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Report: LRA Smaller, Still Active

Ugandan troops patrol town of Zemio in Central African Republic, where they are hunting down fugitive members of the Lord's Resistance Army, June 25, 2014.

A new report says efforts to combat LRA rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and elsewhere have made significant progress since 2010.

Released by the Washington-based Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, the report [PDF] also warns that rebels are still trafficking illicit ivory and diamonds and continue to find safe havens. What’s more, indicted war crimes leader Joseph Kony remains free.

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Five years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Lord’s Resistance Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. It led the administration to announce a strategy to end the rebels’ long reign of killings, abductions and looting. The AU and U.N. also launched anti-LRA initiatives.

“For President Obama, his response to the LRA is really one of the keystones to his legacy in Africa," said Paul Ronan, the initiative’s director. "He has really put a lot of time, political energy and resources into this issue. From the moment that he signed the LRA disarmament bill in May of 2010 and then deployed the U.S. advisers a year later, he has really made it clear that for him this is an issue that he wants to see done.”

Ronan says the number of LRA rebels is down significantly, thanks to combined international efforts.

“Just a few years ago, Kony, the leader of the LRA, had about 800 combatants at his disposal," he said. "And as the result of defection campaigns and operations conducted primarily by the Ugandan military, along with the support by the U.S., our best estimates say that he only has about 200 combatants left.”

However, Ronan said, while the number of LRA rebels has been reduced, they’re still very active.

“The LRA has been very successful in poaching endangered elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then taking the illicit ivory up to Sudanese-controlled areas around south South Darfur, where they sell it in order to get food, other supplies, even arms and ammunition,” he said.

Those safe havens in Sudan-controlled South Darfur State are critical for the LRA because U.S. advisors and Ugandan forces are not allowed to operate there. The report also said LRA rebels “periodically meet with Séléka rebels and community leaders in eastern CAR to request food and supplies.”

The Ronan also says rebels continue to launch attacks against civilians.

“In parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, LRA attacks and abductions are actually higher than they were even two years ago, and the number of displaced people has gone up," he said. "And abductions — where they’re abducting people to take goods back to their camps — have really gone up. We’ve already seen more abductions the Congo in the first seven months of 2015 than we did in all of 2013.”

The report states that “there are gaps in U.S. logistical and intelligence support to U.S. military advisers and their African partners,” which includes a shortage of airlift support to quickly move troops. The report also says U.S. advisers are rotated out every six months, reducing their ability to build rapport with local communities.

Nevertheless, it does praise Operation Observant Compass, which the U.S. launched in 2011. The operation uses radio messages, aerial loudspeakers and aerial leaflet drops to encourage LRA fighters to surrender. The report said the defection of seven of Kony’s bodyguards in June is an example of its effectiveness and should be expanded.

“President Obama’s legacy on the LRA will depend on whether his administration exercises the leadership needed to move beyond mitigation of the crisis towards its definitive resolution,” the report says. "The President and U.S. Congress deserve credit for reducing the LRA to a shadow of its former self, but they cannot rest until the LRA command structure is dismantled and the group no longer poses a significant threat to civilians.”