U.S. Joins Hunt For Brutal Warlord In Africa

The Obama administration recently dispatched 100 special forces to Uganda to help pursue Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. Throughout the last three decades, Kony and LRA fighters have been accused of torturing civilians and recruiting child soldiers. Host Michel Martin speaks with former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we remember the boxing legend Smokin' Joe Frazier. He passed away yesterday. But first, we want to talk about the Obama administration's decision to send a group of U.S. military forces into Central Africa. Their mission: to help capture Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army. This rebel group is widely believed to be responsible for some of the worst atrocities associated with modern warfare on the continent for committing mass killings and mass rapes.

For kidnapping children and pressing them into service as soldiers and sex slaves, and on and on. The Lord's Resistance Army formed in 1987, an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government, and later spread it's attacks into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The U.S. designated the Lord's Resistance Army a terrorist organization in 2001. Joseph Kony, along with his commanders, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court.

We wanted to know more about this important but not much discussed mission, so we've called upon Jendayi Frazer, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. She also served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa. She's now a distinguished public service professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JENDAYI FRAZER: Thank you Michel, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: The size of this force is small. We're talking about 100 soldiers and apparently this group has already been sent. What's their mission?

FRAZER: The mission is to support the regional forces, particularly the Ugandan forces, the South Sudanese, Congolese and Central African Republic. And they will be there to provide advice. Most importantly, they will be there to provide intelligence, so that the forces are tracking Kony will have better battlefield awareness. And so I think it's really, although small in number of troops, they're Special Operations Forces, so they're highly effective. More over, they will be able to give that intelligence command and control and communication capability to the regional forces.

MARTIN: You know, obviously every country every situation is not comparable, but one of the things that we've seen kind of in the Arab and the middle Eastern world is that there might be political support for some of these terrorist organizations but as people the civilian population experiences the brutality and the savagery of these groups, we have seen that public support for them has waned.

FRAZER: Yes.

MARTIN: And I think that many people might wonder how is it that this group seems to be - continue to operate with impunity, given the way they just savage civilians.

FRAZER: Right.

MARTIN: In ways that are hard even to describe; that people even, you know, human rights activists, witnesses can't even talk about because it's so disturbing.

FRAZER: Yes, well, they don't have broad public support or any support whatsoever. There was a time - because Kony comes from Northern Uganda, where Northern Ugandan's had some small support for him, but that's gone away because he's originally kidnapped the children of the people of Acholi people in Northern Uganda. And so really he has no support. What he does is he attacks civilian villages and he kidnaps children.

He makes those children turn on their parents and kill the parents, and then he uses drugs and mysticism to sort of brainwash these young people into becoming, quote, unquote, "his warriors." Then he gives them, you know, the gift of a girl. He will kidnap girls and use them as sex slaves and he'll give them to these boys and these young men and say that if you do well in battle you'll get a girl or you'll get a medal. And so, he's essentially brainwashing children but there's a lot of ex-combatants who have been able to escape from the Lord's Resistance Army, particularly as they've been pressed by these regional forces and are on the run.

And those ex-combatants often give the best intelligence about how Kony operates, where he's located, what type of ways in which they are carrying out these atrocities, and that then helps the regional forces to better track them.

MARTIN: Given the hold that he has on people and this is not a criticism of U.S. forces but how effective can a 100 even highly-trained people have given those circumstances?

FRAZER: Well, it's a big area. The biggest challenge is tracking Kony and if they deploy with logistical support - if they deploy with helicopters, if they deploy so that they could get up in the air and track him, because he's very fast on the ground. He knows the bush well. Moreover, anybody that falls behind he will simply kill them and so, that's how he's able to move very quickly and so, if we can have air mobility and we provide that air mobility to the regional forces - moreover, we do have the intelligence and that's been extremely effective in trying to track him.

So, I think that 100 forces is small, but it will have an effect.

MARTIN: You've talked about the fact that Kony used to have a mystical hold on some of his, you know, followers, which is due in part to drugs and due in part (unintelligible) with their children, and so forth. But I have also seen it reported that Kony has a fear of the United States. That this the mere presence of U.S. troops might be destabilizing to his operation because he for whatever reason has a fear of U.S. forces. Do you know that to be true? Do you think that's true?

FRAZER: I don't, I don't know it but I wouldn't be surprised about it and I certainly think that we could use it to our benefit if that's the case. He's highly influenced by just this notion of mysticism, that he's getting his commands from God directly.

MARTIN: He sees himself as a quasi-religious leader in a way?

FRAZER: Well, he thinks that he is a religious leader, yes. He definitely does. They sprinkle holy water. He's trained as a witch doctor, a village witch doctor. And so, he's, you know, very subject to believing in the spirit world. And I could imagine that in his imagination he could, you know, believe that the United States brings some greater power, and I hope that we do with our Special Forces.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the U.S. mission in Central Africa to advise and assist in dismantling the Lord's Resistance Army. We're speaking with Ambassador Jendayi Frazer. She is an expert in African affairs. She's a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University where she focuses on Africa policy. She's also a former ambassador to South Africa. What has been his goal all these years? Does he have one? This has become - moved far beyond a regional conflict...

FRAZER: Right.

MARTIN: ...to, you know, for a state conflict encompassing vast areas. What's his goal? What's his agenda?

FRAZER: Well, it's hard to say that he has a political goal, but if he did have a political goal - because this has gone on since 1986 - it's to establish theocratic government based on the ten commandments. That's what he has originally said his goal is, but really he's just looting, terrorizing, and it's really difficult to say that there's any political agenda. He's had many opportunities to come to the peace process, to negotiate if he had a political agenda and he uses those peach processes simply to rearm.

Normally he will come to a peace process when he's on the run and he's losing forces. He will then regroup, you know, gather his forces again and then attack. So, he's not really interested in peace.

MARTIN: So, what is the goal here for the forces that the U.S. has now aligned with? Is it capture or kill?

FRAZER: Capture or kill.

MARTIN: Capture or kill?

FRAZER: Yes.

MARTIN: And what would success look like in this situation? How will you know if this mission has succeeded?

FRAZER: Kony's dead. I think that's the most important strategic goal, is that he's dead. Obviously, if you capture him, that's just as well. But basically, to remove him from the battlefield.

MARTIN: And if he's removed from the battlefield do you feel that the conflict - is it your understanding that the conflict would essentially end?

FRAZER: Yes, that's our understanding. That has been the understanding of the intelligence the U.S. Intelligence. There's some who would say, well, then you just have little pockets of LRA, but really the core of the LRA is Kony. And so if you remove the core, the other parts will dissipate. So, I'm pretty sure that killing him, removing him - most of the people who are part of his - the LRA, don't want to be there. That's why there are so many when he's on the run who are escaping, and so I think that really he wouldn't, you know, - that he has some hardened military forces that have been with him for years, but really, no one could survive with the same kinds of I would, you know, put in quotes "charisma." you know, and hold over the imagination of young people that Kony has.

MARTIN: Anyone who's familiar with the region and who's familiar with the Lord's Resistance Army and who's familiar with any of the literature of the region, memoires, both the journalism and the art, even, coming out of the region, attests to the brutality, which is almost beyond description.

FRAZER: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay. But what is - so from a humanitarian perspective, certainly. But what is the U.S. interest here?

FRAZER: Well, I do think humanitarian interest is large. But again, a key interest of the United States is regional stability, and the Lord's Resistance Army moving back and forth between South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo is undermining U.S. broader interests. For instance, these countries are spending quite a lot of time trying to track this guy. He is undermining economic development in the region.

I think that - so, from the U.S. perspective, I think it's primarily humanitarian, but it also is trying to support these countries in their security interests, which fundamentally are our security interests, because we have an interest in economic development. We have an interest in stability in the region. We have an interest in democratic transformation in the region. And all of those are undermined by this terrorist group running around between these four countries.

MARTIN: Where will these U.S. troops be housed? Or is that a matter of - is that a classified issue?

FRAZER: Well, not really. I mean, technically it is, but first, they are deploying to Uganda. We have a very strong partnership with the Ugandan forces and the Ugandan government in terms of tracking Kony. We've been providing intelligence to Uganda since 2005 and helped to dislodge Kony out of northern Uganda as a result, so we have a very strong relationship. So they will probably deploy first to Uganda, and then they will deploy forward into the Central African Republic, and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

MARTIN: So presumably, did the U.S. make the offer, or were they invited?

FRAZER: Well, they were certainly invited by President Museveni, who has asked for U.S. support for almost more than a decade now. On the other hand, the Congolese have not necessarily asked for the support, but the Ugandans certainly have asked. The South Sudanese, in the past, have asked. But right now, because these forces are likely to operate in Congo, they don't want them to come into South Sudan territory and then deploy into the Congo without the permission of the president.

MARTIN: Jendayi Frazer is Distinguished Public Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where she directs the Center for International Policy and Innovation. She's an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and, as we mentioned, she's a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush. And she is the first woman U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ambassador Frazer, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

FRAZER: Thank you, Michel.

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