a few comments that are less responses and more clarifications:
    1.) I do reference that there is a strong likelihood that Kony is no longer in Uganda, which definitely complicates the situation.
    2.) I agree that this is nothing like Vietnam.  However, that does not change the fact that there is a symbolic correlation between Uganda and Vietnam in the use of military advisers.  I concede nothing more.  I do not believe that we will become entrenched in Uganda until I read evidence that suggests otherwise
    3.) I was aware of the legislation that supported action in Uganda.  However, assuming that the legislation itself wasn’t motivated by the relations with Uganda (I can accept that it wasn’t), we still have to ask why Obama acted, and why now.  The legislation originally provided no timetable, no justification for this immediate response, especially in the deployment of American men.  The rationale behind this is what I’m trying to elucidate in this piece.

  • Interested

    Hi Mr. Zhou,

    I really appreciate your response. It’s rare you get a thoughtful response from the author themselves. I’ll respond to your three points.
    1) You are correct, you did. I just thought it was necessary to really emphasize that he and the LRA are out of Uganda, since there was some ambiguity. 
    2) I absolutely see your point and hesitation, from you and the rest of the world. 
    3) Obama acted as a direct response to the bill. It was written by its authors in response to international pressure (as I mentioned before) for our government to not sit by and watch (as we did in Rwanda) The authors of the bill presented this to Congress in 2009, the bill was passed unanimously in 2010 and signed into law of May of last year. Following the passage of the bill, there continued to be many meetings by activists particularly interested in this bill with local government officials to continue pressuring Congress to actually ACT on the bill since its passage, and it has led to what happened last week. I encourage you to go to the following site, Resolve has been a main advocate for the writing, passage and follow-through of the bill to see justice brought to the region.

    I think what makes most people suspicious about this recent move by Obama is that no one really knew anything about the LRA nor the thousands of Americans lobbying for the past 6 years to do something to stop them. To these activists, there really isn’t anything suspicious about it. It’s about time. 

  • Benjamin Zhou

    The issue is that the LRA has been ravaging Uganda for 25 years now.  The calls for intervention are not a recent event or even a unique event.  Similar atrocities happen throughout the world, but have not been acted upon, even with similar if not arguably stronger objections raised in Sudan. The fact that the US chose only to intervene in Uganda and only now reveals much about the president’s positions.  What forced Obama to act is not purely a humanitarian cause, for as we look across simply the region, we find that this is generally insufficient justification for action.  Instead, the strategic importance of this action in Somalia is what effects this power structure.

  • Interested

    You’re right, the LRA ravaging Uganda and now the surrounding countries is a huge issue, which is why Congress passed a bill allowing for the advisers to be sent over. And there was never greater a demand from the public to act on the LRA than in the past couple of years, which is why NOW, and not 15 years ago. Because word got out and people didn’t want to sit by and watch, as most Americans did for Rwanda in the ’90s.  

    Just yesterday, Obama spoke in an interview with ABC news that the troops were deployed to act as advisers to hunt down Kony. “And so given that bipartisan support across the board belief that we have to do something about this, what we’ve done is we’ve provided these advisers, they are not going to be in a situation where they are called upon to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army or actively fire on them, but they will be in a position to protect themselves.“What they can do is provide the logistical support that is needed, the advice, the training and the logistical support that hopefully will allow this kind of stuff to stop,” he said.You have all of the basics correct regarding the issue, but you are connecting the dots in all the wrong places. I don’t know how else to convince you that this has nothing to do with Somalia, but it doesn’t. I’m not saying that after Kony is captured, that things won’t change because I am not naive to say that. But this particular mission is in direct response to a bill calling for the apprehension of Joseph Kony, and that is it. 

    “Generally insufficient justification for action” This is why it’s so hard for Americans to comprehend that this is JUST a humanitarian effort, because we’ve seen in the past that there are usually ulterior motives to humanitarian efforts. So, I don’t blame your speculation. But hopefully this time will be different, as I certainly think it will. 

  • Interested

    Also, the calls for action are recent and in this case, unique. This piece of legislation that mandated the deployment of advisers was the most widely supported bill dealing with an African issue, EVER (or as far as electronic records indicate anyway) There were over 260 co-sponsors and again, not one member of the Senate voted against it. If you watched the Congressmen who presented this bill on C-Span, you would have seen how this bill is humanitarian. There’s a major problem, we have a solution, it can be relatively simple and at low-costs, and the public DEMANDS we support it. This happened recently because of the public demanding it happen. It took over 7 years, but finally, after a lot of rewrites, the bill was in a place to pass. 

  • tekkwor

    I would like to offer another perspective.
    In a day and age where hegemonic narratives allow for the instant delegitimization of non-state combatants and the depoliticization of what are in fact very political issues, does anyone actually care?
    The references below to resolve and the LRA crisis tracker are both laughable. Having spent over 10 years communicating, interviewing and living in both the LRA ranks as an anthropologist and within the war affected community, the views on the LRA are in the least, dissapointing.

    In the fear of sounding to much like an apologist, how many that condemn Kony have actually gone to sites of ‘massacre’?

    I have. Its incredulous that one finds more american made bullet casings than old 47 rounds that are the hallmark of LRA footsoldiers. But then again, with little to no mention of the 105 battalion which perpatrates crimes in the name of the LRA (which they are not) and the crisistracker which uses unverified evidence to claim about LRA crimes – the truth will remain scuttled.

    When in reality it was indeed Timothy Shortley who acted as the most destabilizing force during the Juba talks, a negotiation that was not mediation but a request for LRA surrender. Again, that in spite of the fact that many in northern Uganda do still support the LRA’s political goals.

    And yes, I just said it. political goals.

    Dare I say such? Yes, because I have a pile of LRA communiques coming from high command in fornt of me. Including ones to Ban Kim Moon calling for a cease fire and impartial non-US manipulated peace talks.

    Instead of considering this, we cyclically use the terms brutality to speak of Kony when more often than not, it is Museveni’s men committing crimes and reporting it as the LRA. Again, how dare I say this? Well I can because I live with it.

  • Rise-resist

    Well you have completely swallowed everything that invisible children and enough has sold you. Lapwony Malac.

    I have an email sitting in my in box from AFRICOM’s Reed Team.

    The deployment is quid pro qou for continued Ugandan support in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Go to Entebbe airport of Addis and start asking male Ugandans where they are coming home from. Wonder what the response is if they are under 30 years?


  • tekkwor

    humanitarian bills do not call for the ‘removal’ of an individual from a battlefield to which you have no divine right to govern.

    why doesn’t the average american understand this. lowest passport subscription is in the US, yet your exceptionalism, ahem, allows you to believe that you understand and can remedy world situations better than anyone.

    Even your AFRICOM red team hates this decision.

  • tekkwor

    And you do understand charity law correct??

    Resolve and Invisible have commited a cardinal sin in that regard. Political action and charity are two different things. But again, why would you expect different when their main funders are the centre for american progress and prendergast – both who call darfur a genocide – irrespective that the mortality rate is equal to baltimore.

  • tekkwor

    200 – 400 troops in the LRA?

    well seeing as Kony was in Odek in July to see his family (which requires a massive deployment), while Domenic commanded a battalion of 500 into Darfur, don’t you think your numbers need rechecking?

  • Interested

    Well, I don’t even know what to start with you. I feel like I have to defend myself since you attacked me. I understand your frustration, seeing as how you think I get all of my information from IC and Resolve. You shouldn’t throw those assumptions at people because it makes you look like an ass. I do my best at reading various sources on this conflict. Mwenda/Mamdani/Finnstrom and I look up sources from the region itself, because I know that we’re not given the entire truth here. Yes, I also read reports from Invisible Children and Resolve because, contrary to what you just said, several of their American employees travel to the region at least once a month and TO the sites of recent LRA attacks. Also, there are more Ugandans working for Invisible Children than there are Americans, so don’t throw all of their credibility out the window. That’s beside the point, though. Simply put, I referenced that particular Resolve website because it has great information about the bill that was just passed (including a copy of the bill itself).
    As we’ve seen with people who are in that region, not all of the information that comes out is truthful. (Museveni, NGOs, soldiers, civilians) People lie to their advantage. Of course, not everyone, but it unfortunately has been happening for years so it’s difficult to get the whole truth. So, while I want to just eat up every word you just said, saying your an anthropologist and have emails in your inbox from Africom doesn’t do it for me. There are naive anthropologists, you know. (And what sort of credibility do you really expect to get for being in relation with Africom? Really.)And when you wrote in Lwo, are you trying to say ‘lapwony marac’? Bad teacher? Because Lapwony Malac means large teacher. Maybe that’s what you meant…? Also, for the future, when you have insight on an issue that other people do not, and since you obviously care because you took the time away from your busy day with ALL those emails from Africom to write, you should possibly do it in a less disrespectful, ‘holier-than-thou’ way. I hope your findings and research don’t come off that way. I appreciate the work you are doing and your response (even if it was abrasive) because I intentionally have followed this conflict for years now and am extremely interested in it. I want to learn more about it. All sarcasm/rude comments aside, I respect your opinion and hear what you’re saying. 

  • Interested


  • John Rudolph Beaton

    Tekkwor, what are your sources? You claim to have lived with the LRA, but I somehow doubt that because you make claims that are patently false. Ongwen does not command a battalion of 500 and he is nowhere near Darfur, and Kony did not visit Odek to see his family recently.

    With all due respect, these “facts” are made up. The fact that you also attack the Enough Project for calling Darfur a genocide also baffles the mind.

    I am truly curious, what is your goal in defending the LRA and the government in Khartoum?

  • MamaLion

    Hello! Tekkwor, you have several unsubstantiated claims throughout your comments on this blog that I find very interesting. First, to agree with John, what is your support for claiming that Kony recently visited Odek and that Ongwen is in Darfur with 500. 

    Also, could you expand on your perspective of “charity law”? It would seem to me that political action that ended crimes such as child abduction, sexual slavery, and victim mutilation would seem very “charitable” to those who are affected. 

    One more, your claims against the LRA Crisis Tracker are as unsupported as your other facts. I had a chance to read through their codebook. Not only do they have a rigorous verification methods, but their information is provided by a number of NGOs with workers on the ground who have been on the sites of the massacres and have been working on location for years. Are you suggesting that beyond Resolve, The Enough Project,  and Invisible Children, Radio Okapi, a subset of the UN, Human Rights Watch, and several other credible and respected organizations, and the people of central Africa are all part of perpetuating your conspiracy theory?

    Like John, I am truly curious to better understand your facts and reasons, outside of your emotionally charged statements, for supporting blatant human rights violators. 

  • MamaLion

    Hello! Tekkwor, you have several unsubstantiated claims throughout your comments on this blog that I find very interesting. First, to agree with John, what is your support for claiming that Kony recently visited Odek and that Ongwen is in Darfur with 500. 

    Also, could you expand on your perspective of “charity law”? It would seem to me that political action that ended crimes such as child abduction, sexual slavery, and victim mutilation would seem very “charitable” to those who are affected. 

    One more, your claims against the LRA Crisis Tracker are as unsupported as your other facts. I had a chance to read through their codebook. Not only do they have a rigorous verification methods, but their information is provided by a number of NGOs with workers on the ground who have been on the sites of the massacres and have been working on location for years. Are you suggesting that beyond Resolve, The Enough Project,  and Invisible Children, Radio Okapi, a subset of the UN, Human Rights Watch, and several other credible and respected organizations, and the people of central Africa are all part of perpetuating your conspiracy theory?

    Like John, I am truly curious to better understand your facts and reasons, outside of your emotionally charged statements, for supporting blatant human rights violators. 

  • ciiru

    Al Shabaab and LRA are not good for East Africans. You write from a heartless perspective . ask us who are affected directly. What of the rapes? what of the killings? may God give you sight. The help of Africa is not America. It is God Alimighty and He will be our peace.

  • Whats Going On

    Tekkwor – I would like to communicate with you directly – I fully appreciate where you’re coming from and it’s such a thankless uphill battle to take on all the forms of misinformation on this subject matter. I will be attempting to do that myself through a different medium and would like your input. Please email me

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