Turtle Bay

Does the hunt for Joseph Kony have any hunters?

More than one year after President Barack Obama sent roughly 100 elite U.S. military advisors into Central Africa to help African armies bring an end to a reign of terror by the messianic guerilla leader Joseph Kony, the mission remains stalled. The African Union Regional Task force — envisioned as a 5,000-strong regional expeditionary force ...

STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images
STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

More than one year after President Barack Obama sent roughly 100 elite U.S. military advisors into Central Africa to help African armies bring an end to a reign of terror by the messianic guerilla leader Joseph Kony, the mission remains stalled.

The African Union Regional Task force — envisioned as a 5,000-strong regional expeditionary force tasked with hunting down Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army over a 115,000 square mile area — has never mustered all the troops needed for the mission, nor formed into a real mobile force capable of mounting a cross border chase.

"The [task force] is not close to realizing the vision of a multinational force conducting effective offensive operations against the LRA and protecting civilians," reads a paper entitled "Getting Back on Track," released today by a coalition of human rights groups, including the Enough Project and Resolve. "It exists only on paper and cannot be considered operational."

The paper presents a harsh critique of the broader United Nations and African Union strategy for confronting Kony’s forces and restoring stability in their area of operation. The report does credit the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with designing an ambitious framework for ending the 26-year conflict, and promoting a diplomatic, military, and economic strategy for undermining Kony’s power base. But it faulted the U.N. for sluggish progress in implementing it, noting that more than five months after the strategy was introduced virtually "no projects are sufficiently developed to be funded."

"As a whole, U.N. departments, agencies, and offices, have shown a lack of urgency," the report states. "As a result of this dynamic, the [U.N.] strategy has thus far failed to achieve any of its objectives. Without urgent action, it will fail permanently."

Four African countries participating in the military operation — Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, and South Sudan — have not reached agreement on a basic military strategy, or even struck a deal that would permit members of the task force to cross one anothers borders, according to the report.

Washington’s most powerful ally in the cause, Uganda, has threatened to pull out of the mission altogether over an unrelated dispute with the United Nations: the government in Kampala claims that a U.N. Group of Experts panel has unfairly accused its military of sponsoring and aiding another murderous insurgency in the DRC.

"The government of the Republic of Uganda is totally disappointed at the manner in which the United Nations system has treated her contribution to conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peace-building in the region," Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi wrote Ban in a confidential October 23 letter, which was obtained by Turtle Bay."We have now decided, after due consultations with our African brothers…to completely withdraw from the regional peace efforts."

U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats suspect that Uganda may be bluffing, and that it will remain committed to regional peace efforts that confer international prestige and serve their own security interests.

But the regional squabbling has dealt a blow to one of the Obama administration’s signature campaigns to confront mass atrocities. It has also shown the limits of American military technology in tracking down a low-tech military movement which uses runners to deliver command instructions, and whose favored terrain consists of forest canopy that blocks out the prying eyes of drones and satellite cameras.

Kony, a Ugandan national, established an armed resistance movement, later named the Lords Resistance Army, more than 25 years ago. The movement — which relies heavily on forced recruitment of child soldiers — has committed massive atrocities across a wide swathe of Central Africa, including Uganda, the DRC, Central African Republic, and Sudan. Kony and his top lieutenants are wanted by the International Criminal Court.

The United States has supported regional efforts to pursue Kony’s army, but those efforts had produced little success. In October 2011, President Obama stepped up the campaign, deploying approximately 100 "combat equipped" troops to provide advise, assist, and provide intelligence to African governments.

"For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has murdered, raped, and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women, and children in central Africa," President Obama wrote last year. "I have authorized a small number of combat equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield."

But most of the regional forces they’re supposed to be working with lack the capacity or willingness to track Kony’s fighters. The DRC has not committed a single troop to the effort, and has barred regional rival Uganda, which stands accused of arming anti-Congolese rebels, from entering its territory in pursuit of Kony. For its part, Uganda accuses the DRC of providing safe haven to anti-Ugandan rebels.

"Troops provided by South Sudan and Central African Republic lack the capacity to conduct effective operations against the LRA and protect civilians," according to the human rights coalition’s report. "The SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] battalion in Nzara, South Sudan, reportedly lacks elemental supplies like rations and fuel for their vehicles, making it impossible for them to conduct the most basic operations."

The Central African Republic forces are even worse off. "Even the available troops are hamstrung by three interrelated problems that are at their root, political: no clear command and control structure, inadequate troops capacity, and a lack of access to key LRA safe havens," the report states.

In recent months, the mission has seen a surge of MI8 transport helicopters provided by American contractors. Ugandan military units, supported by U.S. equipment, intelligence and logistics, have been pursuing the Lord Resistance Army in Central Africa Republic. But the rebels have found several safe havens, including Congo, Sudan, which has reportedly provided protection to the LRA, and large swaths of Western Central African Republic, which is beyond the reach of Ugandan forces.

The U.S. contingent deployment in the region was recently extended through April, raising concerns among anti-LRA activists about what happens after that.

"My concern is that if there have not been significant progress in capturing senior LRA commanders and encouraging defections there will be pressure in both Kampala and Washington" to phase out the mission, said Paul Ronan, policy director for Resolve. "Without solid U.S. and Ugandan military support, there is no possibility for viable military action against the LRA."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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