By John T. Bennett - 10/20/11 07:32 PM EDT
Senators emerged from a classified briefing Thursday reassured that President Obama is limiting the U.S. military mission in Uganda to taking out strongman Joseph Krony.
State Department and Pentagon officials briefed Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Thursday on Obama’s decision to send 100 American troops to the central African nation. Officials say those service members will be helping regional forces and will not be engaging in combat unless necessary for self-defense.
“I’m encouraged that there is a clear focus for this mission,” Coons said during a press conference.
Panel member Sen. James Inhofe told The Hill the troops' "mission is train and equip.”
The Oklahoma Republican helped shepherd to passage in May 2010 the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which authorized Obama to send U.S. troops to Africa.
The law was easily approved, but received scant media attention at the time.
“We had 64 co-sponsors,” Inhofe noted Thursday in a brief interview. “That’s the most in history of the Senate on an Africa-related bill.”
Inhofe also is a member of the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee. He noted that he successfully inserted a provision in its version of 2012 Defense authorization legislation that would “prohibit” U.S. forces from engaging in any offensive combat operations as part of the Ugandan deployment.
As he walked out of the classified session, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the State Department and Pentagon officials described the mission as designed to “build up Uganda’s capability” to combat Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Cardin said he supports the operation because “I believe it is in the United States’ and in the international community’s interests to stop” Kony and his forces.
Senators from both parties applauded the Obama administration for notifying lawmakers before announcing last Friday the president’s decision to send in U.S. forces and for keeping them informed since.
Coons told reporters the White House delivered notification before the deployment that he labeled “timely” and “constructive.”
U.S. forces will only engage in fighting Kony’s forces “in defense” if they are first fired upon or attacked, Coons said.
“I think it’s appropriate [to] help each of the national armies” in that region that have been attacked by Kony’s army “be more effective.”
Asked by The Hill whether U.S. officials are worried that 100 American uniformed trainers would be enough to take out Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Coons replied: “Of course I’m concerned about that, and so is the administration.”
Sending in U.S. trainers is the “next step” in a process of exerting greater pressure on Kony and his top aides, Coons told reporters.
Unlike the Obama administration’s handling of the Libya military intervention, senators exited the classified session in support of the Uganda mission.
“I would have been disappointed” had Obama opted against sending U.S. troops there, Inhofe said. “It’s not that we mandated the president to act, we requested him to do it. I take full responsibility for that. I don’t hang that on the president at all.”