Kony 2012: The Worst Case Scenario

On Monday I described the best possible outcome of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign.  And it was a truly inspiring outcome: it’s January 1, 2013, a vicious warlord has been captured, a ground-breaking historical precedent has been set for the International Criminal Court, LRA-affected communities are on the road to recovery and development, and a generation of young people are as informed as they are inspired to make the world a better place, at least in part thanks to Kony 2012.  I based that story on the campaign’s film and website, the policy paper IC is calling the “the best researched paper supporting the policy position of the Kony 2012 campaign,”1 and a decent working knowledge of Invisible Children and the issues it works to address.

Without all three, a lot of the campaign’s critics are missing something crucial.2

Unfortunately that goes as much for the supporters as for the critics, which is why I’ve used largely the same sources to describe the worst possible outcome of the Kony 2012 campaign.

(WARNING: What follows is taken largely verbatim from other sources, which have been credited with links and other references wherever possible.  While much of it is verbatim, I have also edited much of the original text for the sake of painting a picture that would be both current and realistic on January 1, 2013.  Therefore very little of what’s in my worst case scenario is original to me, yet neither is it completely true to its sources.  Some has been adapted, some has been redacted, and some is completely the same.  Read this with that in mind, and I encourage you to go to the original sources and read them yourself.)

So without any further ado, here it is, the worst possible outcome I can possibly imagine:

The date is January 1, 2013.

Today, after months of renewed attacks on civilians in central Africa by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the joint military operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army by the armies of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Government of Southern Sudan—with the support of the United States—has been poorly executed to date and has so far only made the crisis worse.

Though the offensive has weakened the LRA by cutting off food stores and other supplies, it has also forced the LRA into a familiar position as a highly mobile insurgent force.  With the LRA flushed deeper into the three-layered jungle, Ugandan forces have lost an important measure of initiative: the LRA knows the tricky terrain better than their adversaries; LRA fighters are able to move and disperse quickly and in small numbers; and the LRA has shown every willingness to loot and pillage to survive.  Kony and his key commanders have ordered their forces to retaliate by committing brutal attacks against civilians in <pick your favorite failed state> in response to the joint military offensive.  This includes fresh abductions, rapes, mutilations, looting, and other crimes.  Despite months of high-level diplomacy, none of the regional governments involved has demonstrated the capacity and genuine willingness to apprehend top LRA commanders or protecting civilians from LRA atrocities.

Thankfully there was better coordination and cooperation between governments than previous operations, but this effort has nonetheless been operationally flawed and has so far failed in its stated objectives: to protect civilians and apprehend Joseph Kony.  The aerial bombardment of LRA hideouts in <pick your favorite failed state> and subsequent ground operations have not achieved their initial goal of surprise, and the ensuing military incursions by both the LRA and the Ugandan military have been indiscriminate—endangering children previously abducted by the LRA and creating significant risk for civilians in the region. In the past four months, a spate of LRA attacks killed roughly 500 civilians in <pick your favorite failed state>, abducted nearly 700, and displaced another 70,000, bringing the total number of displaced as a result of the operation to over 100,000.

The LRA camps were largely empty of fighters and high-level commanders when struck by Ugandan aircraft, suggesting that either operational security was compromised or the initial intelligence that was used to design the attack was flawed.  Moreover, the operation’s failure to cordon off the camps, cut off escape routes, or put in place mechanisms to protect surrounding communities from reprisal attacks before the bombing began indicates poor military planning.  Scattered LRA units are now stretched across hundreds of kilometers, able to either conduct hit-and-run attacks against their pursuers or make a push toward a tempting sanctuary in Sudan.

Also troubling is the limited number of LRA fighters who have voluntarily surrendered.  Had the bulk of the LRA rank-and-file really been as demoralized and frustrated as many engaged in planning the operation had thought, far more would have taken these attacks as an opportunity to throw down their arms.  It is possible many are still hiding and intend to turn themselves in if the opportunity arises, but initial signs are not encouraging.

The governments of Congo, CAR, and South Sudan are increasingly uncomfortable with the prolonged presence of Ugandan forces in their territories.  The Ugandan military, which supplies the bulk of the boots on the ground, are accused of sporadic human rights abuses and the exploitation of natural resources and trade routes.  Tense civil-military relations and the Ugandan military’s lack of success against the LRA have damaged the initial welcome it received from host communities and impeded its ability to carry out its core pursuit operations.

By contrast, the LRA has evolved in order to survive.  It evades pursuing militaries by breaking into smaller groups and limiting its use of electronic communications, while still managing to retain cohesion among its senior commanders.  Kony himself, along with about 40 fighters, is rumored to have slipped across the border into Sudan, where his old sponsor Omar al-Bashir hopes to leverage Kony’s presence to his advantage in his fight against enemies in Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, and the West.  The State Department and Invisible Children agree it could now be “years” until Kony is arrested.

Uganda, which ironically has not experienced an LRA attack since 2006, is nevertheless suffering as a result of the campaign.  Uganda’s foreign direct investment and revenue from tourism are flagging thanks to a tarnished global image; declining incomes and rising unemployment mean lower standards of health, less access to education, and other problems.  Moreover, by forcing men and women in Uganda to “relive” the horrors of the past, the campaign has prevented wounds from healing, and reinforced stigmas against the victims of abduction, mutilation, and rape.

The U.S. commitment to helping the UPDF arrest Joseph Kony has also come at the expense of pressuring Uganda’s President of 26 years (and alleged “coconut-head“) Yoweri Museveni to reduce corruption, open up political space, and respect human rights at home.  Museveni is benefiting enormously from his partnership with the United States — financially, militarily, politically, diplomatically, and otherwise — strengthening his already troubling 26-year grip on Ugandan political life.  Many communities and government officials in the tri-border region even fear that Museveni may be directly benefiting from its counter-LRA deployment and therefore unnecessarily prolonging its operations.  Indeed, even a low-intensity commitment to counter-LRA operations brings significant benefits for Museveni.

Outside Uganda, the international community’s bungled attempt to forcibly haul Joseph Kony to The Haugue in 2012 is continuing to undermine the prospects for a non-military resolution to the conflict, and distracting from other important issues, not least the apprehension of other (easier-to-catch) war criminals.  The U.S.’s commitment to uniting regional governments to arrest Joseph Kony in 2012 and protect civilians from the LRA — including expanded military and civilian assistance — has come at the expense of pressuring other regional leaders to commit to a more genuine process of reforming their own rule.  The corruption, human rights abuses, and increasingly authoritarian rule of political leaders in all four states involved risks recreating the same divisive political conditions that sparked the LRA rebellion over twenty-five years ago, and undermines long-term development.

In a poignant illustration of how this is already playing out, the Obama administration has waived the legal requirement to end the use of child soldiers for states like D.R. Congo, whose cooperation is necessary to see Kony captured in 2012 but whose military forces still contain child soldiers.  Local communities are naturally outraged.3

Speaking of local communities, Invisible Children’s on-the-ground programs are better funded than ever, are educating more children than ever, are providing for more jobs and livelihoods than ever, and all the rest.  But they also suffer from an image problem.  In Uganda, where some locals had already been suspicious of Invisible Children, many are now outright hostile towards the group, for a variety of good and bad reasons.  In Congo, where the government and civilians share a common distrust of Uganda (for much better reasons), Invisible Children is seen as a collaborator and supporter of the Ugandan army, in pursuit of a threat (the LRA) which has actually gotten worse as a result of the latest surge in fighting.

Meanwhile, around the world, millions of mainly young people have absorbed a particular, highly distorted story about what is going on in Africa, and have failed to inform themselves as Kony 2012’s designers had intended.  Some number of exceptionally ill-prepared young people, fueled by a “White savior complex” and simple narratives of right vs. wrong, embark on a mission to save the children of this or that war zone.  Simple narratives lead to simple solutions, which lead to unintentional (yet avoidable) harm.  For less committed individuals, crowdsourced interventionism, popularized by films made for high school children, has partly replaced technocrats and grounded activists as the arbiter of other important foreign policy decisions.

Were it not for Kony 2012, much of the above would not have happened.  The LRA would probably still be attacking remote communities, but the U.S. would be implementing its existing strategy more successfully.  U.S. advisors would not have prematurely withdrawn as Kony 2012 had said, but would have continued implementing the Obama administration’s sixteen-month-old counter-LRA strategy according to a timetable that made strategic sense.  They would not have felt pressured, during an election year, to “bring Kony to justice in 2012”4 before the necessary preconditions, capacities, and safeguards could be developed.  They would have stuck to a timetable which would have been more slow and uneven, and which would have faced many of the same challenges as the timetable that was implemented, but would have nonetheless made the world a better place than it is now.

January 1, 2013, is a much worse day than January 1, 2012, at least in part because of Kony 2012.

The two main sources from which I stole much of the above are, in this order:

  1. The joint statement issued by Enough and Resolve in response to Operation Lightning Thunder, the “joint military operation against the [LRA] launched in mid-December [2008] with the support of the United States,” which “backfired,” and
  2. The many warnings, provisos, and recommendations contained in the policy paper used to justify the policy position of Kony 2012.

Well-informed readers might counter that the above scenario is highly unlikely, because the situation on the ground and the policy response today are much different today from what they were in 2008-2009.  And I would agree.  Yes, the LRA today is much weaker, and yes, the policy position of Kony 2012 and the President’s strategy for countering the LRA are deliberately designed to correct for past failures: it’s been years in the making, is based on many interviews with experts and LRA-affected individuals, was broadly developed, and there is a new, comprehensive focus on protecting civilians, apprehending LRA leadership, encouraging defection and disarmament, deploying previously unused resources, sharing intelligence, coordinating from the local to the international level, and making a long-term commitment to recovery, development, and even democracy.  The level of detail and painstaking research that went into formulating that strategy is both impressive and underappreciated by Kony 2012’s critics.

Yet however unlikely, I don’t think the worst scenario as I’ve described it is implausible.  The policy position of Kony 2012 is not fail-safe, and I think its authors would agree with that.1  Hence all of the criticism, respectful disagreement, and often not-so-respectful (and sometimes uninformed2) disagreement coming from ordinary Ugandansquite a few Ugandan (and non-Ugandanjournalists and writers, former child soldiers and abductees,5 numerous seasoned foreign aid workers, religious leaders, philanthropists, human rights lawyers, lots and lots and lots and lots of experienced researchers, and a surprising number of PhD students.6

Because it is possible, and because it is so horrible — in many ways — the worst case scenario as I’ve described it deserves to be carefully considered by supporters and critics of Kony 2012 alike.

Soon, I’ll make my own (useless) prediction about what the impact of the campaign might be.Here’s a not-so-surprising spoiler: I don’t really know what the campaign’s impact will be, and I don’t think anyone ever will, but it will probably be both better than the worst case, and worse than the best case.  I’ll get into the details later.  My prediction will also come with some totally unwarranted advice for IC supporters, IC critics, and the management at Invisible Children, in the opinion of one humble former-non-profit-manager-turned-grad-student.  Enjoy.


1  I should have mentioned in the original post that the policy of Kony 2012 and the policy recommended by the paper are not identical.  This is crucially important, and I’ll delve more into this in a future post.

2  Adam Finck, who leads some of IC’s on-the-ground programs (herehere, and here), had this to say about IC’s critics: “In their rush to point out Invisible Children’s oversimplification of the LRA, the critics made an error — an oversimplification of Invisible Children itself.”  This is true, but many supporters did the same thing, hence the need for everybody to carefully consider both the best and worst-case scenarios.

3  Actually this has already happened — see news reports hereherehere, and here. — so I can’t really blame this on the Kony 2012 campaign.  I only bring it up here as a poignant illustration of the trade-off between pressuring Joseph Kony and pressuring Museveni, Kabila, and other regional leaders.

4  This is the language used on the Kony 2012 website, but nearly identical language is used in the campaign’s letter to President Obama, the campaign’s movie, Invisible Children’s blog, and elsewhere.  The point is that this is a very “deliberate” campaign to arrest Joseph Kony in 2012.

5  One former abductee had this to say: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass [who] suffers.”

6  …and whoever Nick Kristof is referring to as “armchair critics.”