President Obama's decision to send 100 U.S. troops into central Africa to help combat a rebel group may have struck many as a surprise, but there's a long precedent for such operations.
U.S. forces have worked collaboratively with numerous militaries around the globe in recent decades, whether to put down insurgencies in places like the Philippines and El Salvador, or to fight the drug trade in Colombia and Mexico.
"There's been a tradition for more than 200 years of sending small contingents of fighters to engage in activities overseas," says Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Obama sent a letter to Congress last Friday announcing he will send the military personnel to help train and advise militaries in several central African countries on how best to combat the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has for years terrorized civilians and opposed the government of Uganda.
U.S. officials say the rebel force has killed more than 3,000 people over the past three years and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Human rights groups have applauded the deployment. "We may see this more in the future, because the U.S. government and others are beginning to understand how important it is to protect civilians," says Alison Giffen, deputy director of the Future of Peace Operations program at the Stimson Center.
The use of small forces is likely to increase for other reasons, say Fontaine and other military observers. Americans have "approximately zero" appetite for large-scale commitments such as Afghanistan and Iraq, he says, but the U.S. has not turned isolationist.
"If you're trying to keep up international engagements around the world, this is a way to do it at small cost and small commitment," he says.
Both U.S. and Ugandan officials have stressed the fact that the American military personnel being sent to Uganda as advisers and trainers will not be involved in fighting the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, unless they are attacked.
Peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army broke down in 2008. Only several hundred fighters remain, but they have been accused of atrocities in several countries, including beheadings and sex slavery.
Last year, Congress passed a law calling on the administration to develop a comprehensive plan for eliminating the LRA. The White House's strategy calls for the protection of civilians. But military commanders also see the mission as helping fulfill a broader desire to help improve the capacity of African militaries to provide for their own security.
"In this case, the U.S. is trying to help build the capacity of African states in taking on a pretty lawless group that's been terrorizing a large part of the population in central Africa," says Jim Thomas, vice president for studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Don't Go There Alone
Working closely with host countries is one of the keys to success when sending small forces overseas, says Fontaine, of the Center for a New American Security.
Things went wrong in Somalia in 1993. The U.S. had sent in troops a year earlier to help restore order and allow for the delivery of food aid to end a famine.
But the U.S. was drawn into Somalia's civil war, and 18 American soldiers were killed in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident, when U.S. helicopters were shot down and a daylong battle raged in the streets of Mogadishu. The U.S. was on its own because there was no central government in Somalia to support the U.S. mission.
"One of the lessons, which has been emphasized by the administration, is that they're there to help government forces on the ground already committed to doing things we want to do," says Fontaine. "It's a different thing entirely if you put a small force on the ground — they're going after the LRA alone."
Serving Several Purposes
For years after, the Somalia experience left American policymakers allergic to the idea of sending troops into Africa. The Uganda mission, coupled with the bombing campaign in Libya, suggests that the U.S. is ready to engage militarily in Africa again.
Deployments of limited numbers of troops may increase because it serves several purposes for the U.S. military, says Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Pentagon wants to have its officers exposed to foreign cultures and to work with other militaries and governments.
"It's expensive to have people stay abroad for a long period of time, but to have shorter tours in host countries, I see that only increasing in the future," Zenko says.
But not everyone welcomes the prospect of more small-scale interventions overseas.
"The debate should be, is this what we want our military doing?" says Mike Few, editor of Small Wars Journal. "But both neoconservatives and neoliberals want the military interdicting around the world, so there are very few people saying maybe we shouldn't be doing this."
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