PAMBAYAMBA, Central African Republic — Miles of tangled jungle punctuated by an occasional dirt trail slipped beneath the landing struts of the Bell helicopter. Nothing seemed to stir below. No people. Few animals save for some cows here and there. Three hours into the flight from Obo, a small town in the Central African Republic, the brown, thatch-roofed huts of a village appeared out of the jungle. With a sharp bank, the helicopter circled the village before setting down nearby. Climbing out, seven U.S. Special Forces soldiers unloaded gear as a small crowd gathered to greet them.
The team was just beginning a three-day mission to search for fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for war crimes, especially kidnapping children, in the area. Okot George Odek, an LRA commander, turned himself in at the village a few months before the team’s March visit.
Bobby, the team sergeant, walked over to Jean Baptiste, the village’s leader, as the helicopter took off to collect the mission’s Ugandan soldiers. “Thanks for having us back,” said Bobby, whose last name, along with those of his fellow U.S. troops, was withheld for security as a condition of a journalist’s embedding on the mission. “How’s it going?”
Bobby had been to the village, Pambayamba, before. A few weeks earlier, he and several Ugandan soldiers picked up a trio of LRA defectors and took them back to Obo, where they entered a reintegration program run by NGOs. Baptiste, lean and dressed in a loose-fitting hooded robe, was a contrast to Bobby’s military uniform, broad chest, and thick arms. He guided the American to a few chairs placed under the shade of a mango tree.
“We’re afraid of the LRA,” Baptiste said in French through an interpreter. “I am sure one day they will come back.”
Baptiste had reason to fear the LRA. For decades, LRA fighters have been appearing out of the dense forest to loot villages and kidnap children. Just in 2016, almost 300 children have been abducted in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a report by the American nonprofit Invisible Children, which tracks the LRA. The boys are indoctrinated into believing Kony has supernatural powers and are forced to fight and murder in his name. The girls are conscripted into sexual slavery. Fighters sometimes cut off the lips and ears of their victims. In October 2005, the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Kony for crimes against humanity.
The group’s terrorizing of the region prompted the African Union in 2011 to create a regional task force to capture Kony. For the last five years, 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with troops from Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo have hunted the leader in an area the size of California. What was once an organized militia fighting Uganda’s government has devolved over the last several years into splintered bands totaling no more than a few hundred and operating with little to no command and control from their founder, Joseph Kony.
The mission is part of a broader U.S. effort to identify and train partners to counter the emerging threats across Africa. The United States Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, established in 2007, leads the effort. Over the last 25 years, even as the continent has experienced tremendous economic and population growth, new drivers of instability have spread with the rise of al-Qaida’s affiliate al-Shabab in Somalia, the Islamic State in Libya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, militias financed by illegal mining in the continent’s geographic center, and criminal networks dealing in ivory from Mozambique to Togo.
American military are now training a Nigerian Army battalion to fight Boko Haram, according to The New York Times. In Cameroon, American drones track Boko Haram and provide imagery to a regional task force of troops from Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad. U.S. forces train soldiers in Chad. A unit of almost 200 Marines was moved from Spain to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily in 2014 to act as a rapid reaction force for North Africa after the storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Trainers are deployed to Kenya to counter terrorist groups in Somalia, and AFRICOM holds annual exercises for militaries in North and West Africa on counterterrorism and humanitarian operations. On May 2, the U.S. and Senegal signed a Defense Cooperation agreement that will ease deployment of U.S. forces to the country in response to humanitarian or security needs.
The mission in the Central African Republic is to capture Kony. On the surface, it looks a lot like combing through the jungle looking for rebel leaders. But the hunt for Kony, experts, officials, and the U.S. troops themselves say, is part of the broader effort in Africa. Each day Ugandan and American soldiers spend in the bush together builds a bond and a rapport: The Ugandans get to see a professional army doing its job, and the Americans get to assess their partner’s fitness for particular roles—intelligence gathering, force protection, counterterrorism, or others. Interacting with locals in a region with little contact with government and less infrastructure, moreover, the U.S. is making friends by providing medical care and the prospect of protection. The mission could be a peek into the American military’s future in the region as it and its allies try to preempt the spread of the decentralized multitude of threats on the continent.
For the Ugandans, it is a lot simpler. “Kony is Ugandan,” said Capt. Adam Aloro, who commanded the Uganda People’s Defence Force troops working with Bobby’s team. “We came to fight the LRA so [the Central African Republic] can be peaceful. We’re Africans. We need to help each other. We want Africa to be at peace.”
Under the mango tree, Baptiste slid a packet of folded paper out of his red notebook and handed it to Bobby. In impeccable handwriting, Baptiste and his fellow residents, subsistence farmers and miners, were requesting UPDF soldiers be sent to live in their village. For years, the Central African Republic has seen little governance. The country spiraled into chaos in 2012 when Muslim rebels overthrew the government, starting a civil war that killed thousands and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. The hope was that elections in 2016 would bring stability, but with little infrastructure and a weak economy, it was unlikely, Baptiste knew, that Central African Republic soldiers could protect him from the LRA.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Bobby said, tucking the sheet with Baptiste’s request into his cargo pocket. “But I’ll pass it to Captain Adam.”
As if on cue, the helicopter returned with four UPDF soldiers led by Aloro. A slight man with skin darkened by the sun and a muscular frame hardened by the bush, Aloro walked into the shade of the mango tree. After serving a year with the African Union mission to Somalia, he had arrived in the country in January for a three-year tour hunting Kony’s troops.
Bobby greeted Aloro with a handshake and a hug. He handed the paper with the village’s request to the captain, who quietly read the pages before thanking Baptiste and assuring him he’d send the request up his chain of command.
Although the UPDF was authorized by the African Union to operate out of Obo in the hunt for Kony, permanently stationing troops in the forest villages was another matter. (Col. Richard Otto, the African Union task force commander, said later that he’d like to base troops in villages in areas near Pambayamba but needed additional soldiers.)
Baptiste told the soldiers that a local hunter had encountered a group of LRA fighters about 15 kilometers from the village a few days earlier. The hunter, named Assad, had killed a pair of wild pigs and was taking them back to Pambayamba when he ran into the fighters.
“How long can they survive on that?” Bobby asked.
The villagers debated for a minute before agreeing on five days.
“Do you think they are still over there?” Bobby asked Baptiste.
“Yes,” came the reply.
Two villagers were sent to bring Assad to the meeting.
When Assad arrived he was ushered into the middle of the circle. He squatted at the base of the tree and started to tell Bobby and Aloro what happened. He was a short man, dressed in a white robe and rubber flip-flops. As he talked, his gaze wandered out into the village as if he were pulling the details of the story from the recesses of his brain.
In March, photographer Andrew Craft and reporter Kevin Maurer embedded with U.S. Special Forces troops partnering with the Uganda People’s Defence Force to search for indicted war criminal Joseph Kony in the Central African Republic.
Assad was in the bush when he saw the two pigs. He shot both of them with a homemade shotgun and was preparing to bring the meat back to the village when a couple of LRA fighters in tattered camouflage uniforms stopped him. They had AK-47s and took him to a clearing, where the fighters reconnoitered with the rest of their group. There were seven fighters and two women. They made Assad sit at the edge of the clearing while they butchered the pigs and cooked the meat.
“How long was he with them?” Bobby asked.
Assad said he was picked up near dusk and held until dawn. In the morning, they picked up the leftover meat and disappeared into the jungle.
“What did they talk about? Hell, they held him for about 10 hours.”
The LRA fighters told Assad they weren’t going to hurt him. They promised to release him in the morning and avoid the village.
“What specifically were they talking about? What did you hear them talk about?”
Assad just shook his head. He didn’t speak their language and could barely hear what they were saying.
“It’s so easy for [the villagers] to run into them, but it is so hard for us to find them,” Bobby said. “It’s like a ghost for us.”
The charismatic Kony, one of the models for the character Idris Elba plays in Beasts of No Nation (produced in part by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media), founded the LRA in response to widespread atrocities committed by a rebel movement active in Uganda in the 1980s, the National Resistance Movement. Kony claimed to receive instructions from spirits to overthrow Uganda’s government and rule the country under the Ten Commandments. After the NRM took over the government, its leader, Yoweri Museveni, became president and the militias he led formed the UPDF. The LRA found safe havens in sparsely populated areas of Uganda’s troubled neighbors Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, themselves destabilized by conflict.
Kony and the LRA were unknown to most Americans until 2012, when Invisible Children released a 30-minute video about the guerrilla leader’s child soldiers and brutal practices. The group alleges the LRA has kidnapped more than 40,000 children and killed more than 70,000 civilians since the 1990s. The video went viral, receiving more than 100 million views on YouTube. Soon, Americans who couldn’t find Uganda on a map were demanding Kony’s capture.
Kony was already on the Pentagon’s radar. The LRA was declared a terrorist group after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and in 2008 President George W. Bush directed AFRICOM to provide aid and logistics to Uganda. Two years later, President Barack Obama signed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which made it U.S. policy to provide military and intelligence support in the hunt for Kony. In 2011, Obama asked Congress for authorization to send 100 U.S. troops to Central Africa.
Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a policy research center in Washington, D.C., said it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that a small number of highly trained U.S. troops could find Kony in 1,000 square miles of dense forest, but the deployment was as much about partnerships and the training and equipping of proxy armies in the region. Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia have each taken part in counterterrorism operations supported by American money and training, particularly in Somalia.
When the Americans joined the hunt in 2011, the African Union already had more than 5,000 troops—mostly UPDF—searching for Kony. Col. Mike Kabango, who led the force from October 2012 to January 2016, was skeptical of American involvement at first. Today Kabango is waiting to assume command of Ugandan soldiers slated for a peacekeeping mission in Burundi. Speaking at his home in late March, he said he remembered telling the Americans when they arrived that if all they were bringing was a few more troops, he didn’t think they added much to the fight.
But the Americans were able to help with intelligence. Kabango’s forces were always a step behind the LRA, but by managing the flow of intelligence, the task force was able to gain an understanding of the LRA’s operations.
“Where will the LRA be so we can make contact on our terms,” Kabango said. “That was what we needed to know. That is how the LRA beats us.” Nothing replaced human intelligence, he said. Only by being on the ground, in the villages and the bush, could the task force get a clear picture.
While Bobby met with Baptiste, Devin, the team’s medic, handed out medicine to villagers and checked on a sick baby. A few weeks before, Special Forces medics and doctors came to a nearby village to operate a pop-up clinic for a few days. Devin had helped treat a baby from Pambayamba who was developing regular infections as a result of a minor birth defect. The medics and the Army doctor removed a flap of skin in a brief surgical procedure.
Now, the baby’s mother handed him to Devin, who inspected the wound to make sure it was clean and healing properly. Ugandan medics assisted and translated. Devin wasn’t prepared to do more than give out over-the-counter remedies, but the effort wasn’t lost on the villagers, who crowded around him. After an hour, Devin was low on supplies and joined his teammates at their patrol base outside the village. But the short time helping the villagers likely went a long way toward cementing the locals’ cooperation while demonstrating for Aloro’s troops the importance of protecting civilian life—a key lesson, according to Bruton. Special Forces soldiers, she said, “impart skills in dealing with local communities that the Ugandan troops don’t have.”
At dawn the next day, the Americans, led by the Ugandans, headed for an intersection of several trails about 10 kilometers west of Pambayamba. On the map it is a short distance, but once on the ground the equation changes. The biggest obstacle facing the soldiers searching for Kony isn’t the LRA—it’s the terrain.
Much of the Central African Republic is an ungoverned no-man’s-land; geographers have determined Obo to be near the most remote spot on the continent. This area is home to the LRA. Some of Kony’s remaining fighters have been in the bush for more than two decades. LRA defectors have told American soldiers they saw their patrol in the bush—some soldiers even passed within a few feet of the fighters—and went undetected. The fighters just hide in the forest’s dense understory and wait for the patrol to pass.
To find the fighters, the American and Ugandan soldiers must fight through thick jungle, oppressive heat—and bees. Special Forces soldiers by nature don’t show a lot of fear. In their type-A world, confidence is worn like a cloak—except when the subject is the African bees. Bobby and the other soldiers told stories about being swarmed. Before starting the patrol, the team mixed up a homemade repellent with a pine scent that the Ugandan soldiers had shown them. At the faintest buzz, the spray bottle was out, and the jungle smelled like freshly mopped linoleum. The team would encounter few bees on this patrol.
With the morning sun just sneaking above the horizon, Aloro led the patrol into the bush. Any signs of human life were quickly lost in a maze of trees and thick vines. The patrol kept a steady pace up and down the steep banks of a creek skirting the trail. As the sun rose, the temperature followed. Soon the American soldiers’ shirts were soaked in sweat. The Ugandans seemed unfazed by the heat. Aloro nursed a single bottle of water, stopping to take a few sips during one of the breaks. The Americans, each carrying seven liters of water, struggled to stay hydrated. By the end of the patrol, most were out.
“This is their backyard,” Bobby said. “They are totally proficient on bush tactics. This is what they’ve been doing for decades. It would be foolish on my part not to lean on that experience.”
Bobby said the Kony mission was a return to Special Forces roots. Despite their simplified Hollywood image as door-kicking commandos, the Army’s Special Operations teams were originally conceived to work by, with, and through local forces in a mutually reinforcing collaboration—the Americans gained local knowledge, and the host nation’s military gained professionalization. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the teams are tied to their bases and vehicles, but in Central Africa, they must patrol on foot. Land navigation and living in the field are essential skills. While the Americans demonstrated the importance of strong local relations, the Ugandans took the point on patrols and advised where to set up bases. The Americans clearly deferred to the Ugandans’ experience as the troops moved through the bush.
After a couple of hours, the soldiers set up camp in a cluster of rocks a few hundred yards away from a “main road”—really little more than a foot path— villagers used to travel to the mines. An hour after base was set, the patrol split up; Aloro and one of his soldiers led Dan, the U.S. team’s weapons sergeant, to a collection of mines down by a small creek. Climbing up over the bank, Dan and Aloro were greeted by a chorus of thank-yous. The workers seemed glad to see UPDF soldiers.
The first mine consisted of several waist-deep holes filled with water that rose to the miners’ calves. About 10 men and women stood in the puddles panning dirt and rocks in search of gold specks. A girl of about four wandered between the holes as her mother worked, bent at the waist with a pan in the water. The girl looked at Aloro suspiciously before leaping onto her mother’s back, clinging to her dress as the mother tossed dirt and muddy water to the side and scooped up a new panful to sift.
The other workers gathered around Dan and Aloro, who asked about LRA fighters in the area. None had been at this mine in a long time, they said. As the soldiers left, all of the miners stopped to shake their hands and thank them for coming.
“We’re always asking for them” to work with, Bobby said about Aloro’s men. “These guys are top-notch. They are really good ambassadors.”
But Paul Ronan, project director of The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, which tracks the LRA, said not to read too much into the reaction of the villagers. The UPDF gets mixed reviews.
“People see a tangible benefit of having the UPDF there because they are protecting the one village, and the people living there are appreciative of that,” Ronan said. “To other villages without UPDF, people are ambiguous or suspicious because they don’t get any security and get attacked by the LRA.”
A mile up the river was a diamond mine. Unlike the gold mine, the holes here were wide and deep. A pump perched on the edge of the hold sucked out the water as the miners dug deeper.
The soldiers asked about LRA fighters in the area. The diamond miners said fighters showed up in January seeking supplies. They stole shoes and some money before disappearing into the bush.
“How many fighters?” Dan asked.
“Four,” one miner said. “Young guys.”
Aloro made note of the information and, back at camp later, met with Bobby to go over what he had gathered. They each sat on a rock and studied the map, talking about possible LRA routes to the mines. Bobby and his team had experience with local units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those “partnerships” often meant the Americans telling the locals what to do. Many Iraqi and Afghan soldiers often lacked initiative and needed to be ordered to perform even simple tasks like pulling security. Aloro’s troops didn’t need to be prompted to do anything.
AFRICOM, for now, has the luxury of focusing on peacekeeping rather than on war fighting. The LRA mission is one of its highest-profile examples of advising local forces, gathering intelligence, and building partnerships, but Gen. David M. Rodriguez, AFRICOM’s commander, questioned the wisdom of the Kony mission in an interview for Stars and Stripes in April. He told the newspaper it wasn’t important strategically.
“You have a great partner and we do things with them even though it might not make a difference strategy wise, you know, because it is easy,” he said. “And then other places where we really need to work are hard. So we have to figure out how to change that.”
Ugandan military officials told Foreign Policy the United States has provided $170 million per year in military cooperation and assistance since 9/11. Even with February’s corrupt reelection of Museveni, only Uganda has any semblance of stability in the immediate region. Experts wonder if training and equipping armies in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia to handle threats like al-Shabab and Kony are short-term fixes that might backfire if not properly managed over the long term, as happened with mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan who turned into al-Qaida after the U.S. broke off relations in the wake of the USSR’s withdrawal. To be sure, in Uganda the U.S. was aiding the same leader who had committed atrocities two decades ago and showed little interest in democratic governance today.
“In the long term, we are arming a dictator,” Bruton said about Museveni. “We’ve created this proxy force led by an undemocratic strongman who is getting older and stranger. It is really anybody’s guess what he is going to do with this army.”
Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said Uganda sees the hunt for Kony as a cash cow. “As long as [Uganda] has an active conflict against Kony, they get assistance,” Opalo said. “Without the hunt for Kony, you have a big military without [a mission and hence] no assistance and training.” The military, he added, has become a political tool for Museveni, who benefits most from the partnership. “He can run a military state without too much opposition coming from the donor community. The U.S. benefits by having someone doing its dirty work.”
American officers elsewhere in Central Africa acknowledged problems with the partner forces but argued that the soldiers who worked closely with American units performed better than those who didn’t. They stressed that the benefits of their engagement would spread to other parts of the host military and hopefully mushroom out into a force-wide change. Pulling out or cutting ties would only exacerbate the situation.
“We only get a vote if we’re here,” said a U.S. Special Forces officer.
“In the short term, I agree” with that assessment, Bruton said. “The chain of command is the problem.”
On the last morning, the team slowly packed up its hammocks and burned trash in a small fire. It was clear the LRA had moved on from the area, and Bobby and the team were headed back to the village to meet the helicopter.
Bobby split the team into two groups to scout the route. Knowing where the LRA wasn’t would eventually help the broader mission determine where it was.
“We’re going to deny them here,” Bobby said. “The more of these [patrols] we do, the more the picture builds.”
Aloro led one group through the bush. While the Americans focused on their GPS, Aloro seemed to navigate by memory. He led the patrol back through the jungle, crossing the creek and getting back to the village with time to spare. As the soldiers waited for the helicopter, talk turned to the next mission and the eventual capture of Kony. Bobby acknowledged Kony posed no threat to the United States but felt the mission was still important.
“It’s just human interest,” he said.
Richard Otto, Kabango’s replacement as commander of the African Union task force, said the LRA’s days were numbered. Kony and the group were in survival mode.
“Their will to fight is not there,” said Otto.
Both Otto and Kabango said once the leadership was captured or killed the group would dissolve. But Ronan disagreed that Kony’s capture would seal the victory.
“Getting Kony is a necessary but not sufficient metric to determine if this mission was a success,” Ronan said. “It will be real important to protect communities from remnants of the LRA.”
Ronan said the focus post-Kony would need to shift to demobilizing fighters if the LRA threat was to be extinguished for good.
What fills the vacuum might be the bigger threat. Whether missions like the hunt for Kony lay the groundwork for preempting such a threat remains to be seen.