US Special Forces are to begin pulling out of the Central African Republic on Wednesday. With limited government control and a notorious warlord on the loose, it isn't clear what this will mean for the country.
Since 2011, US forces have been helping in the hunt for Joseph Kony, an elusive warlord and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA has terrorized parts of Central Africa for 30 years, slaughtering more than 100,000 people and abducting some 60,000 children.
With Kony still missing and a government too unstable to continue the hunt on its own, DW spoke to Paul Melly, Associate Fellow with the Africa Program at Chatham House in the UK, about what the American withdrawal could mean for CAR.
DW: The US envoy to CAR, Jeffrey Hawkins, has described the US operation as success, but Kony is still at large. Isn't this something of contradiction?
Paul Melly: It's a contradiction, but it's probably also realistic. The southeast part of the CAR, where the LRA has been active, is very thinly populated, communications are extremely difficult, it is a huge area and one in which trying to find people is particularly difficult. The problem is compounded by the fact that the CAR itself is very weak and has been in a very unstable condition, with the authority of the government confined to a small number of towns.
While the US forces and allied Ugandan troops could engage in the hunt for Kony, the capacity of the CAR to fill in behind them, to consolidate government control and to help counter the influence of the LRA was always very limited. One of the reasons why the US and Ugandan troops were involved was because the CAR itself was in no position to take any action to deal with Kony and the LRA.
What have the 250 US special troops achieved during their mission?
They have significantly reduced the impact of LRA activity. The scale of the LRA's military activities and its impact on the civilian community has been reduced. They've continued to do so during a period when the United Nations, supported initially by French forces, have been helping to rebuild the authority of the government in the rest of the CAR - a process that is far from complete. But if the US pulled out three years ago, there would have been no central African state whatsoever to take over this role.
Why hasn't Kony been captured and taken to the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted on war crimes charges? One of his commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is already on trial there?
I think it's partly just because of the sheer difficulty of trying to find elusive individuals in such a huge area. The area where the LRA is thought to have been active is fringed on the north by regions that are still under control of warlords from the Seleka former rebel movement. This is a country where the second largest town in its center has only in recent weeks been firmly placed under the control of government authority, due to a pretty heavy-handed military invention by MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping force. Possibly half or a third of the CAR is still not under the control of either the government or MINUSCA, and the army has to be rebuilt completely from scratch. Given those security realities, it really isn't a surprise that Kony hasn't been captured.
Presumably once US and Ugandan troops pull out, there will be a security vacuum in that part of the CAR. How is it going to be filled?
I think it's not yet clear whether the Ugandan troops will also pull out. The US has said very clearly that it will maintain support for African allies but it hasn't specified them. That could include the Ugandans. Otherwise, I think the most effective option might be to reinforce the manpower of MINUSCA, extend its role to and recruit more African troops. But that in itself poses a massive challenge, because as a UN force mandated by the Security Council, any further enlargement of its troop strength or budget would have to be approved by the United Nations in New York, and it's not clear that is realistic.
It's notable that the commander of the US forces assigned to Africa, who has made this announcement, isn't a political master. We haven't had a statement from the political side of the US administration. Critics might wonder whether this means the decision to pull back hasn't been fully prepared or thought through at a political level.
What do the local population think about the departure of the Ugandan and US forces?
I can't give a clear sense of what local people feel. I think they may be concerned because the withdrawal will provide less protection and it really isn't clear what the future agenda will be, at least from public statements. In a country as fragile as the CAR, there is a need for international partners to set out what they are trying to achieve. In the case of dealing with the LRA, we haven't been given a clear picture - there's just a statement saying that the US will work on training programs and reinforcing African allies. That's not really sending a strong message to the public, nor is it sending a message to those people who may still be involved in LRA activity. But at the moment, the news that has emerged is still very limited. It may be that in fact a very detailed and well thought through plan is in place. If so, it hasn't yet been made public.
Paul Melly is an Associate Fellow with the Africa Program at Chatham House, UK
Interview: Eunice Wanjiru