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Opinion: Stopping the LRA is not all about Kony

The LRA’s survival is just as much a symptom of state failure.

Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Major General Joseph Kony, holds his daughter, Lacot, and son, Opiyo, at peace negotiations between the LRA and Ugandan religious and cultural leaders in Ri-Kwangba, southern Sudan, Nov. 30, 2008. (Africa24 Media/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — “I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge,” said Hillary Clinton in February, dismayed and perplexed at why the Lord’s Resistance Army is still spilling blood on the soil of central Africa. The question troubles many a sympathetic soul.

It is more than 20 years since Joseph Kony first inspired some ethnic Acholis to take up arms against the Ugandan government. Now, a multi-national band of guerrillas, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is killing, mutilating and abducting unprotected civilians in three central African countries. It is high time to look carefully at what makes the LRA tick and think of new ways to end this sad saga.

Talking did not work. Throughout the two-year negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, it is doubtful whether Kony or the Ugandan government were ever committed to finding a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution. The LRA was happy to play ball and in return have supplies delivered to the camp gates in Garamba Park, northeastern Congo.

All the while, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was itching to unleash his army on Kony again. The latter’s refusal to sign the final agreement was the green light Museveni had been waiting for. With the hard-won consent of his Congolese and Sudanese neighbors, Museveni, with substantial U.S. support, launched Operation Lightning Thunder in December 2008.

A surprise airstrike on Kony’s camp was supposed to be the grand finale with Museveni’s son leading a special forces clean-up. But leaked intelligence lost them the element of surprise, and the crack troops were too late to stop Kony and his top commanders melting into the forest.

The attack did little more than kick the hornet’s nest. Kony’s men massacred nearly 900 civilians in four weeks as a bloody show of strength. Then, his small, highly mobile squads spread out north and west in the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In tried-and-tested fashion they are now pillaging villages and collecting new recruits. A traumatic concoction of violence and “magic” keeps frightened children in line.

Unintentionally, the Ugandan army has found itself waging a drawn-out campaign of attrition over a vast area at immense cost. The Americans seem happy to foot the bill, but for how long? After over a year, the army’s claims that the LRA is at death’s door ring increasingly hollow.