US military turn to some unsavory partners to help find warlord Joseph Kony

September 30, 2015 9:36 am
 

The military is stepping up its effort to track down African warlord Joseph Kony. Photo / Getty Images

Special Operations forces have opened a new front in
their hunt for the African warlord Joseph Kony, moving closer to his
suspected hideout in a lawless enclave straddling Sudan and South Sudan,
according to military officials and others familiar with the operation.
As their mission stretches into a fifth year, US troops have turned to some unsavoury partners to help find Kony’s trail.
Working
from a new bush camp in the Central African Republic, US forces have
begun working closely with Islamist rebels – known as the Seleka – who
toppled the central Government two years ago and triggered a
still-raging sectarian war.
The Pentagon has not previously disclosed its intelligence sharing and other forms of cooperation with the Seleka.
The arrangement has made some US troops uncomfortable.

The Seleka “are playing us,” said one military official.
The
official described the Seleka as a “mafia” that is trying to curry
favour with the Americans even as the rebels extort local villagers and
engage in illicit trade with Kony’s fugitive fighters.
About 100
US military advisers are deployed across four countries to guide the
international campaign to catch Kony, whose brutal militia, the Lord’s
Resistance Army (LRA), has raped, abducted and killed tens of thousands
of people over the past three decades.
After first sending US
forces to central Africa in 2011, US President Barack Obama must decide
next month whether to reauthorise the deployment and extend it for at
least another year.
Some senior US military leaders have been
lukewarm about the mission, citing its duration and the fact that Kony
does not pose a direct threat to American interests.
But the operation still draws strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and many expect the White House to stay the course.
“For
30 years, this individual has been creating mayhem and some of the
worst atrocities on the continent,” said congressman Edward Royce,
chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Now is the time to double down and see the counter-LRA mission to the end.”
A
Ugandan guerrilla with a messiah complex and an uncanny survival
instinct, Kony has eluded capture despite the best efforts of the
Pentagon and the State Department, which is offering a US$5 million
reward for information on his whereabouts.
Although Kony is still on the loose, US officials and backers of the mission cite several measures as evidence of progress.
The
estimated number of LRA fighters in recent years has dropped by more
than half, to fewer than 200. Four of Kony’s senior commanders have been
killed or captured.
Reported civilian abductions have fluctuated
but dwindled overall. Tens of thousands of villagers who fled the LRA
have returned home.
Paul Ronan, project director for the Resolve,
a human rights advocacy group that tracks the LRA, said the US
Government would lose credibility if it declared victory prematurely.
“This is a legacy issue for the Obama Administration,” Ronan said.
“If
we give up on this mission, it sends a message to the rest of the
continent that if you outlast us for a few years, essentially we’ll just
give up.”
To track down Kony, the US military and allied African
forces are trying to navigate a territory the size of California with
few roads and plenty of thick jungle terrain. But the biggest obstacle
may be a wave of political turmoil that has further destabilised already
weak countries.
Two US military camps are located in the Central
African Republic, which is still embroiled in the sectarian civil war
sparked by the Seleka rebels. Dozens have been killed this week in
renewed clashes in the capital, Bangui, which has been seized by anarchy
despite efforts by the United Nations and outside powers to restore
calm.
Another US camp is in South Sudan, a country that declared
independence four years ago with backing from Washington, but which has
since become gripped by its own civil war. US military advisers are also
posted at a small base in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet another
weak state wracked by warlords.
Kony has exploited the turmoil
by moving from country to country and is now believed to have taken
refuge in Sudan. US officials and analysts say Kony and LRA fighters
operate primarily from the state of South Darfur and a disputed
territory, Kafia Kingi, that is controlled by Sudan.
Sudan is a
longtime antagonist of Washington, and US Special Operations forces are
prohibited from entering the country. Instead, a small team of American
advisers this year set up a new camp as close as possible, inside the
Central African Republic, about 50km from the border with Kafia Kingi.
Although
the camp is new, US forces have surveyed, selected and occasionally
used landing zones in the area since 2013. The rudimentary base is near
the town of Sam Ouandja, an area rife with smugglers and controlled by a
local faction of the Seleka.
“When you do a map of who has power
in the area, they’re the ones. They have the guns,” said Lisa Dougan,
president of Invisible Children, an advocacy group that drew worldwide
attention to the LRA’s atrocities three years ago with a video – “Kony
2012” – that went viral on the Internet.
The Seleka and the LRA have a tumultuous history. Sometimes they engage in open warfare; other times they do business.
When
the two sides aren’t shooting at each other, LRA fighters often cross
the border from Sudan into the Central African Republic to sell
gemstones or elephant tusks in exchange for food and weapons, according
to advocacy groups and U.S officials.
As a result, Seleka
warlords have become as well-versed as anyone with the LRA. That, in
turn, has led the US military advisers – despite Washington’s distaste
for the rebels – to work closely with the Seleka.
According to US
military officials, the team of US troops in Sam Ouandja meets
regularly with Seleka leaders, obtains intelligence from the rebels and
sometimes provides medical care to Seleka loyalists.
“We’re
engaging with whomever has information that is relevant,” said Amanda
Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa. “Any time we
have an intelligence lead that would help us locate the LRA or Kony, we
pursue those leads the best we can.”
The US military official
who was critical of the cooperation said the Seleka was trying to win
legitimacy by appearing to help the Americans look for Kony. But he
suggested the Seleka couldn’t be trusted and that the rebels were too
cozy with the LRA.
“The LRA doesn’t come into the area and attack or kidnap people,” the official said.
“They come into the area to do business with the Seleka.”
More
often than not, potential leads on the LRA don’t pan out, with US
forces committing aircraft and personnel to far-flung searches that
yield no results.
“Imagine searching for 200 criminals in an area
the size of California covered in jungle,” the military official said.
“Between poachers, the ivory trade and the LRA, you don’t know who’s
who.”

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