Stopping One Man to Save Thousands

Co-authored with Maggie Fick, a policy assistant with the Enough Project.

If there was a serial mass murderer on the loose who had killed seven people in the United States, there would be a media firestorm, a panicked public, and subsequently, a galvanized response at the highest levels of government. In central Africa, there is a mass serial killer who has been responsible for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of kidnappings of children over the past two decades. For over 22 years, Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been on the loose in central Africa, leaving a trail of death, amputations, abductions, and terror. The world has paid scant attention to this deadly conflict and the mass murderer responsible for it all.

Concerned Americans, aside from having a moral urge to see an end to the LRA's cycle of death and destruction, should also have an economic interest in seeing this man removed from the battlefield. Ending the LRA's atrocities would dramatically reduce the enormous costs to U.S. taxpayers who year after year underwrite the humanitarian aid that flows to the survivors and the cost of peacekeepers patrolling parts of the Congo affected by the LRA's violence.

For more than two decades, the United States has attempted piecemeal solutions to addressing the scourge of the LRA. The U.S. government has given hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to squalid camps that were home to roughly two million people at the height of the LRA's brutal campaign in Uganda. The U.S. has also supported internationally-backed peace negotiations that have been spoiled by Kony, who has refused to come out of the bush and sign an agreement. And most recently, the Bush administration provided logistical and intelligence support to a joint military offensive by the Ugandan, southern Sudanese, and Congolese militaries against the LRA's new hideout in a remote Congolese national park, where the group moved two years ago after being routed out of northern Uganda. But the offensive failed and Joseph Kony remains at large. Since then, his rebels have killed over 1,000 people in northeastern Congo.

The good news is that there is a way to stop the world's longest running insurgency. But this will only be possible if the Obama administration chooses to commit to a strategy of apprehending or otherwise removing Kony from the battlefield. There are two examples that demonstrate why this strategy is well-reasoned: the long-running wars in Angola and Sierra Leone, both of which ended once insidious rebel leaders were taken out of commission.

In Angola, Jonas Savimbi, leader of the guerilla movement UNITA for over three decades, was killed in battle after perpetuating a bloody civil war in pursuit of his economic interests. Savimbi's practices--child soldiering, torture, amputations--closely resembled Kony's tactics, and his lack of remorse for the suffering and pain he caused his fellow Angolans mirrored Kony's disregard for human life and dignity.

Like Kony, Savimbi personally orchestrated the collapse of several internationally-supported peace agreements and ceasefires. Only when Savimbi died did the possibility of ending civil war in Angola emerge. Mere months after Savimbi's death, UNITA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Angolan government that allowed a fragile stability to begin to take root. Savimbi waged war for 25 years; his death was the catalyst that allowed this violence and suffering to end.

In Sierre Leone, Foday Sankoh was another charismatic leader whose so-called political aims were belied by his brutal methods. Sankoh instructed his men and boys to kill their family members and continue killing in the name of "revolution" by hacking off the limbs of victims. When Sankoh was arrested, the people of Sierra Leone were able to rebuild their ravaged country and develop peaceful democracy.

In the devastating conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone, in addition to United Nations peacekeeping missions, peace negotiations, and concerted pressure, the main factor that ended these countries' horrors was decapitating the rebel groups by removing their leaders. Although it appears that the death of Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka ended that devastating conflict, the Sri Lankan government's disregard for civilians was so profound that many are now calling for a war crimes investigation. Civilian protection must be front and center in any operation to end the LRA threat.

Such protection will help ensure that collateral damage is kept to a minimum and the LRA cannot exact revenge on civilians. Doing nothing, however, would be even more dangerous for civilians continuing to face the unabated predations of the LRA.

A responsible strategy for the Obama administration must be aimed at ending the scourge of the LRA, not simply managing the consequences of its destruction in central Africa. This strategy will only succeed only if it is focused on one crucial goal: apprehending or otherwise removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield forever.