In a little-noticed move in October 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama sent 100 military advisers to Uganda, part of an effort to apprehend Joseph Kony, the ruthless head of the central African guerilla group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The once-obscure rebel leader, a fugitive since 2005, became a household name this March after a video about him produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children went viral. More than a year since U.S. advisers arrived in Uganda, and despite the unprecedented public awareness about the cult-like militia's crimes, Kony and his associates remain at large, and media coverage of the search has become nearly as hard to find as the fugitive himself.  

The Kony manhunt is proving frustrating. Despite some small tactical successes, there has yet to be a single credible sighting of the fugitive, and LRA attacks in the region have only become more frequent. But it is too soon to get pessimistic and give up. Such operations are inherently difficult, and they take time. If U.S. and African forces refine their efforts to get locals to provide intelligence, and if Washington steps up its diplomatic efforts to eliminate potential LRA safe havens, they could well bring Kony and the rest of the LRA's leadership to justice.

Although Ugandan troops captured Kony's top military strategist in May and killed LRA fighters led by the militia's director of operations in August, the campaign has failed to meet the expectations generated by Obama's announcement and by Invisible Children's awareness campaign. Following the spectacular success of the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden five months earlier, the deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to hunt Kony may have created unrealistic expectations. But as with the U.S. forces that helped indigenous forces catch the guerilla leader Che Guevara in Bolivia and the drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia, the U.S. military advisers in Uganda, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan are prohibited from conducting operations themselves. They can only guide those countries' militaries in the pursuit of the LRA, providing intelligence and communications support. In March, the African Union announced that it would deploy a 5,000-person multinational brigade to hunt down Kony, but less than half the number of troops pledged have actually arrived in the region, and those who have are poorly trained and equipped.

The LRA has subsequently shifted tactics to evade detection, splintering into smaller groups and retreating deeper into central Africa's dense jungle territory in an area roughly the size of California. The move has worked: no one seems to know where Kony actually is. In April, the commander of Ugandan forces said that the rebel leader was hiding in the Central African Republic, and the chief spokesman of the Ugandan military insisted that he was several hundred miles away, in Sudan. Rear Admiral Brian Losey, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa, admitted in April that the troops searching for Kony are able to do little more than guess at his whereabouts based on his past movements and eliminate areas where the LRA is unlikely to take refuge. Meanwhile, the LRA continues to commit atrocities in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the number of reported attacks more than doubling from January to June of this year.

Historically, the key to successful manhunts is not troop strength, advanced technology, or favorable physical terrain but, rather, what the military calls "human terrain" -- the attitudes of the people living in the territory where the target is hiding. If locals consider the object of the search a Robin Hood-like figure (as the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa was by Mexicans while the U.S. army searched for him, unsuccessfully, in 1916), then he will prove almost impossible to catch, no matter how many elite troops are trying. Conversely, if the public detests the target (as was the case with the Apache leader Geronimo in the 1880s, Manuel Noriega in Panama in the 1980s, and Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq), then the hunt will be far easier thanks to the intelligence that locals provide and to their unwillingness to provide sanctuary.

These variables would appear to favor the forces pursuing Kony. The LRA's brutality, including against its own forces, could convince some soldiers to defect, bringing intelligence about the group's movements with them. And given its record of atrocities -- including massacres, large-scale mutilations, and the abduction of children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves -- local populations have a stake in rooting out Kony. Thus, when a U.S. Special Forces team arrived in the remote Central African Republic town of Obo, villagers welcomed them with songs about how God had sent the Americans to free them of the LRA.

It has been hard, however, to capitalize on these advantages. For one thing, the Ugandan forces pursuing Kony have committed numerous abuses themselves in the past, thus giving locals little reason to trust them. Another problem involves geography: central Africa's remoteness and scarcity of roads mean that it can take weeks for word of encounters with the LRA to reach the authorities. Even when such reports do arrive, it's difficult to distinguish legitimate sightings from bogus ones. After more than two decades of terrorizing the region, Kony has attained bogeyman status, and villagers tend to ascribe almost all banditry and crime to his group.

Still, it's too soon to panic. The Kony manhunt is the twelfth time in U.S. history that the military has been sent abroad to kill or capture one man. Of the 11 previous campaigns, eight were successful, and, excluding the 13-year hunt for bin Laden, the average successful manhunt takes 18 months. The pursuit of Filipino insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo that ended in 1901, the search for Escobar that ended in 1993, and the hunt for the Iraq-based terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that ended in 2006 all lasted over two years. Moreover, of the three failed campaigns -- the pursuits of Villa, Nicaraguan insurgent leader Augusto Sandino from 1927 to 1932, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed in 1993 -- two (those against Villa and Aideed) were terminated before their first anniversary. Perseverance, in other words, is crucial. And thankfully, Washington seems to have figured this out. In April, Obama announced plans to extend the deployment of U.S. forces aiding the search, and in May the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to increase the authorized funding for the manhunt to $50 million.

Patience, however, doesn't mean waiting quietly for the current tactics to do their job; Washington can and should refine its efforts. The key to apprehending Kony lies not in the introduction of a new super technology or the influx of more U.S. forces but, rather, in better exploiting the favorable human terrain. In order to get intelligence about Kony's whereabouts faster, U.S. and African forces should provide remote villages with the means to transmit LRA sightings more rapidly. Invisible Children has installed 30 radio towers in remote areas to encourage communication between villages, but this effort needs to be expanded. To get better intelligence from within the LRA, the United States should pressure the Ugandan government to reverse the decision it made last May to stop granting amnesty to former rebels. Instead, Uganda should offer amnesty for all LRA fighters other than the five commanders under indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Washington should also use its diplomatic heft to deny Kony safe havens. This would entail convincing the Democratic Republic of the Congo to let Ugandan forces through Congolese borders. The country is understandably wary of the Ugandans, who have plundered its natural resources in the past, but the United States could make military assistance to the Ugandan government conditional on its respecting Congolese mineral sovereignty, or pledge to compensate the Central African Republic for any unauthorized extractions by Ugandan forces. As for Sudan, Washington should send the message that Darfur cannot serve as a sanctuary for Kony and his forces. Although Sudan has proved resistant to international pressure on human rights in the past, it does have a breaking point. In 1996, diplomatic pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, combined with international sanctions, persuaded it to expel Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Such pressure could work today, especially since Sudan gains no strategic advantage from harboring the LRA.

The first year of the hunt for Kony has been frustratingly unproductive. But those hopeful for success can take comfort in the fact that the variables that have determined the outcome of past manhunts favor the forces searching for Kony. All it should take to bring the warlord to justice is a practical plan to exploit these underlying forces -- and a little more time.

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  • BENJAMIN RUNKLE is a former Defense Department and National Security Council official and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden.
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