KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo—When Baudouine Kinalinjenga was just 12 years old, Joseph Kony's soldiers came for her. Six men from his Lord's Resistance Army emerged from the forest with machetes and Kalashnikovs and entered her remote hut in the night. She was held for five months of daily beatings and regular rape at the hands of a rebel commander nearly four times her age. At one point, she was led into the darkness, given a club and a flashlight, and told to crush the skull of a man unfortunate enough to have stumbled across the rebels in the bush. "They said to do whatever I was told or the same would be done to me," the Congo native recalls now.
For the last two decades, Kony, a former altar boy who claims he follows the commands of spirits he alone can hear, has led a campaign of unfathomable brutality, massacring civilians and slicing the lips and ears off of women in a twisted effort to show the Ugandan government's inability to protect its people. His forces kidnapped and forced into sexual and military slavery an estimated 60,000 children like Kinalinjenga and drove 2 million of Uganda's ethnic Acholi people from their homes. Kony's vague goal is to overthrow Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and impose the Ten Commandments as the law of the land. Mostly, however, he just continues to drift from place to place like a toxic smoke, vanishing every time the international community or Ugandan troops get too close. In August, he's believed to have slipped into south Darfur, Sudan, an area controlled by his former benefactor, Khartoum. Now, he may be heading back to Congo, where peacekeepers are bracing for what they fear may be a third consecutive year of Christmas massacres by the LRA.
But in recent weeks in Washington, unexpected momentum has been building against Africa's longest-running rebellion: President Barack Obama sent Congress a new strategy last month outlining how America will finally stop the LRA after 20 years of failed efforts. The strategy vows to "apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders" and to promote the defection of his remaining fighters, bolster civilian protection, and increase humanitarian support. America's new tough stance is commendable -- but it follows years of catastrophic neglect. At this point, Obama may be too late to make up for past presidents' repeated failure to break free of encumbering alliances and bring Kony and his men to justice.
In its early years, the LRA was just one of several rebellions in Uganda's north, and Kony was more mystical crusader than maniacal warlord. But he soon joined his cause to regional power games, signing onto Khartoum's payroll in the mid-1990s to fight against Sudan's southern rebels in the decades-running north-south civil war, and gained a deserved reputation for extreme brutality.
During those years, the United States fell into mutual back-scratching with the Ugandan government. In President Yoweri Museveni, Washington found a frontline ally against Islamic expansionism and a willing conduit of aid for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the southern rebel group that the United States was backing and against which Kony was fighting. U.S. support for Museveni succeeded in boosting south Sudan. But it did more harm than good in Uganda itself.
Museveni learned very quickly that more was to be gained from fighting the LRA than from defeating them. Using Kony as a bogeyman and Washington's political cover as a guise, he began to channel more and more of his largely donor-funded budget toward the ultimate guarantor of his power -- the army. Over the objections of the International Monetary Fund, Uganda's defense spending has ballooned from nearly $82 million in 1992 to around $340 million in 2009. These days, Museveni's ostensibly democratic government is looking less and less so. Though a multiparty system was restored in 2005 after a 19-year ban, the constitution was changed the same year to remove presidential term limits and allow Museveni to seek reelection indefinitely. Opposition members accused him of intimidation and vote-rigging in an election in 2006. And rights groups say he strong arms the press to stifle criticism.
The LRA bonanza corrupted the military, funding kickbacks and corrupt arms deals. Museveni's top commanders skimmed money from the pot by purchasing obsolete equipment at exorbitant prices and inflating budgets with the salaries of non-existent soldiers. In February 2002, for example, as Ugandan troops prepared to invade Sudan to go after Kony, the military registers listed 7,200 soldiers when in fact the army's northern-based 4th Division had only 2,400. During the ensuing offensive, as the LRA once again slinked away, the army chopped down southern Sudanese teak forests, shipping the valuable timber back to Uganda.
Throughout the years, the United States willfully turned a blind eye to the kind of corrupt double-dealing and genuine incompetence that allowed Kony and his band to slip the noose time and time again. In exchange, America got a valuable proxy force in Africa. Ugandan peacekeepers make up more than half of the AU Mission in Somalia, where Washington sees the growing influence of Islamist extremist group al Shabab as a real threat to its own security.
In December 2008, President George W. Bush backed a daring Ugandan military strike on LRA bases in Congo's remote Garamba National Park just weeks before he left office. When the day came, however, the Ugandan military -- working under U.S. supervision -- used loud attack helicopters to perform what was meant to be a secret ambush and never delivered a promised batch of ground troops. LRA defectors said in recent interviews that Kony had been tipped off and fled before the attack even started.
The Garamba strike was a disaster of epic proportions. Dispersed but unscathed, the LRA spread even farther from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moving into the lawless frontiers of the Central African Republic (CAR) and back into Sudan, and bringing their vicious tactics with them. "The last two years have been among the bloodiest in their history," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Since 2008, Kony's men have massacred some 2,300 civilians and abducted over 3,000 more in a remote area straddling the borders of the Congo, southern Sudan, and CAR. More than 400,000 villagers have fled their homes there. In 2010 alone, Kony's fighters have so far led more than 240 deadly attacks.
Still, the Ugandan army declared the Garamba operation a success, and it is no wonder why. So long as the conflict is outside Uganda's borders, Museveni can count it as a win. He's expected to win reelection in February, extending his hold on power to a full three decades. In the north, where just 16 percent voted for him in 2006, he's finally able to campaign as the people's protector, a tactic that always won him votes in the south.
Back in Washington, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold raised concern about what had happened. "Thus far, this operation has resulted in the worst-case scenario: It has failed to stop the LRA, while spurring the rebels to intensify their attacks against civilians," he said in a statement to the Senate in March 2009. Feingold helped draft a bill that required the United States to work toward the end of the LRA and mandated that the White House come up with an anti-LRA strategy. The bill found 65 co-sponsors in the Senate and cleared both houses with ease.
But now that the strategy has been written and the United States is supposedly about to defeat Kony for good, the outlook is bleaker than ever. The strategy promises "enhanced integrated logistical, operational, and intelligence assistance in support of regional and multilateral partners." A quick look at those potential partners doesn't inspire optimism: They include an astoundingly dysfunctional Congolese army, a Central African military of just a few thousand troops already deployed against its own domestic rebellions, and a southern Sudanese force that was not long ago a rebel army. None of these forces is up to the task of hunting the LRA. Nor are the U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Congo and the CAR any better positioned for the task. The strategy suggests improving the blue helmets' ability to protect civilians, which may help a bit. Still, both missions are already in over their heads just trying to protect civilians. One U.N. official in Congo called Obama's plan for annihilating the LRA "mission impossible."
Back on Capitol Hill, matters don't look promising either. Any real action would need to be funded by Congress, and the law's two primary backers, Feingold and Republican Sen. Samuel Brownback, are leaving the Senate -- Brownback to become governor of Kansas and Feingold as a victim of the Tea Party revolution. In any case, with Republicans controlling the House and keeping a firm boot on the neck of Senate Democrats, it's unlikely that discretionary spending for any such humanitarian campaign will be available soon.
In the end, America's rare and noble commitment to erase the LRA from the earth will likely be no better than the years of half-measures that preceded it. Most of the military assistance under the new strategy will go to the Ugandan army. In two years of operations, the $23 million in U.S. support has paid for the killing and capturing of a mere 23 LRA officers, according to interviews with U.N. officials. Continuing that level of support, or even increasing it, would allow for the Ugandan operations to carry on, keeping the LRA threat away from Uganda's own borders but falling far short of what's needed to finish Kony off.
During a recent campaign stop in the Acholi town of Aworo, Museveni told the unenthusiastic crowd, "In the end we defeated the terrorist Kony.... He thought Garamba was heaven. We went to Garamba, we fought him there. He went to Central African Republic, so we shall fight him there. That's how we got peace here." One of the scores of party activists being bused around the country to support the president held aloft a yellow sign: "We Don't Want Change."
Joe Bavier is editing an oral history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bavier reported this story with support from the Pulitzer Center.