"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


say it ain't so

This is not a good idea:
...there is no better case for the humanitarian use of force than the urgent need to arrest Joseph Kony, the ruthless leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and protect the civilians who are his prey. And far from requiring a non-consensual intervention, Kony's apprehension would be welcomed by the governments concerned.

The LRA began as a rebel movement in northern Uganda, but it now terrorizes the civilian population of northern Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. Its cadre often descends on a remote village, slaughters every adult in sight, and then kidnaps the children, some shockingly young -- the boys to become soldiers slinging AK-47s, the girls to serve as "bush wives." Over more than two decades, many thousands have fallen victim to these roving mass murderers.

The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Kony and other LRA commanders, charging them with war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the court depends on governments to make arrests.

So far Uganda has done the most to pursue the LRA, but ineffectively. The LRA is not large -- an estimated 200 to 250 seasoned Ugandan combatants, plus at least several hundred abductees -- but as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently told me, Uganda lacks the special forces, expert intelligence, and rapid-deployment capacity needed to stamp out this enemy.

In May, Obama signed a bill committing the United States to help arrest Kony and his commanders and protect the affected population. Now it is high time to act. Arresting Kony would reaffirm that mass murder cannot be committed with impunity. And it would show that, despite the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the humanitarian use of force remains a live option at the Obama White House.
Oh, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. Really? Sending some kind of US force into the weakest corner of three extremely weak states and one that could have dealt with this long ago had its leadership really wanted to do so, into territory they don't know, where they don't speak the local languages, to track down an enemy nobody's yet been able to nab, with limited resources? Is this what you're advocating? Really?

I have a ton of respect for Human Rights Watch and the incredible work they do, especially in Africa's Great Lakes region. While I don't agree that it's the worst idea on the internet from Tuesday, this recommendation is off base. Aside from the significant logistical and diplomatic quandaries such operations would pose (How, for example, does Roth think Khartoum would react to an American military presence on south Sudanese soil? Would the French agree to the presence of an American force in the CAR?), fighting in the dense forests in which the LRA hides without knowing the territory, the languages, or the local cultures means that troops undertaking such an operation would be at a significant tactical disadvantage.

Of course all reasonable people agree that Kony needs to be arrested and prosecuted for the unbelievable crime for which he is allegedly responsible. But if it were that easy, it would've been done already. Say, by the French troops who are already in the Central African Republic. Though mostly engaged in training operations these days, they at least theoretically comprise a significant enough force strength to get the job done.

Part of the reason Kony has been able to evade capture for so long has to do with the way he positions his fighters around his camps and the systems of notification of impending attack he's able to employ. You can't always track the LRA's movements with satellites and open-source intelligence; they're smart enough to stay under tree cover most of the time and there aren't many mobile phone networks in these areas through which informants can phone in sightings. Kony may be crazy, but he's not an idiot - he's got a system. This is not an operation that can be undertaken quickly with a few helicopters and some RPG's.

While the humanitarian use of force may be a good idea in theory, as we've seen before, it doesn't often work out as well as planned. Especially in unfamiliar territory. Tread lightly on this one, policy makers. It's going to take far more than a quick in-and-out sweep to take down Kony.


Anonymous Boredinpostconflict said...

Where have all the military strategists gone? Security policy these days seems to be overrun by naive ideological academics with a skewed sense of military might. I would be interested what David Kilcullen's recent take on this would be.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 5:32:00 AM

Anonymous Guy Sutherland said...


I am curious as to what your policy response would be, as you have conceded here that it is a near universal given that there is a need to bring Kony to justice.

This post is missing its second half. What will it take? What do you propose?


Wednesday, October 13, 2010 10:06:00 AM

Anonymous Mark Makers said...

Kony could have been killed long ago and the LRA eliminated if Museveni and his generals had the will. But let's face it: Salim Saleh and others were too busy skimming money from ghost soldiers and other means to get Kony. And just as Bin Laden's continued existence helps justify all sorts of wasteful US defense spending, Kony's continued existence has justified wasteful spending and flawed policies in Uganda, withe blessing and participation of the US government.
It is indeed disappointing to see HRW advocate sending US forces in, especially after the US-aided raid in Dec. 2008 went so wrong (due mainly to Ugandan army incompetence and cowardice).
As to what to do, I favor elimination/arrest of Kony by regional forces, but until there is the political will to do that in both Kampala and Kinshasa (and Khartoum?), it's not going to happen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 1:04:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I think the regional leaders should take real responsibility for it as well, and that's where US pressure can come in. If the US made it absolutely clear to Museveni that he HAS to arrest Kony, he'd find a way to get regional players to make it happen.

Also, as usual, I think the real solution to all of these problems is reconstructing/constructing strong governing institutions that don't allow rebel groups to operate in their territories.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 3:44:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Reconstructing/constructing strong governing institutions" is the work of years, if not decades -- especially in the far northeast of the DRC. No offense, but while this is a great idea in general terms, it's not a meaningful response to the problem of the LRA.

Regional leaders: Museveni let the LRA do its thing for 15+ years because (1) most of their victims were fellow Acholi, and (2) just by existing, the LRA allowed him to discredit even the mildest and most moderate advocates of Acholi autonomy. That was an extremely useful political function! So ignoring them made perfect sense from Museveni's POV.

Now that they're out of Uganda, he truly could not care less. They're Sudan's problem, or Congo's, or the CAR's. He's already suffered one embarrassing setback chasing them already. No plausible amount of outside pressure is going to bring him outside Uganda's borders looking for a rematch.

As for other regional leaders, Joseph Kabila's writ barely extends beyond Bas-Congo, and in any event, the DRC "military" is a ragtag collection of untrained, underequipped, mutually suspicious militias. The CAR is nearly as bad. And Sudan is busy preparing for next year's civil war.

There is one regional force capable of taking down the LRA. Unfortunately, it's the RDF. Inviting the Rwandans back into the DRC is an intriguing idea, but I think we can agree that there are some complicating factors there.

So, "regional leaders take responsibility" doesn't seem like much of a response either.

Personally, I don't see a short-term solution other than a military intervention; and the only plausible candidates are the US, France, and Rwanda.

I can see the case for doing nothing. You've actually made it pretty well. But let's be clear -- doing nothing is what you're arguing for. "Building institutions" and "pressuring regional leaders" are not meaningful answers here.

Doug M.

Friday, October 15, 2010 10:38:00 AM

Blogger Paul Ronan said...

We’ve posted a response to the HRW article in Foreign Policy and TiA’s response on our blog (available here: http://theresolve.org/posts/1321810180). We agree that the challenges to mounting a successful apprehension operation of Joseph Kony and top LRA leaders are significant. However, we don’t think that they are so daunting as to lead us to the conclusion that HRW’s recommendation for US support for apprehension efforts is “off base.”

Our blog post goes more in-depth into some of our arguments, but there are two points it doesn’t mention that I’d like to include here:

- This critique focuses on the obstacles (both diplomatic and practical) that US special forces would face in attempting to apprehend LRA leaders. This particular HRW piece is admittely not crystal clear on this point, but I think it’s a misinterpretation of the article to say that Kenneth Roth was calling exclusively for US special forces. Especially as HRW’s more in-depth policy recommendations (see their March 2010 report on the Makombo massacres) call for special forces from a “capable UN member state” to apprehend LRA leaders.

I think the point they’re making, and one that we expand upon significantly in our recent policy report (http://theresolve.org/posts/1213050852) about US engagement of the LRA, is that President Obama’s leadership is needed get regional and international leaders behind a more effective apprehension operation, which includes getting a country with capable special forces to be willing to deploy them for this mission. His leadership can be a catalyst, no matter what country the actual troops come from.

- This post outlines a litany of practical and diplomatic challenges to a successful apprehension operation, including Khartoum’s uncertain relationship with the LRA, the dense forests in the region, difficulty in getting timely intelligence on LRA whereabouts, and trouble in establishing a positive relationship between local communities and military forces. From there it concludes that US support for an apprehension operation is “off base.”

However, it’s important to get a sense of what the other options are before being so dismissive of apprehension efforts. There is very little, if any, viable prospect of successful negotiations with Kony to end the conflict – the previous attempt to do so was sent off track by Kony refusing to engage the process and resuming vicious attacks on schools to boost the LRA’s fighting capacity. National militaries and UN peacekeepers trying to protect civilians from these attacks face the same challenges that Laura mentions special forces would in trying to apprehend top LRA commanders – dense forests, extremely mobile groups of LRA, poor intelligence, etc. Effective civilian protection is arguably even more difficult than apprehending the top commanders, given that it involves protecting hundreds of thousands of people scattered in rural villages over an area larger than the state of California. Does that mean that calling on national militaries and UN peacekeeping forces in Congo, Sudan and CAR to better protect civilians is “off base?” I certainly hope not.

In fact, operations targeting critical vulnerabilities of rebel groups—for example, the LRA’s concentrated command structure—can be an integral part of broader strategies to improve civilian protection efforts. Effective operations to apprehend Kony and senior LRA commanders, alongside strengthened efforts to protect civilians and encourage defections from the LRA, represent the best hope for putting a permanent end to the rebel group’s offensive capacity and the threat it poses to civilians in the region.

Friday, October 15, 2010 2:38:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

LRA should be designated a terrorist organization and a bounty ought to be established for Kony and top lieutenants. If US can't do it, Mo Ibrahim seems to have some funds he can't give away.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010 11:26:00 PM


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