On Point

Little Wars Cripple Small Countries in Big Ways

by Austin Bay
December 18, 2002go, Gulu's one long strip of asphalt is Chicago O'Hare.

Gulu Town, Gulu province. Go to the map of Africa. Find Sudan -- that's the large stretch of country between Egypt and Uganda. Now find the Sudanese-Ugandan border, the stretch east of the White Nile. Gulu is the town of consequence, just south of that border, and its airfield is a prized Ugandan military asset.

It's also a town and an airstrip under attack, in one of the brutal African wars that have new resonance in the post-9/11 political world.

At first glance, it appears not too much is shaking in Gulu, until you notice the soldiers at the end of the runway, and the troops and truck on the road from the terminal.

It's at night, of course, that the war arrives, and we won't be in Gulu at night. A persistent, bitter, insane and endless little war it is, one that gets even less Western press attention than the long-running evil in the Congo and the war north, in Sudan.

For 16 years, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has fought Uganda's Kampala government. The LRA and its titular leader, Joseph Kony, have an ideology of a sort. They want to impose the Ten Commandants as the basic law, a sort of Christian equivalent of Islamic sharia.

But don't connect Kony and his thugs to the Inquisition or Crusades. In fact, the LRA is a creature of the Islamist radical government in Sudan, created to harass Uganda and deter Uganda from aiding Christian and animist African tribes in south Sudan in their fight against Khartoum. Some cynical strategist in Khartoum understood Gulu's Acholi tribe had tribal and historical rivalries with the tribes in Uganda's south, the kind that could be exploited by giving power-hungry men like Kony guns, money and sanctuary. The addition of a Christian extremist pitch was a propaganda piece de resistance.

The war in Gulu thus pits predominantly Christian Uganda against an army created by Islamic Sudan. That's one reason last spring Sudan decided it wanted to get out of the puppet war in Uganda, because it increased Sudan's "terror profile" with the United States. Khartoum cut a deal with Kampala, which allowed the Ugandan Army to attack LRA bases in Sudan. Dubbed Operation Iron Fist, the Ugandan Army overran LRA base camps and freed hundreds of abducted Ugandan and Sudanese civilians.

Kidnapping is one of the LRA's nastier tactics. Some of the abducted had been held for years. Not so long ago, journalists would have called this a slaving operation of a sort.

However, by late September, the LRA still had forces in the field, leading the Ugandan government to declare that Sudan was still supporting the LRA. The LRA lays a few mines, ambushes a truck, kills a few civilians, then gets pasted by the Ugandan Army -- very low-level operations. My gut suspicion is, however, that someone in Sudan is still supplying them.

But one nation's low level is another nation's intense tragedy. One unofficial figure puts the number of lives lost over 16 years at 23,520, and 12,320 of the dead are civilians. Over 16 years, the war has cost Uganda $1.35 billion. Comparing a poor agricultural country's economy with the multifaceted U.S. economy is tough; there's no steady yardstick. However, one military analyst pointed out that 80 million dollars a year is around 3 percent of Uganda's GDP. The U.S. equivalent would be something like $4 trillion dollars for 16 years of war -- a huge economic penalty. Dispute the numbers, but the big picture is incontestable. The war in the north in Gulu province cripples Uganda's already fragile economy.

And that's precisely Sudan's intent.

To improve sub-Saharan Africa's economic lot requires peace, but at the moment there are still too many groups who benefit from stoking war. Regime change in Iraq is a noble goal. A regime change in Khartoum is also overdue.

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