A U.S. House of Representatives panel heard testimony Tuesday on President Barack Obama's decision to deploy 100 troops to Central Africa to help the forces of Uganda and other countries fight the Lord Resistance Army, or LRA.
Most of the lawmakers at the hearing expressed support for the mission to help to end the LRA's campaign of murder, rape and forcing children to be soldiers, but some representatives questioned the cost and duration of the mission.
The Chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, are responsible for one of the longest and most violent, yet most under-reported, conflicts in Africa, spanning two decades and spreading from Uganda to South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the Central African Republic.
“The LRA makes no attempt to hold territories, but murders, mutilates, tortures, rapes and loots with impunity," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Ros-Lehtinen said the LRA moves in small groups and strikes remote villages, slaughtering civilians, abducting women and children to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves. It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of the LRA is made up of abducted children, which makes efforts to eradicate the group more complex.
The two witnesses at the hearing fielded questions from lawmakers about the goals, the estimated cost, the scope and the duration of the U.S. mission.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Alexander Vershbow, said local forces have weakened the LRA to about 200 core fighters and a total of 800. He said the 100 U.S. troops, many of them special operations forces, would help Ugandan forces track down the LRA's leaders.
"While weakened, LRA leader Joseph Kony and other top commanders remain at large, and they continue to direct the groups' members to commit unspeakable atrocities."
Because many LRA fighters are conscripted children, U.S. troops will also help local forces and officials try to convince many of the fighters to defect," said Vershbow.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto, testified before the committee. "We will continue to work on the LRA fighters to peacefully disarm and leave the organization ranks and to come home, and currently there are about 12,000 [who] have done so," Yamamoto said.
Assistant Defense Secretary Vershbow reassured lawmakers that U.S. forces would not seek to engage LRA fighters in combat. "To be clear, U.S. forces deploying for this mission will not themselves engage LRA forces. But given the potential need to defend themselves, they will be equipped for combat," he added.
Vershbow said there is no definite timeline for the U.S. deployment, but he estimated that it would be "months" and said it would not be open-ended. He said U.S. troops would mainly advise Ugandan forces on how to gather and use intelligence more effectively to track down Kony and his commanders.
Some of the lawmakers said they support the mission, but added they were dismayed that Vershbow and Yamamoto did not have a cost estimate for the mission.
Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California said, "The cost is really an important factor because the United States cannot afford to pay the price to win everyone's else's freedom in the world."
The United States sees Uganda as a solid partner in the region, especially in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. Some analysts say the decision to deploy 100 U.S. special forces is a small investment that could yield big rewards.