US special forces joined the hunt for Joseph Kony and the leaders of his Lord’s Resistance Army almost four years ago. So, what progress has been made, are they any closer to catching him, and what else can be done?
Earlier this month, Kampala extended its amnesty for rebels who surrender, a measure largely directed at remnants of the LRA, which once terrorised northern Uganda, conscripting tens of thousands of children to join its cultish 1987-2006 campaign of massacre and mutilation.
As well as this carrot, Kony and his few hundred remaining men – thought to be in remote parts of the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – face the stick of a remorseless hunt by troops from Uganda and other regional states backed by US special forces.
This dual approach has seen some success. According to Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, around 200 LRA fighters who surrendered in CAR and DRC have returned to Uganda and received amnesty since 2011.
That was the year – in December – when the United States first deployed 100 special forces to help the African Union’s Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) eradicate the LRA. Last year, President Barack Obama sent an additional 150 troops, along with four CV-22 Ospreys, aircraft designed for resupplying and relocating special forces on long-range infiltration missions.
Since the start of the US deployment – which is limited to support and advice – more than 260 people have defected, escaped or been released from the LRA, and five of the group’s top commanders have been killed, captured or have surrendered, according to a US State Department official.
“With US support, the AU-RTF has significantly degraded the LRA’s capacity to launch attacks on innocent civilians. In recent years, defections and releases from the LRA have significantly increased,” the official told IRIN, preferring not to give her name.
“These successes have changed the nature of the LRA threat to the region. The LRA has broken their fighters down into several small groups, spread across eastern CAR, DRC, and the disputed area of Kafia-Kingi [on the border between Sudan and South Sudan]. While they are still a threat to small communities, their attacks tend to focus more on supporting their own survival, rather than spreading terror or attempts to grow back into the force they once were,” she said.
“These small groups remain highly mobile and have less and less contact with each other. While this hinders their ability to coordinate attacks, it also makes them more difficult to track and target, especially considering the size and inaccessibility of the LRA-affected region.”
Uganda’s military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, agreed, saying US support “has greatly helped in incapacitating and diminishing the LRA’s ability to command, carry out major attacks, killings, abductions, recruitment and cause instability.”
“LRA are now incapable of making war. They are about 200-300 scattered in that huge territory with most of them not connected to each other,” he told IRIN.
But data collated from the LRA Crisis Tracker tells a slightly different story. While the last few years have seen a significant decline in LRA killings, the rate of civilian abductions has remained fairly constant (See chart below). So far this year, there have been nine killings and 320 abductions attributed to the LRA, compared to 13 killings and 628 abductions for the whole of 2014.
Despite some qualified successes, some analysts say they expected more of the US involvement and are calling for a change of tack.
“The mission of the US special forces was very clear – to hunt down, capture or kill top LRA command, in particular the elusive LRA leader Joseph Kony. And by this yardstick one can say the mission has been a failure,” said Stephen Oola of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project.
“Four years in a very expensive operation with little if any tangible outcome is reason enough to rethink,” Oola told IRIN. “The nature of the LRA has been non-conventional warfare and it will continue for the foreseeable future thus making [an] alternative strategy of engagement the only viable [option].”
“Our experience with the LRA in the last 29 years is that a negotiated settlement offers the best possible chance to end the rebellion. What we need is a protracted and credible regional-led peace negotiation with the LRA to release abducted children, abandon its hostilities and remobilise, return and be reintegrated into their country, Uganda.”
Kasper Agger, a field researcher with the Enough Project, a Washington DC-based NGO that specialises on Kony and the LRA, disagreed.
“Obviously we would all have hoped that the mission would have finished by now, but it’s important to stay the course and see this through until the complete end of the LRA,” he told IRIN. “A premature withdrawal would risk losing the tremendous gains that have been made over the past four years.”
In May, a detailed report by the London-based NGO, Conciliation Resources, noted that although the African Union’s RTF task force had degraded LRA capacity and deterred attacks, its role in protecting civilians had been “limited and inconsistent.”
This was because, “RTF commanders and American advisers do not prioritise protection in their operational planning as a central objective. They have concentrated resources on tracking Joseph Kony and senior LRA members and been slow to respond to civilian reports of LRA sightings, or have not responded at all.
“The AU and international community must recognise that such a military approach is insufficient to address the security, political, social and economic problems fuelling conditions in the cross-border region that sustain the LRA,” the report said.
It added that the effectiveness of the RTF was also compromised by regional politics.
“The UPDF [Ugandan army] is still barred from operating in DRC, allowing LRA units to move across the CAR-DRC border and avoid contact with the UPDF. And Khartoum does not allow RTF units to enter the Kafia-Kingi enclave that it controls, despite widespread reports that Kony has found refuge there.”
Marco Jowell, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, noted that, “coordination is poor between [troop contributing countries] and needs to improve. A proper joint mission in the sense of a full AU mandate, or at least more AU involvement, is key. At the moment the mission is…essentially national operations mainly by UPDF.”
Ankunda, the Ugandan military spokesman, went further, saying, “We are the only ones who have active troops on the ground and are making efforts to catch the guy [Kony].
“How will you ever get him or his commanders with a few troops on the ground in that vast territory, three times bigger than Uganda, with a very difficult terrain and much of it being ungoverned?”
“If we had troops from the other contributing countries to support the operation, we would have managed to defeat and eliminate Kony and his LRA completely.”