WASHINGTON — Why is the U.S. sending its troops to finish off a fractured band of bush fighters in the middle of Africa? Political payback for the quiet sacrifices of Uganda's troops in Somalia could be one reason, experts say.
President Barack Obama announced Friday he is dispatching about 100 U.S. troops — mostly special operations forces — to central Africa to advise in the fight against the Lord's Resistance Army.
The LRA is a guerrilla group accused of widespread atrocities across several countries. The first U.S. troops arrived Wednesday.
Long considered one of Africa's most brutal rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army began its attacks in Uganda more than 20 years ago.
But the rebels are at their weakest point in 15 years. Their forces are fractured and scattered, and the Ugandan military estimated earlier this year that only 200 to 400 fighters remain. In 2003, the LRA had 3,000 armed troops and 2,000 people in support roles.
But capturing LRA leader Joseph Kony — a ruthless and brutal thug — remains the highest priority for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a 25-year-leader who has committed thousands of troops to the African Union force in Somalia to fight militants from al-Shabab, a group with ties from al-Qaida.Story: Obama sends 100 military advisers to fight Africa rebels
The U.S. has not had forces in Somalia since pulling out shortly after the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu in which 18 American troops died.
Some experts believe that the U.S. military advisers sent to Uganda could be a reward for the U.S.-funded Ugandan troops service in Somalia.
"I've been hearing that. I don't know if our group necessarily agrees with that, but it definitely would make sense," said Matt Brown, a spokesman for the Enough Project, a U.S. group working to end genocide and crimes against humanity, especially in central Africa.
"The U.S. doesn't have to fight al-Qaida-linked Shabab in Somalia, so we help Uganda take care of their domestic security problems, freeing them up to fight a more dangerous — or a more pressing, perhaps — issue in Somalia. I don't know if we would necessarily say that but it's surely a plausible theory," Brown said.
Col. Felix Kulayigye, Uganda's military spokesman, told The Associated Press previously that Ugandan forces have long received "invaluable" support from the U.S. military, including intelligence sharing, in the fight against the LRA.
The deployment drew support from Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who has visited the region.
"I have witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the LRA, and this will help end Kony's heinous acts that have created a human rights crisis in Africa," he said in a statement. "Today's action offers hope that the end of the LRA is in sight."
Senator John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, said promoting African stability by reducing the LRA threat was a "worthy goal" but Obama should have consulted Congress before putting forces "into harm's way."
Another Republican, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, said he hopes it will "save innocent lives and begin to bring the LRA to justice for the immense human tragedy that has fallen across central Africa at its hands."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said during an Iowa presidential campaign trip that Obama didn't bother to tell Congress what he'd done, NBC News reported.
"He did it unilaterally and he waited till everybody was out of Washington this afternoon to say what he did," she said.
"When it comes to sending our brave young men and women into foreign nations, we have to first demonstrate a vital American national interest," she said. "If there's anything that we should have learned in the last 10 or 12 years, it's that once you send your troops in, it's very difficult to get them out. Very difficult."
Though the deployment of 100 troops is relatively small, it marks a possible sea-change for Washington in overcoming its reluctance to commit troops to Africa.
Even the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees U.S. military operations on the continent, is based in Germany. The U.S. maintains a base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, but most troops there are not on combat missions.
A report from the Enough Project last year said that Kony no longer has complete and direct command and control over each LRA unit.
But the group's tactics have been widely condemned as vicious. Few are expected to object to Obama's move to help regional security forces eliminate a group that has slaughtered thousands of civilians and routinely kidnaps children to be child soldiers and sex slaves.
Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his group's attacks, which now take place in South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic.
Still, Bill Roggio, the managing editor of The Long War Journal, called the Obama administration's rationale for sending troops "puzzling," especially since the LRA does not present a national security threat to the U.S. — "despite what President Obama said."
"The timing of this deployment is odd, especially given the administration's desire to disengage from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Roggio said.
"It is unclear why the issue has resurfaced, but the administration may be rewarding Uganda" for its military contributions in Somalia, he said.
Obama said that although the U.S. troops will be combat equipped, they will not engage LRA forces unless it is in self-defense.
American efforts to combat Lord's group also took place during the administration of President George W. Bush, The New York Times reported. The Bush Administration authorized the Pentagon to send a team of 17 counterterrorism advisers to train Ugandan troops and provided millions of dollars worth of aid, including fuel trucks, satellite phones and night-vision goggles, to the Ugandan Army.
In recent months, the administration has stepped up its support for Uganda.
In June, the Pentagon moved to send nearly $45 million in military equipment to Uganda and Burundi, another country contributing in Somalia.
The aid included four small drones, body armor and night-vision and communications gear and is being used in the fight against al-Shabab.
Last November, the U.S. announced a new strategy to counter the LRA's attacks on civilians.
U.S. legislation passed last year with huge bipartisan support calling for the coordination of U.S. diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military efforts against the LRA.
That's one reason, Brown said, Obama may be sending in advisers. He said that regional stability is also good for U.S. interests.
"It really doesn't take that many U.S. resources," Brown said. "You've got 100 troops to go in and take care of the LRA problem once and for all."
The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.