In a short statement on Friday, the State Department announced that the U.S. is sending 132 advisors to Uganda to help capture elusive rebel leader Joseph Kony and end the terrorism of his Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony has led the LRA for nearly 25 years. He and his lieutenants have been under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court since 2005.
It’s not the first time we or other nations have gone after Kony. Ugandan forces chased Kony around Acholiland for a generation. In 2009, the U.S. supported a joint Ugandan-Congolese military operation against Kony with cash and technology. That action, code-named Operation Lightning Thunder, improbably included Guatemalan Special Forces troops, and failed to capture Kony or destroy the LRA. World-class operators, Britain’s Special Air Service reportedly closed in on Kony a few months later, but also failed to kill the man. There are reports that the Ugandan intelligence services were frustrated enough that they were ready to farm the job out to mercenaries.
In the past few weeks, U.S. Africa Command’s chief, General Carter Ham, has reportedly been making the rounds of capitals in the region drumming up support. And U.S. trainers have been helping a Congolese battalion get ready to operate in support of the operation as well. I suspect our troops are mostly Special Forces-type operators who can take the fight to the field and get in the middle of things if necessary. There should be an intelligence and logsitics component to the support team as well. But this will be primarily, we are told, a Ugandan-led operation.
Kony is the last of a constellation of charismatic, possibly psychotic Ugandan cult and rebel leaders, beginning with Alice Lakwena. Alice spoke in the voice of multiple spirits convincing her followers that bullets could not harm them because they were pure and sending them into battle against the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force unarmed.
Then there was Adi Amin Dada aka “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Amin’s horrors have been well documented and resulted in his overthrow by Tanzanian forces in 1979.
Idi Amin died in exile in Saudi Arabia, but his supporters, including a former Foreign Minister named Juma Oris, carried on insurgent attacks against Museveni’s forces for years. Oris led the West Nile Bank Front until his death in 2001.
Closing the loop, Kony claims to be the cousin of Lakwena and has at times claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Oris. And Kony is the last man standing. He likely leads only a couple hundred hard-core followers supported by women and children captured in raids throughout the region. The atrocities Kony’s band has committed are horrific—rapes, murder, grotesque mutilations, mass conscription of children—and have likely affected nearly two million people.
Why is he so hard to catch? Several reasons. First, the areas where Kony operates: northern Uganda, southern Sudan, northeastern DR Congo and extreme eastern Central African Republic, are some of the most remote and inhospitable areas on the continent. And he knows the area better than his pursuers.
Second, Kony, unlike many other rebel leaders, isn’t enamored of technology and the press. Many rebel leaders gladly spend their off hours chatting blithely away with BBC reporters via satellite phone or granting long interviews with CNN or Al Jazeera. This sort of vanity cum manipulation makes it easy for intelligence services to pinpoint the group. Kony, on the other hand, apparently speaks mostly to God’s messengers.
Third, Kony long enjoyed the support of governments in the region. Let’s point the finger directly at the Government of Sudan. Uganda supported the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army in its decades long war against Khartoum. In return, Khartoum supported anyone who wanted to run up against Museveni, including Kony and the LRA.
The U.S. deployment may come at a propitious time. With the birth of the Republic of South Sudan, Khartoum’s support for Kony has probably dried up. South Sudanese leader Riek Machar met with Kony in 2006, reportedly in peace talks mode. And while it’s unclear what has happened in the years since, Kony has been operating further afield, which points to a change in his circumstances. Let’s hope the increased U.S. support and attention to the problem will result in an even greater change for Mr. Kony. Perhaps he’ll have the chance to meet his maker.