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Joseph Kony and the viral, not so flattering video

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By William Tucker

For the past week the charity Invisible Children has been working to, in their words, make Joseph Kony famous. They have done so by creating a video entitled Kony 2012 that has spread through social and mainstream media resulting in substantial coverage. Much of the video oscillates between naive to self aggrandizing nonsense, yet strangely, this type of activism can create an environment in which a government can maneuver. In this case, the U.S. has been trying for years to get a foothold in Africa, but many nations on the continent have been unwilling to host any large U.S. presence. The rationale behind rebuffing Washington stems from an unwillingness to aid the U.S. in pursuing its objectives while gaining very little in return. Sometimes foreign aid can help, but it takes a lot for a nation to open itself up to a foreign military presence. This is especially true when military commitments of the U.S. can turn on a dime or drag on for years. In the case of Uganda and its LRA plague, the U.S. can deploy a minimal amount of military force in pursuit of an objective that benefits the nations of central Africa.

Contrary to the assertion of the Kony video, the U.S. is pursuing Kony and the LRA for strategic reasons – just not directly. The LRA doesn’t threaten the U.S., but many international jihadist groups do. Many of these strategic reasons apply to areas in North Africa and the Horn where several nations under the LRA threat have supplied troops to fight international jihadists with connections to al-Qaeda. Washington is reciprocating this commitment by taking on the LRA because it fits with U.S. interests at this time. Trying to justify such a commitment of U.S. forces to the American public, however, can be a tough sell coming on the heels of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the threat posed from Iran, a large nation-state, is of much higher concern than a militant cult leader that calls the jungle home. This is where the viral campaign comes in. By petitioning members of Congress, Invisible Children may actually have become the excuse – not the reason – for last October’s troop deployment.

There is one last part of the film that needs addressing and that is Kony himself. Invisible Children makes the dubious claim that arresting Kony will somehow end the war. Unfortunately, three thousand years of terrorism and cult history tell a very different story and the modern invention of social media will not change this. Although the LRA is best defined as a militant cult that engages in terrorist tactics, simply removing Kony, the spiritual pinnacle of the LRA movement, will not end the group’s existence. Part of the problem is that Kony isn’t directly running the group and hasn’t for some time. Much of the LRA has become factionalized, and thus is engaging in actions without Kony’s explicit consent, but each faction still maintains a loyalty to Kony. At the present these factions don’t seem to be competing with one another because they are spread out over such a large area in rather rough terrain. This has made communications within the group difficult at best.

This is not to say that capturing Kony is a bad thing, but expectations must be tempered and LRA group dynamics must be better understood. One such example to consider is those militants that cannot go home after Kony’s capture. While it is Kony that is at the top of the ICC’s most wanted list, his lieutenants are not free from prosecution. This means that although Kony would be out of the operational picture, his associates would not have any incentive to stop fighting as they would ultimately be charged with war crimes as well. Of course, the U.S. military and their African hosts do understand this. To be quite frank, it is doubtful that the U.S. Army Special Forces unit that deployed to Uganda is carrying handcuffs. Kony and his LRA have no incentive to stop fighting and a protracted fight is far more likely than anything resembling a civilized arrest. Although the campaign to raise awareness of LRA atrocities is commendable, it may result in an outcome that Invisible Children did not anticipate.

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