• May 15, 2014
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Why we’re trying to catch Kony (among other things)

Earlier this week Kristof Titeca and Ron Atkinson authored an opinion piece at Aljazeera.com, “Why is the US hunting for Joseph Kony?” Their arguments deserves careful consideration, not in the least because Titeca and Atkinson are experienced LRA analysts. But more importantly, the piece deserves closer examination because it includes a set of oft-repeated critiques that make for great soundbites but (for the most part) don’t stand up to closer scrutiny.

The authors’ primary argument faults the US government’s response to the LRA for being out of proportion to the scale of the crisis, especially because the group’s capacity for violence has been greatly diminished in recent years. They see the overemphasis on the LRA as particularly problematic because the Obama Administration is failing to respond robustly to more severe crises in other areas of the CAR, South Sudan, and DR Congo.

They also fault the US government’s “myopic and distorted vision” on the LRA for being overly focused on one man: Joseph Kony. They see this overemphasis as the result, in part, of a misguided domestic political constituency spearheaded by LRA-focused advocacy groups such as Resolve and Invisible Children.

At first read, the authors make some compelling points. As they point out, the rapidly escalating violence in the CAR and South Sudan over the past six months has highlighted the need to rethink where counter-LRA efforts exist among the US government’s regional priorities. No one can deny their claim that a strong domestic constituency has played a major role in driving US counter-LRA efforts. And Invisible Children is, after all, most famous for a personality-driven film titled “Kony2012.”

Picking on Kony?
In particular, the authors’ claim that for Obama Administration and advocacy groups “a single goal – with a short timeline – has been set: to catch Kony” is great for generating well-intentioned outrage among savvy Africa-watchers turned off by Kony2012’s simple message. But it’s not very helpful in accurately portraying what the US government and advocacy groups are actually doing.

It’s true that US officials and advocacy groups frequently release statements and campaigns that lean heavily on Kony’s name recognition. The authors’ critique of this may stem in part from a misunderstanding of how important Kony actually is to the LRA. Though they mention anecdotally that a group of LRA defectors in December 2013 had largely lost contact with Kony, a more comprehensive sampling of LRA defector debriefs clearly demonstrates that Kony still retains significant influence over many officers. Far more than a self-interested PR stunt, capturing Kony would deal a huge blow to the cohesiveness of the LRA’s command structure and the group’s ability to continue committing atrocities.

But more importantly, the authors’ argument ignores a inconvenient but important wrinkle: Public campaigns boosted by Kony’s infamous name have been a very successful tactic in drumming up political and financial support for the Obama Administration’s significant civilian-side response to the LRA crisis. This line of effort encompasses initiatives such as funding for civilian early warning networks, support for children who escape LRA captivity, and emergency assistance to displaced persons that have little to do with Kony. These programs began before and will outlast the US military deployment, but are absent from the authors’ narrative.

The authors rightly point out that the Defense Department has taken on a much larger role in the US counter-LRA response in recent years and that the military is primarily focused on catching Kony and other senior LRA commanders. But they fail to recognize that some of US military’s most successful initiatives have involved encouraging peaceful defections from the LRA and encouraging African military partners to place a higher priority on civilian protection, civ-mil dialogue, and information sharing.

Among advocacy groups, Invisible Children has walked the talk on the need for a comprehensive response to the crisis. Most of their programs in LRA-affected areas have little to do with catching Kony. Instead, they’ve expanded civilian early networks, helped involve communities in efforts to encourage peaceful defections from the LRA’s rank-and-file, and provided support to LRA escapees and their families. Recently, many aid organizations have shuttered operations in LRA-affected communities because traditional donors shifted funding elsewhere, abruptly leaving vulnerable civilians in the lurch. Ironically, Invisible Children has been able to maintain its broad range of programming there precisely because its Kony-centric fundraising campaigns have buffered it from dependence on such donors.

Victims of their own success
In arguing that the US response to the LRA is disproportional to the “relatively minor threat” the group poses, Titeca and Atkinson highlight the diminished capacity of the LRA. They note that “the LRA managed their last large-scale attacks” in early 2010 and that LRA violence, particularly killings, was already much reduced by the time US advisers deployed in late 2011.

Overall LRA violence has dropped significantly in recent years, but more nuanced data from our LRA Crisis Tracker project shows this birds-eye view can be misleading. In particular, the drop in overall LRA violence masks highly volatile patterns of violence at the local level. For example, in mid-2012, the LRA abducted over 70 people in a series of raids in areas of the CAR’s Mbomou prefecture that had been at peace for eight months. In mid-2013, they attacked communities along the Bria-Ouadda road in the CAR for the first time, abducting 61 people over six weeks. In early 2014, areas of Haut Mbomou and Haut Kotto prefecture in the CAR and the Niangara-Bangadi area in Congo saw attacks and abductions increase dramatically compared to previous years. For these communities, news of the overall drop in LRA violence is likely not very comforting.

The authors’ also fail to examine why violence by the LRA has dropped so dramatically in recent years. The answer is certainly complex, but any reasonable explanation must recognize that US-supported, Uganda-led military operations have played a significant part. In addition to the number of LRA combatants killed or captured, troops have made life on the run for the LRA quite miserable, encouraging many remaining combatants to escape. Many such brave souls also been encouraged by defections programs run by local civil society leaders, Invisible Children, the US military, and other groups. Ugandan troops have also provided de facto protection to thousands of civilians living near their military bases from attacks by the LRA and other armed groups such as Seleka.

In addition, the authors fail to differentiate between the LRA’s tactical evolution and their capacity. While the LRA certainly has less capacity to commit the large-scale massacres they once did, reports from LRA defectors indicate reductions in killings are also the result of tactical commands issued by LRA commanders partly in response to their fears that attention-grabbing massacres would result in greater military pressure.

Seen in this context, some of the authors’ critiques of US counter-LRA initiatives seemingly fault the Obama Administration for being too successful. One is left wondering whether they would advocate for the US to pull back its support for military operations just when the evidence is mounting they are partly responsible for a decrease in LRA violence. Such a move would likely give the LRA a chance to regroup and rebuild its fighting capacity, a feat Joseph Kony and other LRA leaders have proven capable of several times in the past.

Measuring US priorities – a zero sum game?
Even if the LRA was as weak as the Titeca and Atkinson suppose, their argument assumes a zero sum game in which the substantial resources the US has dedicated to the LRA reduce its capacity to respond to other crises in the region that are more severe.

However, a closer look at US counter-LRA support does not bode well for the authors’ claims. Certainly, Obama administration officials have invested significant diplomatic capital in responding to the LRA crisis and mention the LRA frequently in public statements. However, even a cursory analysis of US diplomatic efforts and public statements makes clear that the US sees the crises in eastern Congo and South Sudan as far more of a priority than the LRA*. Similarly, the US dedicates far more humanitarian and development funds to respond to the broader crises in Congo and South Sudan than they do LRA-affected communities.

It is true that in recent years the Obama administration has invested more diplomatic heft, public attention, and humanitarian funding to the LRA than it did to the Central African Republic. But, as informed observers of US foreign policy there are aware, this dynamic has rapidly reversed as the crisis in the CAR has escalated. And far from being a zero sum game, it’s likely that the Administration’s counter-LRA response, which has been CAR-focused for years and has emphasized atrocity prevention, has actually spurred the US to respond faster and more substantively to the broader crisis in the CAR than it otherwise would have.

Groups like Invisible Children and Resolve are encouraging this transition by putting our advocacy experience and grassroots mobilization resources to use in collaboration with a wide range of civil society partners active on the CAR. Our success in mobilizing a robust response to the LRA is an asset, not a liability, to efforts to generate a more robust US response to the CAR crisis.

The authors are most critical of the Obama Administration’s military response to the LRA, which includes the deployment of military advisers and the funding of aircraft and intelligence assets to assist Ugandan operations. However, redeploying such military assets to US responses to the crises in the CAR, Congo, and South Sudan would be inappropriate and counter-productive. And given the realities of US government budget allocations, resources freed up by reducing the military component of the counter-LRA response would not be used to boost civilian responses to those crises.

The greatest potential for the Obama Administration’s counter-LRA strategy to result in a harmful zero sum game is if it undercuts US efforts to address the deteriorating condition of human rights and democratic governance in Uganda. This includes US opposition to Uganda’s onerous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which the authors mention briefly. LRA-focused advocacy groups are acutely aware of this possibility and have actively collaborated with rights groups focused on these issues in an attempt to ensure a balanced US response to both sets of concerns. Our efforts are a work in progress, but that’s much different than having a “myopic and distorted vision.”

Room for constructive dialogue
Our critiques of Titeca’s and Atkinson’s arguments are not meant to exonerate the Obama Administration or LRA-focused advocacy groups. In recent years there’s certainly good reason to critique US and Uganda for inefficient allocations of resources, questionable political incentives, and tragic failures to prioritize civilian protection in their counter-LRA military operations**. Advocacy groups were too shortsighted to anticipate the shortfalls of campaigns like Kony2012. We were also too slow to translate the overwhelming response to such campaigns into as much concrete progress in generating a comprehensive, effective response to the LRA response as we could have.

Unfortunately, the authors’ tidy, oversimplified explanations and misleadingly selective choices of evidence fail to capture the nuance and messy complexity of these dynamics. Perhaps the same media environment that incentivized advocacy groups to overemphasize the infamy of Kony and the LRA’s brutal tactics has also incentivized critiques that are, ironically, just as oversimplified and bombastic. Whatever the cause, such arguments polarize the debate instead of providing a foundation for constructive dialogue.

* If there is a zero sum game in these instances, it is the counter-LRA response that often loses out, as has happened in recent years when US officials have been reluctant to use scarce leverage with the Sudanese government to urge it to expel LRA forces from the disputed Kafia Kingi enclave.

** The authors seem particularly concerned about the timing and efficacy of the US deployment of Osprey aircraft to support counter-LRA operations. LRA-focused advocacy groups share similar concerns. However, the authors’ “puzzlement” at the withdrawal of the Ospreys can be easily explained: as we have publicly noted, the Ospreys were only ever intended for periodic deployments to counter-LRA operations.

About the Author

Paul Ronan
Paul Ronan

Paul Ronan is Project Director for The Resolve. @pauldronan