Problems of Perspective – Catching Kony

Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director for Human Rights Watch, recently made a statement encouraging the use of American military might to solve the Joseph Kony problem once and for all. Proponents of force in eradicating rebels in Central Africa, particularly that of Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, is nothing particularly new, but to have a senior representative of what is generally considered a mild mannered institution say as much is remarkable.

But Prof Laura Seay’s outright and overwhelming condemnation of Roth’s article betrays a greater problem in those involved in African conflict studies: that those who get involved in it, don’t wear a uniform and don’t take orders from an officer tend to have an amazingly primitive notion of the military options available in eradicating irregular combatants. Seay argues that fighting in a hostile jungle environment surrounded by people who don’t speak English and don’t share similar cultures would be a foolish errand. All well and good. But what the professor does not consider is that the strategic capabilities of the USA are not limited to a bunch of foolhardy Americans running roughshod through the jungle or a helicopter and some “RPGs” (I cringe at how academics and journalists assume anything that has a backblast must be an “RPG”), but rather have capabilities which are far more ranging and sophisticated.

The reality is that eliminating or arresting Kony, while not easy, would certainly not be beyond the realm of impossibility.

The god’s honest truth is that the US military is a leaner, more professional outfit than it was ten or twenty years ago. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US armed forces now possess significantly increased experience and tactics not just in delivering strikes against individuals and groups, but more importantly in intelligence-gathering efforts. Seay rightfully points out that Kony avoids the use of mobile phones and stays under dense jungle canopy, making it hard for informants to track him down.

But she is also forgetting that Kony is in an environment in which his lieutenants regularly emerge from the bush to raid villages and go about their looting and raping of the countryside. Were the USA to give a damn about Kony (I mean well and truly care beyond rhetoric), a giant lumbering occupation Seay envisages is not the only potential solution. US Special Forces have proven their ability in eliminating African militants before in places such as Somalia and, more recently, Pakistan, while still keeping boots off the ground. The merest whiff of Kony’s whereabouts from a senior ranking LRA rebel or the destruction of a village picked up by a drone overhead and the intelligence trail would be a good start, for one. Informants are one source of intelligence as to the LRA’s movements, but so too are unmanned drones, special forces teams, thermal imaging optical equipment and so on. Slowly closing the noose around Kony would take time, and in that sense Seay is correct, but it is also feasible or, at the very least, more feasible than many people think.

Seay simply does not give Roth’s argument a fair evaluation, preferring instead to provide a woefully-simplistic idea of asymmetrical warfare. The reality is that eliminating or arresting Kony, while not easy, would certainly not be beyond the realm of impossibility. This then begs the question of why Obama has done nothing about it if it is as possible as I claim. But the answer can found in the professor’s same questioning of the French forces currently in the Central African Republic, who prefer training indigenous forces to warfighting; fighting militants, while strategically possible, is almost always politically risky.

Kony isn’t the focus of US military efforts because it serves no political utility to them and because American intervention is largely unwelcome in Africa. Moreover, African states’ own reluctance to take advantage of Africa Command speaks volumes about the priorities involved. Put bluntly, nobody who has the military capability really gives enough of a damn to try and capture Kony. But is it possible militarily? Absolutely.

Condemning the LRA and waffling about “taking action” makes for good headlines, and spurs on folks like Roth to suggest a more forceful approach, but unless the LRA suddenly transcend mere banditry and begin bombing embassies in protest of American imperialism, the lack of action against Kony and his band of thugs is a result both of irrelevance of the conflict to broader American foreign policy and that of Africa’s own shunning of American military forces on the continent. But in strategic terms, there is more to it than simply putting boots on the ground.

  • annabel

    Here here on the likes of Seay showing a disturbing lack of strategic imagination.

    And of course it would, in addition to the strategic irrelevence, be surprising to see the US undertake any action that demonstrated direct and explicit support for the ICC (in pursuing it’s warrants abroad). I would be PLEASANTLY surprised!

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  • Mac

    Spot on Annabel…

  • HRW has a response to Seay here: http://theresolve.org/posts/1321810180

    “There have been a number of reported instances over the past eighteen months in which actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of Kony and other top commanders existed, yet the opportunity was blown by regional forces that lack the training, mobility, and logistics support needed to act effectively. ”

    Agreed. 100%