Reflections from the African Land Forces Summit

Senior Fellow Lawrence J. Korb Reports from Uganda

Lawrence J. Korb discusses his recent trip to Uganda for this year’s conference and what he learned about our efforts to defeat extremists on the continent.

Ugandan People’s Defense Force troops return to their training camp in Kakola, 75 miles north of Kampala, from training exercises meant to prepare them for the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. (Center for American Progress)
Ugandan People’s Defense Force troops return to their training camp in Kakola, 75 miles north of Kampala, from training exercises meant to prepare them for the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. (Center for American Progress)

Although I have traveled all around the world, including visits to all seven continents, until recently I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa, nor had I ever focused very much on it in my research and writing. The only African countries I had visited were in the northern part of the continent—Egypt, for example, which many Africanists claim is not really part of Africa but rather part of the greater Middle East.

Consequently, I was surprised and honored when the Army component of the U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, asked me to speak at this year’s African Land Forces Summit in Uganda this past month, a meeting focused on strengthening the armies of Africa to meet common security challenges. I came away from the conference with some key insights about our efforts to defeat extremists groups in Africa such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al Shabaab, as well as how these countries are conducting their military affairs. These are important issues because the security climate in sub-Saharan Africa affects the United States.

Summit summary

The week-long summit, which was the second biennial summit and the first to be held in Africa, was co-hosted by U.S. Army Africa—the headquarters component of the U.S. military’s AFRICOM combatant command—and Uganda’s army—the Ugandan People’s Defense Force—in the Ugandan capital of Kampala starting May 14. The event brought together the land forces’ chiefs of staff from 36 African nations with military leaders from the U.S. Army. Only Morocco and Sudan refused invitations to attend.

The summit’s opening ceremony reminded me of the Olympics. A soldier draped with each country’s flag marched into a large hall to the strains of martial music. The procession finished with the playing of the U.S. and Ugandan national anthems, followed by that of the African Union. The ceremony was to conclude with opening remarks by the senior U.S. and Ugandan officers and a speech by Yoweri Museveni, president of the Republic of Uganda.

Since President Museveni was late to arrive, the Ugandans screened a movie called “Heroes of the Horn,” detailing their exploits in Somalia. Uganda serves as the lead country in the African Union peacekeeping operation taking place in Somalia. While the movie was, not unexpectedly, very positive, it was an early indicator of the Ugandan military’s media savvy—in fact, that same day there was a front-page story by journalist Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post about their operations in Somalia. When the president finally showed up, he was trailed by a large media contingent that rivaled that of any Western leader.

In his opening remarks, President Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986 and has been accused of attacking opposition members of Parliament and violating refugee rights, made several colorful comments. He described extremist groups fighting religious wars—such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia—as “idiots with ideological bankruptcy.” The president then blamed the two decades of continued fighting by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency on his own Ugandan forces being too small and ill-trained, which he said was compounded by the historic support provided to the rebels by the Sudanese government in Khartoum. It is worth noting, however, that some Lord’s Resistance Army experts do not agree with President Museveni’s analysis, pointing instead to a lack of political will on President Museveni’s part and the fact that only one Lord’s Resistance Army commander has been brought to trial by the International Crimes Division that tries war crimes.

President Museveni also cautioned the assembled military leaders of the 36 African countries at the summit against dabbling in sectarianism and stated that African armies must be independent of foreign exploitation. Therefore, the president argued they should not listen to those (unnamed) external forces that told them not to spend 1.9 percent of their budget—I think he meant GDP—and to reduce the size of their armies.

Three of the last four days of the conference consisted of lectures followed by discussion groups. The lectures were given by generals, diplomats, and analysts from the United States, Uganda, the World Bank, the United Nations, the African Union, Angola, and Malawi. The lectures and discussion groups dealt with such topics as institutional values, social media, regional security challenges, post-war transitions, peace-support operations, and military professionalism.

One day we visited the Ugandan army’s Peace Support Operations Training Center in Kakola, about 75 miles north of Kampala. During this visit we observed Ugandan soldiers undergoing training for the mission to war-torn Somalia, where the African Union is expanding the size of the mission to some 18,000 troops. We watched simulations of how approximately 3,500 Ugandan soldiers would respond to enemy attacks on their convoys and foot patrols while on missions similar to the one in Somalia. Those soldiers about to be deployed held combat drills supervised by U.S. (private contractors from Military Professional Resources Inc.), French, and Belgian military instructors. We learned that the training center has so far trained 10 Ugandan battle groups, seven of which have already been deployed to Somalia.

The Ugandan intelligence chief also briefed us on progress in the operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels—which he called Satan’s Resistance Army—and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. He argued that the rebels had been weakened. In fact, while we were in Uganda the Ugandan army captured one of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s top commanders, Maj. Gen. Caesar Acellam Otto—a member of the rebels’ high command and head of the group’s military intelligence—in the Central African Republic.

But the Ugandan intelligence chief cautioned that the rebel group’s ability to wreak havoc on local populations remains high, though he said that a planned force of 5,000 soldiers under an African Union mandate drawn from the countries where the group operates would enhance the efforts to neutralize the rebels.

Key takeaways

In preparing for my remarks to the summit, in the sessions I attended, and from my observations on the trip to the training center, I came to the following conclusions.

Security and stability in sub-Saharan Africa impacts U.S. security

Weak and failing states such as Somalia can become havens for violent extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab (which is affiliated with Al Qaeda), drug smugglers, and bands of pirates, and can also lead to humanitarian disasters.

And as President Barack Obama noted in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this year, he is the first president to have declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” That is why U.S. Army Special Forces are in Uganda to help hunt down Lord’s Resistance Army leader and child-abducting warlord Joseph Kony.

The United States is dealing with this part of the world in a very smart and forward-looking way

It has established a unified command to give attention to the area and to establish relations with African militaries, but the United States has not placed the command headquarters on the continent, nor has it deployed any large numbers of combat troops on the ground. This is a good strategy because it undermines the narrative of terrorist groups that the United States is simply another colonial power intent on exploiting the region for its own benefit.

Moreover, in dealing with the problems of the area, the United States acts more like a superpartner than a superpower. We help train and pay for the 17,000 troops from African nations, particularly Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi, deployed in Somalia—about $500 million so far—but are not on the ground. (Remember how well that worked when we did send 30,000 troops there in 1993 as part of the U.N. Operation in Somalia II peacekeeping force?) The 100 Special Operations troops sent to Africa in October 2011 are helping Ugandan forces remove Kony and other rebel leaders from the battlefield but are not engaging in direct combat. The Ugandan forces that captured Acellam Otto on May 12, 2012, had U.S. backing, but unlike the coverage in the United States the Ugandan press did not mention the American role.

The African military leaders I encountered are more competent and professional than I initially realized

While observing the Ugandan troops prepare for Somalia, one American military officer remarked to me that he thought they were more competent than most of the Afghan Security Forces he dealt with.

Certainly, there remains a challenge in establishing effective command and control throughout the ranks so that the professionalism at the top becomes part of the institutional frameworks of these militaries. But the signs are promising.

Moreover, in the questions I received after my talk, as well as in the discussions with the military leaders, it was clear that many of the militaries were opening up opportunities for women.

By the time the third biennial African Land Forces Summit occurs in 2014, I believe the U.S. Army, in collaboration with the African militaries, will be well on its way to bringing the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al Shabaab to heel. Such developments will benefit Africa, the United States, and the world.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow