I’ll see your “change we can believe in” and raise you some COIN

There is a scourge upon the earth known as Joseph Kony.

Since the late 1980s, he has led the quite blasphemously named Lord’s Resistance Army in a brutal insurgency nominally targeting the Ugandan government. I like blasphemy as much as the next person but next to Kony my jokes about gay angels and their role-playing fetishes sound like Sunday morning hymns.

For decades, Kony and the LRA have terrorized northern Uganda and environs by laying waste to towns, killing and maiming civilians, abducting and arming children, and generally recreating the goriest parts of the Old Testament.

Lately, and especially since refusing to sign a peace deal in 2008, Kony has taken his smiting band of misfits on a three-country tour, to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan, killing nearly 2,000 people and displacing over 400,000. As of a couple weeks ago, he has reportedly taken his smite-y band of bandits to Darfur.

Yes, that Darfur, the one not even George Clooney could save.

How do we stop him? Choose you own quagmire!

A Fellow suggests you kick back, open up a bottle of Bud Light Lime, and pop in a Black Hawk Down DVD. Intervening in East Africa failed once, he says, so it’s bound to always fail. If you agree with him, roll like M4 and chug your Bud. If you say, “Bite me,” and invoke the names Samantha Power and Gareth Evans, continue on.

Kony marauds through central Africa murdering civilians. His sins have convinced the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for his arrest. Everyone agrees, Kony must be stopped. The African Union agrees and offers increased support for a joint brigade of Ugandan, CAR, DRC, and Sudanese forces to neutralize the LRA. If you say, “Sounds like a good start,” meet me at the Science Club for some happy hour prices and the hummus plate. If that doesn’t sound enough like a Bruce Willis movie for you, continue on!

At an estimated 250 men, the LRA isn’t a large force, but they’re consistently on the move. They cross countries’ borders like John Mayer crosses starlets off his “To Do” list. A military operation to capture Kony will require the consent of at least three countries. If you think this deserves a high-level meeting at the United Nations, fix yourself a hot toddy and go to bed. If you’re pretty sure everyone will agree with whatever you decide, continue on!

You’re out to arrest a wanted war criminal—who would disagree with such a military operation? Certainly not another wanted war criminal like President Omar al-Bashir. Of Sudan. Who the ICC would like to arrest for war crimes. In Darfur. Where Kony and the LRA might be. If you realize the err of your ways, take a shot of Jaeger and grab the nearest Gerard Prunier book.

If you think the only way to capture Kony and his lieutenants is by deploying United States Special Operations forces, congratulations! You’re Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch!

And you’ve just started a messy, messy war in central Africa.

To paraphrase counter-terror expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: there’s obviously a lot that needs doing with regard to the LRA, but it isn’t obvious how to do what needs doing.

Unless you’re Roth who thinks it’s very obvious:

Yet as Barack Obama recognized in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans.”

Obama needs to put this principle into practice, and there is no better case for the humanitarian use of force than the urgent need to arrest Joseph Kony, the ruthless leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and protect the civilians who are his prey.

…Uganda lacks the special forces, expert intelligence, and rapid-deployment capacity needed to stamp out this enemy.

In May, Obama signed a bill committing the United States to help arrest Kony and his commanders and protect the affected population. Now it is high time to act. Arresting Kony would reaffirm that mass murder cannot be committed with impunity. And it would show that, despite the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the humanitarian use of force remains a live option at the Obama White House.

Quite a few smarter people already beat me to the main point: sending U.S. Special Operations forces to arrest Kony is a bad idea, “off base,” “a recipe for disaster,” “an October Fools’ Day joke,” “the worst idea on the internet today.”

Seay points out the logistical difficulties the terrain poses, Albon finds little justification for putting U.S. forces and civilians at risk, Kate and Amanda note the diplomatic obstacles to deployment, and Exum reminds us how well our other hunt for a couple of terrorist leaders is going on the AfPak border.

All good points. Some other smart people at Resolve responded in defense of Roth. There’s a wide gap in interpretations, though, in that Resolve doesn’t read Roth as calling for U.S. Special Forces. Instead, Resolve reads Roth as calling for a more nuanced response to the LRA a la their report and recommendations from April.

I don’t disagree with a lot of what Resolve has written in their report.

I disagree that an international military force would be more effective than a regional one. The expeditionary nature of the operation for an international force—rather than a regional force that has operated in these areas before—would demand a lot more time and investment than watching an episode of “The Amazing Race.”

In defending an apprehension operation using international special forces, Paul Ronan at Resolve writes:

In fact, operations targeting critical vulnerabilities of rebel groups—for example, the LRA’s concentrated command structure—can be an integral part of broader strategies to improve civilian protection efforts. Effective operations to apprehend Kony and senior LRA commanders, alongside strengthened efforts to protect civilians and encourage defections from the LRA, represent the best hope for putting a permanent end to the rebel group’s offensive capacity and the threat it poses to civilians in the region.

Going after the command elements of the LRA with an international force would look a lot like Afghanistan circa 2003 through last month. It would be messy. It would be unsuccessful. Kony is an excellent strategist and has 25 years experience hiding in the bush. When he’s approached, he disappears. When he’s threatened, he attacks civilian populations.

“Broader strategies to improve civilian protection efforts” should be the focus. Why? Because in counterinsurgencies, “protecting the population… is doable, even though destroying the enemy is not,” writes David Kilcullen in the aptly titled Counterinsurgency.

It’s then not surprising that 150 pages later, Kilcullen says development wonks and defense wonks need to start talking to each other more often. Development people have good ideas about how to empower local populations. How to, if you will, “protect civilians.” Defense people, like, say, Andrew Exum, have good ideas about what proposed military expeditions are bad ideas.

Roth’s “Plan B” is a bad, bad idea. Good ideas? Ensuring more effective and sustainable deployments of existing military forces in LRA-affected areas, building the capacity of civilians to protect themselves and their communities, and integrating robust civilian protection strategies into all efforts to apprehend senior LRA commanders.

Those are, by the way, from Resolve’s April report making recommendations to President Obama. Let’s call it “Plan A.”

Hat tip to Starbuck, the Vader apologist—yes, that Vader, the one who caused millions of voices to suddenly cry out in terror and then suddenly silenced them—for this post on host nation legitimacy which reminded me about the two best pages in Counterinsurgency.

This will get you kicked out of some countries. But not Germany.

So Say We All?

P.S. These 1300 words were just an excuse to post that picture.


12 thoughts on “I’ll see your “change we can believe in” and raise you some COIN

  1. Great one. It’s one of those that pulls together all the random thoughts I’ve had over the last two weeks.

    …and why are people still sleeping with John Mayer? Don’t they ever learn?

    • Thank you! It took me a couple weeks to pull the randomness together, but in the end everything revolves around drinking.

      As for Mayer, depending on how brave a Googler you are, something has to be said for a man who will rock a mankini the way he has.

  2. you need to make this a series. this could be your selling point:

    International Development explained using pop culture references and solved via choose your own adventure.

    Ps- now apparently Taylor Swift is with Jake Gyllenhal.

  3. The siren song of silver-bullet-solution narratives to this crisis notwithstanding, don’t you think a COIN strategy on the LRA would look much different and have much different prospects for success than such a strategy in AfPak or just about anywhere?

    Two key differences: One, no local support to be “won” away from insurgents (since none exists, and local communities provide no willing material support). And two, unique dependence on leaders in a rebel organization that (a) lacks coherence or strategy beyond the interests of those leaders (even while capitalizing on narratives of Acholi grievance), (b) can survive only because of the security vacuum that exists across remote areas of central Africa, and (c) has mastered the perpetual use of Stockholm Syndrome.

  4. Pingback: Tempest in a Teapot: US Special Forces train African forces to track down the LRA. | Wings Over Iraq

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