The latest U.S. military adventure, the deployment of 100 troops to Central Africa to hunt for a notorious militia commander, is provoking cheers from human rights activists and befuddlement from many others.
President Barack Obama, who announced the move on Friday, said the U.S. troops would be combat-equipped but would serve as advisers to African armies and will not fight unless attacked. Their mission is to help capture Joseph Kony, infamous leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a fanatical militia that has killed an estimated 30,000 people over the past two decades.
The LRA was born in Uganda but has rampaged across several African countries. Several of its commanders, including Mr. Kony, are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. It is accused of widespread atrocities, including mass rape, the mutilation of victims by cutting off body parts, the kidnapping of young girls for use as sex slaves, and the abduction of boys to conscript them as child soldiers.
A small group of a dozen U.S. soldiers has already landed in Uganda to begin the pursuit, and more will follow in the next few weeks. Their mission is daunting: The LRA moves in heavy jungle and small villages in the remotest corners of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. The U.S. troops will be authorized to operate in all of these countries if their governments agree.
Nearly half a million people have been forced from their homes because of LRA attacks. These attacks "have a disproportionate impact on regional security," Mr. Obama said.
Yet military tactics against the LRA have failed in the past. The United States gave logistical and intelligence support to a major offensive by several African armies in 2008, but the campaign was botched, allowing the LRA to escape.
Many human rights groups are praising Mr. Obama's decision, saying it could finally protect civilians and end the LRA's atrocities.
But the deployment is puzzling to many Americans, who see the LRA as an obscure target in an unknown corner of the world. And some analysts are warning that the latest military mission is messy, dangerous and unlikely to succeed.
Laura Seay, an Africa expert at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said the U.S. troops will face huge problems: language barriers, difficult terrain, lack of roads, and the likely use of human shields by the LRA. She described Mr. Kony as a "brilliant tactician" who uses a system of scouts to warn him of any threat. But despite the risks, the mission is worth trying, she said.