Obama administration officials Tuesday sought to convince skeptical members of Congress that 100 U.S. military advisors being sent to central Africa will spend only a few months in the region helping to crush a notorious guerrilla group.
Senior Pentagon and State Department officials said they did not plan to expand the role or the number of troops being sent to advise African forces battling the Lord’s Resistance Army, a small but vicious militia that has terrorized villages and towns in northern Uganda and nearby countries for more than two decades.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the officials promised to begin reviewing within months whether to end the effort to capture or kill the group’s messianic leader, Joseph Kony, as some lawmakers worried that the deployment could draw the United States into another costly conflict.
“This is not an open-ended commitment,” said Alexander Vershbow, an assistant secretary of Defense. Despite the relatively small size of the U.S. force, he estimated the cost as “likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
“This is a short-term deployment with specific goals and objectives,” said Donald Yamamoto, principal deputy assistant secretary of State.
The hearing was the first to examine the African operation since President Obama announced Oct. 14 that Army special forces and other military experts would advise Uganda and its neighbors on how to defeat a militia that has only about 200 members but has become infamous for killing and mutilating villagers, kidnapping and enslaving women, and using child soldiers.
The U.S. military team members have already begun arriving in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. They will distribute communications equipment to villages to help report the militia’s movements, and will provide African commanders with U.S. intelligence from communications intercepts and satellite imagery, officials said.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, which claims to be inspired by a mix of Christian and African religions, operates across the porous borders of Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. U.S. officials say the militia has forced 400,000 people to flee their homes, and has carried out 2,400 attacks and 3,400 abductions since 2008.
Vershbow promised that U.S. troops would operate under strict rules of engagement and would not fire their weapons unless fired upon. He said the Pentagon had no plans to use drone aircraft “at this time.”
Vershbow said U.S. forces would help African governments with humanitarian relief in addition to the troops’ “overarching goal” of killing or capturing Kony and his top aides. If that doesn’t appear likely, he said, “we will not continue the deployment.”
But he left the door open to changes in the operation.
“If we think adjustments to the mission are warranted over time, we will consider them,” he said.
Although some liberals and conservatives support the deployment, lawmakers at the hearing made it clear that they were uneasy about launching another military engagement when many Americans are weary of war and when U.S. national security is not at stake.
“I have a lot of concerns, a lot of anxious moments, about whether or not the number of troops will grow to 200, 300 or even more,” said Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.).
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he worried how U.S. troops could “be of assistance without being dragged into someone else’s fight in central Africa.”