Congolese troops plan a counter-LRA mission. Ferruccio Gobbi photo

We Gave Up Hunting Joseph Kony, and Now a Lot of People Could Die

U.S. commandos pull back amid Central African unrest

America just got squeamish about hunting rebel cult leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa. And that could get a lot of people killed.

In March the Pentagon ordered 40 Special Operations Forces in Central African Republic to “pause” their efforts to train, equip and lead 3,000 African troops searching for Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, a formerly Ugandan rebel group that has raged across East and Central Africa since the late 1980s, killing, kidnapping and displacing millions.

The cult-like LRA, known for torturing and brainwashing abductees, marched into CAR from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo as early as 2010, taking advantage of the largely unpatrolled border, unprotected farms and villages they could pillage and the thick forest canopy that shields the rebels’ movements. The move to CAR continued the LRA’s three-decade trek across the region, wantonly stealing, killing and enslaving solely in order to survive as a group.

But the deployment of thousands of troops led by the Americans helped erode the LRA’s strength — currently estimated in the low triple digits — and blunted its raids on villages. Until now.

The commandos’ pause — in effect “until further notice,” according to a Ugandan army spokesman — essentially halts international efforts against the LRA, owing to the Americans’ vital leadership, logistical, training and intelligence roles. Some surveillance flights by U.S. spy planes have continued.

The suspension was prompted by a December-to-March coup in CAR that toppled the impoverished country’s democratically-elected president. Revolutionaries from the Seleka group have since captured most of CAR, killing scores and sowing lawlessness.

The Pentagon and State Department have been reluctant to make overtures to the new Seleka administration, which is gradually consolidating its hold. The impasse has played right into the 52-year-old LRA leader’s hands. “Kony has a window to regroup the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic, which risks reversing gains made in dismantling the rebellion,” write Kasper Agger and Sasha Lezhnev from the aid group Enough Project.

The LRA mutilates many of its victims. Ferruccio Gobbi photo

“The results of the suspension are already visible in CAR,” Agger and Lezhnev write. “The LRA is conducting its most violent attacks in CAR, and there have been no defections in CAR over the past two months, according to the officers on the ground. Moreover, the Ugandan army officers tracking Kony say that it is unavoidable that they will risk losing track of the LRA groups soon, if they do not begin tracking operations again.”

Letting go of the LRA also endangers Central Africa’s rare savannah elephants, which the group poaches for their priceless pink ivory, the illicit sale of which comprises one of the rebels’ main sources of income. The Seleka coup had allowed other poachers to infiltrate a precious Central African wildlife reserve in May and slaughter 26 of the endangered elephants.

America’s portentous pause in CAR represents an anti-climactic end to a America’s once heavy involvement in regional security. In 2009 the Pentagon sent commandos to train Congolese troops to hunt the LRA. In 2010 the U.S. mission to find and destroy the LRA was codified in law. The following year the number of American commandos quadrupled to 100, deployed to Congo, CAR, Uganda and South Sudan.

And in 2012 the Kony2012 viral campaign by advocacy group Invisible Children lent public weight to the escalating counter-LRA mission. The recent suspension could dismantle the U.S.-led campaign’s political and military infrastructure.

Time is running out to restart the hunt. “The heavy rainy season is about to hit CAR in July,” Agger and Lezhnev write. “The LRA has used the rainy season for years to hide in the more dense forest cover, reorganize and stealthily abduct fighters to replenish its ranks.”

The U.S. should court the Seleka regime seeking permission for a renewed offensive targeting Kony and the LRA, Agger and Lezhnev advise. “A formal green light would be the first critical step to restarting the operations.” And that could save a lot of lives.

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