By John T. Bennett - 10/25/11 04:40 PM EDT
A senior Pentagon official told a House panel Tuesday the U.S. military deployment to central Africa to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army will last months but vowed it “will not be an open-ended commitment.”
Pentagon and State Department officials described the deployment of 100 U.S. Army special operations troops to Uganda as one in which those American forces will help Ugandan and other regional fighters learn how to better combine intelligence data with battlefield planning.
“We will not go on indefinitely,” Assistant Defense Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow told House Foreign Affairs Committee members. “We will pull back, and we hope [regional allied forces] will be able to continue with this training and finish the job.”
The Uganda deployment was set in motion last May, when Congress overwhelmingly approved the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. The law, which received scant media attention at the time, authorized President Obama to send U.S. troops to Africa.
Obama administration and military officials envision a small U.S. deployment that “runs months,” Vershbow said, telling the lawmakers the administration will evaluate the effectiveness of the effort to boost regional forces in several months.
Vershbow first told the panel that the primary goal was to help U.S. partners in the region remove strongman Joseph Kony and other Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leaders from the battlefield or capture them. Kony and LRA forces are accused of massacring civilians, including many children.
Under questioning from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Vershbow later acknowledged that the mission could lead to Kony being “captured or killed.”
Committee members from both parties expressed skepticism about whether U.S. forces would be able to stay out of the fighting between Uganda-allied forces and the LRA.
Vershbow and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto were frank in saying the administration could not give Congress such guarantees.
That’s because the deployment is different from other so-called “train-and-equip” missions that American forces conduct routinely, as it will send U.S. troops “into the field” sometimes “at the platoon level” to assist allied forces, Vershbow said.
That will put American troops close to the front lines. State and Pentagon officials explained that this is why they will be sent to central Africa “combat equipped,” in case must defend themselves.
The need to ensure the U.S. troopers were ready and equipped to fight, if needed, led the White House to determine that it should comply with the War Powers Act by formally notifying lawmakers about the mission.
The White House did just that on Oct. 14, the day it publicly announced the deployment.
There was skepticism over the mission from both sides of the aisle, with both Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) raised pointed questions.
Rohrabacher questioned the cost of such deployments and the wisdom of interjecting U.S. troops into African tribal disputes.
“The United States cannot afford to pay the price to win everyone’s freedom across the world,” Rohrabacher said, pointing to the nearly $1 billion cost to Washington of the recent Libya military intervention. (Rohrabacher said Libya should use its oil revenues to pay back Washington.)
Sherman was skeptical that U.S. troops would actually just be training and equipping Ugandan and other allied forces, saying that proved not to be the case in Vietnam.
When Vershbow could not guarantee that American special operations forces would not have to engage Lord’s Resistance Army forces in self-defense, Sherman questioned whether the administration was giving too much legal and operational sway “to lieutenants.”
During the hearing, the officials and lawmakers described an LRA that consists of between 200 and 400 fighters.
In their efforts to assist African allied troops, Vershbow acknowledged that U.S. troops could move across the central African region, operating in numerous nations including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) called the LRA “not a sophisticated insurgency.”
He also pressed the officials on whether Ugandan officials formally “requested [U.S.] boots on the ground.”
Vershbow danced around the question for several moments before telling Duncan “they welcomed this kind of training.”
Connolly questioned the officials on just how the situation in Uganda and central Africa fit within U.S. strategic and national security interests.
“Everything is interconnected,” Vershbow responded.
Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio called for an estimate of how much the central African deployment would cost, saying, “someone should have some idea” about the likely price tag.
The officials said U.S. Africa Command is now funding the operation with monies from its operations and maintenance coffers, and a more thorough cost projection is in the works.