It seems like a lot of other people had very important criticisms regarding that video. We’re a bit overwhelmed with the response to the comments I made yesterday, and it has now displaced llamas and running shoes (no, really) as the top article on a blog about war.
Invisible Children, for their part, have offered a rebuttal.
There are plenty of people out there who can offer better advice than I can on NGO governance structures, the ins and outs of Northern Uganda and so on. One of the point I was trying to make yesterday was that IC appeared to have a deficit in understanding regarding military affairs, and their campaign was therefore bloody dangerous.
Thankfully, IC have also published their letter to Obama, and outlined just how poor an understanding of military matters that they have. For a backgrounder, read this Foreign Affairs piece, it’s the best single-article precis of the issues at hand. This article is essentially an extension of my post yesterday – I’m not a development specialist, I don’t claim to have the answers to ‘the problem’ and I’m pretty sure that my definition of ‘the problem’ will differ from the people that it directly affects. Instead, this is a set of things that concerns me, because the Kony campaign is in full swing. By all means, support it (free country, etc), but people should be aware of the wider issues. For me, I’m concerned with military bits and bobs.
In the first paragraph, IC refer to the LRA operating in “remote and ungoverned areas.” As perhaps any geographer, anthropologist, sociologist or other person that studies human beings, there is no such thing as an “ungoverned area.” Humans create governance structures whereever they interact with one another, those governance structures can be brutal, unfair, even lethal, but they still exist. ‘Ungoverned space’ is security-speak for “A state doesn’t control it” and the fact that they’re even thinking in those terms raises a red-flag for where the rest of the letter is going.
The next interesting paragraph is quite jaw dropping in its assumptions:
However, we fear that unless existing U.S. efforts are further expanded, your strategy may not succeed.
Okay. Cards on the table – expand existing U.S. efforts (the military advisors).
The Ugandan and other regional militaries pursuing LRA commanders and groups continue to face daunting challenges. Their operations are hamstrung by flagging political will, weak cross-border coordination, the absence of tactical airlift, and the withdrawal of more than half of the Ugandan troops initially deployed to the field.
This entire segment is a straw man argument. Let’s look at potential solutions to those problems:
1) Flagging political will – What, exactly, will America do about the choices of these countries not to pursue the LRA? Could it be that a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo might have other problems? Or Uganda? Or South Sudan? Depicting this as a ‘problem’ indicates that it needs to be ‘solved.’ By writing to the President of the United States, I assume that IC wants Obama to lean on Uganda et al to make Joseph kony public enemy number one, irrespective of the problems that they might have assessed within their own country.
2) Weak cross border coordination – I don’t know where to begin with this, so I turned to Google Maps for quick visual reference:
and for comparison: South Carolina.
The two maps are to scale. What IC are talking about is trying to get four states, who all have their own internal problems, to assert control over a region roughly the size of South Carolina. How many people are in there? I don’t know. How many ongoing conflicts and local issues would such an effort effect? I don’t know. My guesstimate answer to both would be “lots”. The point is, IC don’t know either, and they’re the ones asking the President of the United States to take action in the area. I’m not a development worker, but as a human being with a brain, my first inclination would be to sit down, shut up and listen to the people living there before embarking on a half-baked crusade, rather than imposing my own narrative of what the biggest problem is, and what needs to be done first. Talking of crusades…
3) ‘Tactical airlift’ – I personally thought Peter Singer had it right in ‘Taking George W. Bush Seriously‘, so I’ll do the same to IC on this point. Let us suppose that the panacea of tactical airlift will somehow enable the four states to hunt down Kony. Okay. Now let’s look at the logistics. Tactical airlift means planes and helicopters. That means runways, bases, pilots and mechanics. Where are they going to go? Are any of the four states offering to let the US build a base on their turf? No? Thought not. For some reason, maybe to do with the history of colonialism and decolonisation, these states happen to be quite sensitive to things like that. Can you blame them? Not really. Even if, if, one of those states was to let America (or whoever) build a base, then that base has to be supplied, it will have a logistics chain to keep it operational while the ‘tactical airlift’ does its magic. That means an influx of tens of millions of dollars into whichever local economies happen to be nearby. Normally people say “Hey, money, good thing, right?” but pumping extremely large sums of money into an economy, particularly one that might be affected by conflict is going to destabilise that region. People will find better paid work supporting a military facility than building a sustainable economy of their own. Think of dumping a big military base in the middle of a warzone as akin to striking oil. So your tactical airlift takes Kony out, and now your big base has destabilised half a country. Great job. Not quite as pyhrric as Team America: World Police, but still.
Moreover, bureaucratic inertia and cuts in the U.S. foreign assistance budget have drastically limited the scope of non-military aspects of the strategy’s implementation, which are equally important to the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.
Hey, I’ll give IC a pass on that bit. Fair play. But back to the nuts and more nuts of IC intervention. I will skip the bit about advisors and the threat the LRA poses, what with most informed observers stating that the LRA isn’t much of a threat anymore. Instead, let’s look at this gem:
In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, $35 million was authorized to strengthen regional efforts to protect civilians and pursue top LRA commanders. These funds should be used to provide enhanced mobility, intelligence, and other support for ongoing operations, though it is crucial that any beneficiaries be monitored closely and held accountable for abuses committed against the civilian population or any other illicit activities.
If you take a second look at the NDAA you will find that $35 million doesn’t buy a hell of a lot. I think it is what the defence industry would refer to as ‘chump change’. Again, I wonder if anyone at IC has any idea about the costs of military equipment and operations. Let’s think about providing ‘enhanced mobility’ for a second. Obviously they can’t be talking about tactical airlift, since planes cost a hell of a lot more to run than $35 million. So I’ll be kind, and think that they’re referring to trucks or something. As pointed out before, that means either running it yourself (requirements: base, troop deployments, logistics) or giving it to a local state. I consider the second option to be dangerous, since it means arming state governments to go after one person, with little control over what they do with the equipment. Is the $35 million going to include monitoring? How is America going to monitor the use of its equipment in another country halfway around the world? What happens if that country does something bad with it against civilians, or uses it against opposing factions within the country? The Obama strategy of advisors is pretty good in my books because it does not involve these technology transfers. If someone starts slaughtering civilians, they can jump on a plane and fly away.
The next throwaway word was ‘intelligence’. Sounds great, huh? Let’s improve our intelligence support to their operations. Two problems: human intelligence collection and ISR capabilities (spy planes, to the lay readers). Human intelligence collection means probably starting from scratch and sending the CIA (or whoever) deep into an area of the world where they probably don’t have much backup. Let’s just say that’s a total non-starter for $35 million. ISR capabilities means planes or drones. Both of those require runways and… we’re straight back to the ‘tactical airlift’ problem.
Congress also directed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that up to $10 million be used for programs that provide early warning to communities vulnerable to LRA attacks, help LRA abductees escape peacefully, and enhance telecommunications and road infrastructure in affected areas. The absence of basic infrastructure is key to the LRA’s ability to perpetrate mass atrocities. As such, it is vital that your Administration utilize the full $10 million to expand existing efforts in these areas, which currently benefit only a small fraction of the affected population. Programs to increase LRA defections – such as direct outreach to LRA commanders, expanded radio programming, aerial leafleting, the establishment of safe zones for surrender, and community sensitization – are a particularly important and underutilized means of reducing the LRA’s capacity to attack civilians. In Central African Republic (CAR), where most LRA commanders are currently located, no such efforts exist; U.S. military advisors are uniquely positioned to help expand these activities in CAR.
This paragraph is so wide-eyed and half-baked that… Well, let’s start with infrastructure. Let’s look at the operational area again, and compare it to the size of South Carolina. Now let’s build basic infrastructure to cover the entire area for $10 million. If this were remotely possible, or feasible, half the NGOs in the world would be out of business. I’m all for advocacy, but in publishing this letter, it seems like IC is making the argument that this is a possibility. It isn’t. If the lack of infrastructure is key to the LRA’s threat, then maybe IC should be arguing for more cash. Otherwise it sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Now let’s talk about safe zones. What makes a safe zone a safe zone? The ability and inclination to use sufficient force to deter or defeat anyone that wants to make it unsafe. Otherwise, you get Srebrenica. To effectively secure a safe zone, you need an army, not 100 advisors. How, exactly, are US advisors therefore uniquely positioned to expand these activities in the CAR? If the CAR isn’t creating these safe zones, are the advisors meant to do so unilaterally? Are they meant to order the army of a sovereign state to do so? Persuade them? Again, it seems to me that IC either don’t know what soldiers do, don’t know what the limits of their use are, or they are being willingly deceptive. I give them the benefit of the doubt. In this instance – America cannot unilaterally create safe zones without deploying vast numbers of troops.
The reason I’m writing this all out is that these are the sort of nuts and bolts questions that need to be asked around any military deployment. War kills people, and the use of the military should be a matter of necessity. IC appear to perceive military force as some sort of silver bullet – pull the trigger, solve the problem, walk away like Clint Eastwood. It never has been, and it never will be. If IC want to see the expansion of US military activity, then they should say so. That should be the debate – “Dear Obama, please spend $X million dollars on these activities…”, if not, then they’re selling their supporters the idea that their campaign can change things that it can’t. More than that, if they are serious about selling a military intervention, then they need to be upfront about the risks as well as the possibilities. If they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to military matters then they should remember their medical ethics before arguing for military action – “First, do no harm.”
Edit – We don’t usually “sell” things on this blog but if you’re interested in these issues, the Department has a number of MA options including the Conflict, Security and Development MA led by Professor Mats Berdal, as well as the distance learning MA War in the Modern World.