Operation Lightning Thunder

The American government must reevaluate its attitude toward African affairs.


George W. Bush’s final major presidential act in African military affairs was also the first military activity for the newly created US Africa Command, or AFRICOM. The unintended outcome of the AFRICOM-supported military action – “Operation Lightning Thunder,” which was carried out by Uganda, Congo and Southern Sudan – was disastrous for civilians: over 1,000 people were slaughtered in revenge killings by one of Africa’s oldest and most brutal rebel army, the Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA).

In November 2008, during his final days in office, President Bush personally authorized financial and logistical assistance for a coordinated attack on the LRA in northeastern Congo. AFRICOM assisted with Operation Lightning Thunder’s planning and provided a team of 17 advisers and analysts, intelligence, satellite phones and $1 million in fuel. Lightning Thunder sought to destroy the elusive LRA rebels’ central command center and to eliminate the group’s psychopathic and messianic cult leader, Joseph Kony.

The creation of AFRICOM reflected the Bush administration’s militaristic approach to foreign affairs. Declared fully operational on September 30, 2008, AFRICOM is America’s tenth unified command. Its declared role is to improve the Pentagon and other US government areas’ ability to collaborate with each other and with partners “to achieve a more stable environment in which political and economic growth can take place.” Due to African countries nearly unanimously opposing establishing AFRICOM’s headquarters on African soil, AFRICOM is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM has understandably generated considerable concerns that it will not only militarize US foreign policy in Africa, but that it will also further militarize one of the world’s most war-ravaged continents.

Despite three months of military activity and Ugandan troops on Congolese soil, Lightning Thunder was unable to effectively destroy the LRA or capture Kony. Since minimal planning was undertaken for humanitarian protection, Lightning Thunder led to a string of LRA retaliatory attacks on the local Congolese population. The 2008 Christmas Massacre saw the slaughter of hundreds of civilians, with subsequent revenge killings in Congo and Sudan over the following weeks resulting in a death toll of over 1,000. Furthermore, an estimated 200,000 people have been displaced since Lightning Thunder began.

Regardless of Lightning Thunder’s horrendous failure, the Obama administration cannot lose sight of the violence and destabilization that the LRA continues to inflict upon Central Africa. It is estimated that since 1986, the LRA has abducted 66,000 children and murdered tens of thousands of civilians, in addition to devastating parts of four countries: Uganda, Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. International action against this vicious group is urgently needed.

As the head of the most influential country in the world, President Obama has an unmatched ability to lead and coordinate a multilateral effort focused on ending the LRA’s campaign of terror in the heart of Africa. The US and its African allies, however, cannot pursue a solely military solution to the problem. President Obama should be pressed to immediately appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, just as he has commendably appointed special envoys for Sudan, the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan. Parallel bipartisan bills introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives in May – both titled “The Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009” – would commit the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to disarm the LRA and to help rebuild communities devastated by its atrocities. Greater citizen pressure on the American president, senators and representatives is needed to ensure that an envoy is named and that these important bills are passed. America should also engage in increased collaboration with the UN’s peacekeeping force in Congo, exert tougher pressure on the government of Sudan to end its material support of the LRA, and increase non-military assistance to UN and humanitarian organizations working in the region.

After more than two decades of unmitigated child abductions, murders, mutilations and other horrors at the hands of the LRA, civilians in the region deserve a life of peace.

Greg Queyranne, MA, is a Canadian researcher focusing on conflicts in Central Africa.