I apologize for my long absence from this blog site, but I just recently returned from six weeks of research and travel in East Africa, collecting material for two new books.
The first concerns Somalia and its pirates and the second concerns the seemingly endless fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
You can expect to hear a lot more about these two topics in future postings.
Before we get there, however, there's an interesting article in The East African, written by Keven Kelley, about the joint military exercise in northern Uganda involving about 450 U.S. troops.
According to Kelley's article, total troops will be about 1,000, with Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi each sending 150 soldiers to join 450 US military personnel in Kitgum for the October 16-25 event.
Labeled as operation Natural Fire 10, it is reportedly the U.S.'s largest African exercise this year. While this is clearly an exercise loaded with significance, it is the not the first such military exercise. Such joint maneuvers began across Africa in 1998, hence the name Natural Fire 10 -- this being the tenth.
The US Army describes it as “a regularly scheduled training exercise, which offers an opportunity for East African partner nations and the US military to work together to increase regional capabilities to respond to complex humanitarian emergencies.”
What is most interesting is the location: northern Uganda. It is a message not only to Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, but also Sudan.
That message being, of course, that a multi-national force of 1,000 -- an effective number for a fighting force anywhere in the world -- can be assembled in this strategic location with relative ease.
Such a force would be a huge problem for someone like Kony, should he think about a return to northern Uganda. It shows that Uganda has allies who are willing not only to donate moral support and money in the fight against Kony and his maniacal militia, but are willing to put boots on the ground.
This is an acknowledgement that Kony is much more than Uganda's problem, and has become a regional nightmare. Though Kony's precise whereabouts are not known, the latest information is that he has been operating in the remote eastern regions of the Central African Republic. Uganda's army has permission from the CAR to chase Kony and has been doing so with their typically limited results.
The biggest regional concern, however, is not the CAR, but widely-rumored support that Kony once again is getting from Sudan as we slowly but surely approach the coming election cycle in Sudan and South Sudan.
Since Sudan has effectively backed off its offensive in Darfur, this has freed up personnel and resources for coming confrontations in South Sudan, which is fully expected to vote for independence in 2011 -- an eventuality that Sudan does not want.
Preparing for an expected battle, South Sudan has been arming itself as we know from the famous shipment of weapons that was temporarily delayed off the coast of Somalia by Somali pirates last year. Feisty publications such as Jane's have been following the progress of the weaponry to Juba, South Sudan.
However, should Kony be added to the mix in any pending chaos in South Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Army will need some help. What better than an integrated, multi-national force from regional powers, aided and equipped by the U.S.?
There are strategic advantages for the U.S., of course, which has rarely had a good relationship with Sudan, ever since the militant and fundamentalist Islamic takeover of the government a couple decades ago.
We hardly need to mention Sudan's hosting of Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s or the U.S.'s condemnation of Sudan's so-called war in Darfur which the U.S. has labeled a genocide.
The U.S. quietly has been supporting South Sudan's drive for independence, knowing that a staunch ally in Sudan's back yard will give the U.S. a firm foothold in the region and first-hand chance to keep an eye on Sudan.
Among other things, the U.S. very much wants to see the expected revenues from South Sudan's vast and untapped oil reserves to fill the pockets of an ally, rather than antagonistic Sudan.
When push comes to shove in the next year or two, the current joint military exercise taking place just 30 miles from the South Sudan border shows how that support could take a very dramatic step.