Why it’s about hearts and minds; not bullets
COVER STORY | ANDREW M MWENDA | Kambi ya Yua is an eight-acre hill site in the middle of a jungle that runs for over 100km from Uganda deep into inside of the DR Congo. It has no neighbouring human settlement, no access road, no open space. It is one of the places still eluding civilization and it is inconceivable that human beings would live and survive there. Flying by helicopter from Fort Portal to Kambi ya Yua takes only 30 minutes; from Semuliki Bridge (a UPDF forward operating base inside DRC) to the place takes only about ten minutes.
Looking down from the air, one is spellbound by the breath-taking density of this rain forest. All one can see below is a canopy created by the tops of trees. There are some broken spaces with swamps and shrubs, but they are very few and small in size, not more than two acres. Only the Semuliki river, snaking through the valleys of this dense forest, is visible from above. And yet this is the place inside DRC where ADF established its main base for military training, assembly of bombs, and indoctrination of the young.
At Kambi ya Yua, the cooperation between UPDF and the Congolese army FARDC is very good. Although they occupy different parts of this ridge, they share food and meet daily to discuss joint operations.
Immediately we arrive at the camp, we meet a UPDF platoon that is returning from patrol of the neighboring areas. We are informed this is done on a daily basis to ensure that ADF does not regroup and return to attack the camp.
Indeed, as the 2IC (Second in Command) of the operation, Col. James Kasumba tells us, the night after UPDF’s arrival, ADF attacked the camp and was immediately and easily repulsed, although UPDF lost a soldier. Apparently, this soldier panicked and fired a mortar. Doing so in a jungle, the mortar hit a tree and bounced back, hitting and killing the soldier.
The physical distance by plane from Semuliki Bridge to Kambi ya Yua is only 10.3km. But, according to the UPDF Brigade Intelligence Officer at Kambi ya Yua, Capt Andrew Tiyebalirwa, it took the Ugandan army ten days to walk through this jungle from Semuliki Bridge to Kambi ya Yua. They launched the ground offensive on December 14 and reached the camp on Christmas eve. Why?
First because available footpaths were created by the ADF which used them to supply its combatants and their families at the camp. UPDF suspected these would be riddled with landmines; an advancing enemy would also be easily subject to ambushes. So UPDF had to cut its own path through the jungle, a slow and laborious process.
Secondly, walking through the jungle, as opposed to flying over it, involves climbing up and down ridges, hills and valleys, making the distance longer. If you add onto this the business of cutting a path out of the forest, then one understands why it took UPDF ten days to cover such a short distance. It also explains why ADF chose this place as its main camp – it is very difficult to access. No wonder, the Congolese army (FARDC) and the UN peace enforcement force (MONSCO) have never been there. Finally, it also explains why UPDF could not find bodies of the dead. The ADF had enough time to take most of the important evidence away from the camp.
It is this context that explains the strategy of heavy aerial (using Sukhoi bombers) and artillery bombardment that marked the commencement of the assault on this specific ADF camp. It also explains the weakness (or lack) of a UPDF communications strategy. Knowing ADF to be a light infantry force, one had to wonder why UPDF chose to use such heavy aerial and artillery bombardment from so a long a distance. It was like using a hammer to kill a fly. But flying to the camp and observing the facts on the ground helped me make sense of the strategy. One needed to heavily degrade, disorganize, and disorient the enemy and do so from a very long distance before launching a ground offensive.
One could not use light artillery with a short range to strike at a camp so many kilometers away. And neither could one walk through the jungle carrying heavy artillery on their heads. Finally, walking through the jungle without having significantly softened the enemy would be suicidal. The ADF would have been able to launch ambushes against the UPDF. Besides, this is ADF’s home base – so they know all the nooks and crannies of the jungle, giving them an advantage over an advancing enemy. Indeed, as Col. Kasumba, told me, the ADF attacked the UPDF a couple of times during the long and slow match by its ground forces to capture and occupy the camp.
When UPDF, backed by FARDC reached and occupied the camp, they found it deserted and most of the evidence of its plans and operations destroyed or carried away. However, the UPDF captured documents that gave a picture of the role this camp played in ADF’s operations.
According to these documents, the camp was occupied by 604 families each of which received a daily ration, all detailed in a book. It was not much and one wonders why so many families would stay far away from civilization to live such a miserable existence. As I will argue in the conclusion, this shows the strength of the ideological convictions that drive this terrorist organisation.
Gen. Muhoozi’s role
One of the least appreciated developments in Uganda is the transformation of UPDF. I made my career as a journalist in large part by exposing the corruption and rot inside this army – the presence of ghost soldiers on its register, the procurement of substandard military equipment, undersize uniforms, expired food rations etc. It had become a springboard for private profiteers.
The UPDF today is an entirely different force. On the helicopter that took us to Kambi ya Yua, we delivered food supplies including bread, rice and beef for the soldiers. At the camp, every soldier was dressed in proper uniform complete with brand new boots, a tent, a field mattress, warm clothing, socks and a waterproof uniform.
I have previously visited UPDF in Somalia and South Sudan and been witness to its transformation. In South Sudan, for example, where the operation was entirely funded by government of Uganda, I was very impressed by the level of organisation, the quality and quantity of equipment, the morale of the troops and the logistics such as food and medicines available to the soldiers.
At one field hospital in Bor, about 150km north of Juba, the UPDF was tending to the ill or injured in a way that was better than most government (and even private) hospitals in Uganda. The hospital near Juba airport (built out of prefabricated materials) was far more advanced than Mulago National Referral Hospital Kampala at the time; complete with dental services, stores of medicines, decent beds and good food for the soldiers.
I did not get visit the field hospital in DRC but I was informed that UPDF is flooded by ordinary Congolese citizens seeking medical attention. Indeed, UPDF has been welcomed in this eastern part of DRC by a population warry of incessant attacks by ADF and other militias that terrorise civilians in this part of the world.
The UPDF’s internal discipline and fighting efficiency have earned it respect and prestige. Congolese do not trust that their national army and the UN force, MONUSCO, to provide them the necessary security. On the contrary, many informed sources say the two collaborate with ADF.
The transformation of UPDF from an incompetent and corrupt army to a well-managed and effective fighting machine has been occasioned by a couple of major developments.
First, there has been a transition in its leadership from the old guerrilla commanders who founded it and fought in Luwero to a new breed of young officers.
Secondly, these officers are well educated through formal schools. Third, they have undergone various courses in military training in Uganda and abroad.
Fourth over the years UPDF has gained considerable battle experience fighting in Somalia, South Sudan and Central Africa Republic.
These developments have reduced corruption, improved efficiency and effectiveness and cut down on incompetence.
Part of the inspiration in this transformation is Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Keinerugaba, commander of land forces and first son. Most of the officers in charge of UPDF today are his generation.
Yet in spite of all its internal organisation, resourcefulness, discipline and effectiveness, the UPDF faces a huge dilemma in DRC. Indeed, its mission to degrade ADF in DRC remains problematic. I have written elsewhere the challenges UPDF will continue to face inside Congo.
The big challenge is how to supply the troops in this inaccessible place. The engineering brigade of the UPDF cut a space out of the jungle for a helicopter to land and deliver supplies – food, ammunition, medicines etc.
This, as I observed, is an expensive operation. First, an MI 17 helicopter acts as a transport plane carrying food and other supplies. But flying and then landing in the middle of a jungle occupied by terrorists, risks being shot down. So UPDF has to use two other MI 24 attack helicopters to escort the MI 17.
When they get to the camp, the MI 17 lands to offload its cargo, and does this without stopping the propeller, as the two MI 24 gunships, armored and armed with missiles, circle the area in case anyone dares attack.
The weaknesses of Uganda’s partner, the government and army of the DRC, in this enterprise become apparent. The government in Kinshasa is unable to supply its own troops and relies on UPDF to feed and arm them.
Apparently, it does not have the helicopters to do such a job, though I think the biggest problem is political will. Kinshasa does not strike me as deeply vested in the security of the eastern region, a region far away from the capital and its center of gravity.
The rebel armies in the east may be an irritating inconvenience to Kinshasa but they do not pose a threat to those in power. Therefore, rebellion in the east is an irritation Kinshasa can live with.
But visiting DRC raised even more questions about the goals UPDF has set, the key success indicators and its exit strategy. What really does UPDF mean when it says its mission is to defeat (or significantly degrade) ADF in DRC?
First Kinshasa has limited UPDF’s presence to a small triangle not more than a few square kilometres. This means all ADF has to do to avoid UPDF is to get out of the prescribed zone and hide elsewhere.
I am sure those inside the DRC government who collaborate with ADF have already notified the terrorist group of this fact.
Second, even if ADF stayed within the existing zone, Kinshasa has allowed UPDF to deploy not more than 2,000 troops (less than three brigades), not enough to provide effective cover of the prescribed zone to hunt down and defeat ADF. Essentially UPDF has entered the boxing ring with one hand tied on its back and another carrying a 20kg weight on it.
UPDF’s partner, the FARDC, is weak and ideologically disoriented. An ADF captive told us that 70% of the weapons the terrorist group has have either been captured from FARDC or illicitly bought from some of its crooked officers and men. There is collaboration between some elements of FARDC and ADF. Indeed, there is also come collaboration between ADF and crooked elements in MONUSCO, the UN military mission to DRC.
The UPDF will need to study the U.S. mission to Iraq and Afghanistan to understand how a highly trained and equipped army can fail to make good progress against a poorly trained and equipped enemy who is armed with a powerful ideology rooted in religion.
The U.S. went to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and in the short term it succeeded beyond imagination. But within two years, the Taliban launched an insurgency to regain control of the country. The U.S. and her NATO allies then fought them for two decades. In 2021, after two decades in occupation of that country and over $2.06 trillion spend of which $800 billion was on military operations alone, the U.S. army withdrew leaving the same Taliban to take control of the country.
The message for Uganda government is that it needs to see the ADF problem as primarily internal to Uganda, and also primarily political. It should also see the military threat from ADF as secondary to the political sources of the grievances and ideology and feeds this terrorist organisation.
The ADF recruits young Muslims inside Uganda; the vast majority of whom are drawn from the Tabliq sect. Many of these young people come from very poor families. They attend Islamic schools inside Uganda where they are indoctrinated with the Wahabi version of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
It may not be possible to win over every disgruntled Muslim but good progress can be made. The first step is to engage the Muslim leadership that matters in Uganda.
Most schools with a religious foundation in Uganda are government aided and follow its curriculum. However, government looks at Tabliq schools as training centers for extremism. It has thus kept away from them, thereby alienating the largest religious sect among Muslims.
Government needs to gain access to the Islamic schools that teach extremism by making them part of the government aided schools. This will give it a keen eye on the curriculum and some grip on staffing.
Although the Tabliq sect has many highly educated Ugandans, with the exception of Hajat Minsa Kabanda, the minister for Kampala, none of their members sits in cabinet, is an ambassador, or a leader of a major government institution or an RDC.
This reality provides considerable grist to the anti-government mill among Tabliqs, giving them examples to demonstrate to their followers that there is deliberate discrimination against this group.
Finally, the Tabliq are the poorest among Muslims. It is critical that the government, through Operation Wealth Creation, uses Mosques to reach young Muslims especially in Eastern and Central Uganda to get them involved in productive economic activity.
In Kampala City alone, the Tabliqs have 833 Mosques. These are in every shopping arcade, every street corner, every market, every bus and taxi park, every garage and every carpentry workshop. The real battle against ADF cannot be, and is not, one of mortars and bullets. It is one for the heart and minds of young Muslims.