In February, a man and his teenage daughter floated in a fishing boat on the Were River, deep in the heart of Garamba National Park, where Congo’s last elephants roam. Out of the forest, four armed rebels appeared, wielding AK-47s and speaking a language indigenous to Northern Uganda.
They attacked the boat and took the girl and her father, marking two of the roughly 240 abductions carried out this year by suspected Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters.
At its peak, the LRA was one of the most brutal armed organizations that central Africa had ever seen, known for abducting scores of children and transforming them into killing machines. In an attack similar to Boko Haram’s most infamous crime, the LRA kidnapped 139 girls from a seminary school in Aboke, Uganda, in 1996, holding them as sex slaves and torturing them before finally releasing most of them after years in captivity.
In 2009, the LRA went on a killing spree in Makombo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, ambushing a fishing market, decapitating its victims and pulling children along by the wrist into captivity. Its leader, Joseph Kony, has remained untouchable, despite being the target of repeated apprehension attempts as well as the International Criminal Court’s first-ever indictment.
Today, the LRA is massively reduced, down to roughly 200 fighters. Killings and child abductions have sharply decreased from the peak of the LRA’s strength, and earlier this year, the group released at least 72 women and children from their grasp to return home.
Two of the LRA’s top commanders were recently removed from the battlefield, one killed in combat with African Union forces, and the other voluntarily surrendering to U.S. forces to face war crimes charges in The Hague.
These improvements are thanks in part to a quiet regional operation led by the African Union that aims to eliminate the LRA threat and apprehend Joseph Kony. Since 2010, the United States has played a critical supportive role by contributing targeted funding, needed equipment, and military advisers.
With a light footprint and sophisticated, cooperative approach, the U.S. initiative in support of the operation has helped improve the mission’s intelligence-gathering and operational plans. It has also contributed to innovative, cost-effective strategies to encourage defections among low-level LRA combatants and captives, and for the return of hundreds of women, children, and men back to their communities.
But the future of the counter-LRA effort is now in jeopardy. The House Armed Services Committee, in its guiding report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), raised the specter of program “termination” for the first time. As Congress is now setting its priorities and funding levels for the coming year, and with the NDAA heading toward the President’s desk, the United States should work to strengthen, not undermine, the mission.
Some say the LRA is on its last legs, but the job is not done. In the first quarter of 2015, they committed more attacks than during the first quarter of 2014, and their trading and command systems look more sophisticated than ever. As his forces shrink, Kony has made key promotions to shore up his high command, and developed new alliances with regional militias. The cultish LRA leader has become more dangerous and desperate as the net closes.
Despite its diminishing numbers, the LRA poses a formidable threat to security in the region, with a new method of terror that doubles as an income stream. LRA fighters operate under the cover of Garamba’s lush green canopy where they slaughter elephants for ivory, creatures that are now in a crisis of impending extinction due to poaching.
Kony orders his fighters to bring him ivory to bolster his coffers as the LRA fights to survive. The LRA’s strongholds in Garamba’s deep forests also help grease the wheels of a complex cross-border trafficking machine that strengthens other murderous groups, such as Seleka in Central African Republic and the Janjaweed in Sudan.
Each tusk, in the end, generates as much as $175,000 for trafficking kingpins, traders, foot-soldiers, and Kony himself. Wildlife experts have said if pressure on the LRA is reduced, Congo could lose its elephants altogether.
Owing to its successes, the U.S. support to the regional counter-LRA mission is being seen as a model for light-footprint, advise-and-assist U.S. military engagement elsewhere in the world, including the operations against Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. But this mission can’t be treated as a model for future engagement if it doesn’t ultimately succeed.
The United States should maintain a robust supportive role in the counter-LRA mission to finish the job, ensuring that a dwindling regional threat does not come roaring back. To reduce U.S. assistance to the mission now would irreparably damage the effort steps before the finish line. It would allow all positive momentum in the fight to unravel, and abandon civilians still in captivity.
The fate of the man and his daughter abducted from Garamba’s Were River is unknown. Given LRA patterns, it is likely that the daughter was used as a sex slave, the temporary “wife” of one of the fighters. The man was likely forced to work as a porter, transporting materials like the sawed-off tusk of a slaughtered elephant.
If the U.S. draws down its support to the counter-LRA mission now, the majesty of Garamba’s forests and other remote areas throughout the region will serve as a safe haven to brutal criminals, rather than the civilians and wildlife that deserve to live there in peace.
In a region mired in complex transnational terrorism, trafficking, and violence, this model of atrocity prevention is showing promise. Now is the time to dig in, not walk away.
Kathryn Bigelow is an Academy Award-winning director/producer (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), and creator of the new film “Last Days,” about the slaughter of elephants and terrorism. Holly Dranginis is a Policy Analyst at the Enough Project, which works to prevent atrocities across the Horn, central and eastern Africa.