Why is the US hunting for Joseph Kony?

With major ongoing conflicts in countries surrounding Uganda, it is surprising that the US continues the hunt for Kony.

Catching Joseph Kony would be an easy political win for the Obama administration[AP]

In February US President Barack Obama publicly condemned a bill criminalising homosexuality in Uganda, cautioning Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni that “enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship”. Yet five weeks later Obama notified Congress that the US was sending 150 Air Force Special Operations forces and other personnel, plus several CV-22 Ospreys and refuelling aircraft, to aid Uganda’s 25-year pursuit of Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Shortly after, the US military abruptly announced that it was pulling the aircraft out of the mission.

What is going on? These twists and turns are puzzling – and troubling – and not just because they undercut well-deserved US denunciation of Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law.

Moreover, the recent dispatch of US military support to Uganda to hunt Kony comes at a time when the threat posed by the LRA is vastly overshadowed by far more troubling armed violence in the three Central African countries where LRA fighters are located.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), opposing armed groups have for months committed massive atrocities and pushed an already weak and troubled state to the brink of collapse. Immediately east of CAR, the world’s newest nation – South Sudan – is embroiled in an armed conflict that began in December as a power struggle within the country’s ruling political party, but has escalated into widespread fighting that threatens an extended civil war, with dangerous ethnic overtones.  And just to CAR’s south, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the long-suffering population continues to be preyed upon by many armed groups besides the LRA, not least the country’s army.

While the US has voiced alarm about these emergencies, until recently it has provided limited practical assistance. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visits to South Sudan and DRC could change this, although it is as yet unclear what the effect of these visits will be. In this context, the high priority of the LRA in US policy is surprising.

The dissolution of the LRA

Originally an insurgency based in northern Uganda, the LRA became notorious between 1988-2006 for atrocities against civilians (including killings, mutilations and abductions), although Ugandan government army abuses and structural violence was even more deadly, especially the government policy of forced internal displacement of 1.2 million people at the epicentre of the war.

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Following failed peace talks in late 2008, the LRA scattered across wide swaths of heavily forested and lightly administered territory in adjacent parts of the DRC, South Sudan and CAR. There, an initial phase of large-scale LRA killings, abductions and civilian displacements in the region has been succeeded by dwindling rebel strength. Operating far from their original northern Uganda base – and hunted, if sporadically, by Ugandan and other national armies since (recently operating under an African Union mandate) – the LRA managed their last large-scale attacks in the totalling in early 2010.

Since then they have splintered into ever smaller, increasingly uncoordinated bands totaling probably less than 200 fighters. When the last sizable group of 19 LRA fighters abandoned the movement and came out of the bush in December 2013, for example, our interviews with this group showed how they had no contact with the rebel high command for for up to two-and-a-half years.

While some LRA attacks and (mostly short-term) abductions continue, the frequency and severity of such incidents has fallen to a level where the rebel group has become a relatively minor threat.

Indeed, violent killings attributed to the LRA in rebel-affected areas of northeastern DRC last year occurred at a rate far less than in the US: 2.9 per 100,000 population (our estimate) vs 4.8 per 100,000 in the US. And although no similar statistics are available for the CAR or South Sudan, the armed conflicts currently under way in both these countries have undoubtedly resulted in casualties and displacements far surpassing – and unrelated to – those caused by the LRA .

Why is Kony still important?

Yet the US has just committed more military personnel and equipment to hunt Kony. In October 2011 when the first 100 US troops were deployed, the LRA was already much weakened. This was even more the case by early 2014 when the latest US military commitment was announced.

So, again, what is going on? The only reasonable explanation is that the LRA has become an almost exclusively internal US issue, driven by domestic US politics rather than realities on the ground in Central Africa.

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First, there is the influence of the advocacy groups. The most visible of these is Invisible Children (IC). Launched by a short film of the same name in 2004, IC became a US popular culture phenomenon, lucrative fund raiser, and powerful voice focusing on the LRA. Indeed, IC – along with the Enough Project and Resolve – was crucial in convincing the Obama administration to send the first advisers and supporting equipment to help Uganda “capture or kill” Kony.

Second, for the administration (with rare bipartisan support in Congress), the LRA issue seemed an easy political win: With relatively little effort – a handful of troops – the US could help catch one of the world’s most wanted men while satisfying an important domestic political constituency. One former US government source told us that Obama never directly informed Museveni about this initial dispatch of US troops, announcing it instead in a Washington press conference – an unmistakable signal of the policy’s centre of gravity, and to which audience the policy needed most to be communicated.

Third, shifting US power relations with respect to the LRA policy proved highly influential. The centre of gravity over the last year has swung towards the Department of Defense, with a more pro-active AFRICOM command promoting greater engagement in the hunt for Kony. This could explain the delivery of the Osprey aircraft. The fact that they were abruptly recalled only a month later reinforces our argument that US decisions, even by the US military, are being taken independently of the situation on the ground.

By framing the LRA issue as a personal and technical military problem, rather than a political one, a single goal – with a short timeline – has been set: to catch Kony. In this scenario, both Invisible Children and the Obama administration are caught in a trap of their own making (even if the trap was bated by the Ugandan government, which has long promoted the same view of the LRA “problem”).

In this situation, US withdrawal from the hunt would be perceived as a failure, both for the government and advocacy groups such as Invisible Children. Pressure to succeed is heightened by the fact that momentum surrounding the LRA issue is diminishing, or has already passed. Support for IC has recently plummeted: donations are sharply down resulting in a one-third reduction in staff and many programmes cut or eliminated. In recent interviews, remaining IC staffers indicate they would not mind moving on, but feel stuck in trying to raise attention for a dying cause. A similar logic holds for the Obama administration: If it is to gain further political capital out of the LRA issue it needs to act – and succeed – fast.

In sum, the projection of US internal politics and the influence of US advocacy groups into the violent Central African region has led to an extremely cynical situation: An important US intervention in what constitutes a minor problem is occurring in the midst of truly large-scale violence and instability which has failed to prompt commensurate US political or material support.

This myopic and distorted vision has exaggerated the significance of the LRA and obscured the major drivers of insecurity and armed violence in Central Africa, to the detriment not only of those caught up in that violence but genuine strategic and humanitarian interests.   

Kristof Titeca is based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management (University of Antwerp) and the Conflict Research Group (Ghent University). He is currently a visiting fellow in the Department of International Development, London School of Economics.

Ronald R Atkinson is a Senior Research Associate at Walker Institute of International and Area Studies, University of South Carolina.