Invisible Children’s Military Disconnect

It seems like a lot of other people had very important criticisms regarding that video. We’re a bit overwhelmed with the response to the comments I made yesterday, and it has now displaced llamas and running shoes (no, really) as the top article on a blog about war.

Invisible Children, for their part, have offered a rebuttal.

There are plenty of people out there who can offer better advice than I can on NGO governance structures, the ins and outs of Northern Uganda and so on. One of the point I was trying to make yesterday was that IC appeared to have a deficit in understanding regarding military affairs, and their campaign was therefore bloody dangerous.

Thankfully, IC have also published their letter to Obama, and outlined just how poor an understanding of military matters that they have. For a backgrounder, read this Foreign Affairs piece, it’s the best single-article precis of the issues at hand. This article is essentially an extension of my post yesterday – I’m not a development specialist, I don’t claim to have the answers to ‘the problem’ and I’m pretty sure that my definition of ‘the problem’ will differ from the people that it directly affects. Instead, this is a set of things that concerns me, because the Kony campaign is in full swing. By all means, support it (free country, etc), but people should be aware of the wider issues. For me, I’m concerned with military bits and bobs.

In the first paragraph, IC refer to the LRA operating in “remote and ungoverned areas.” As perhaps any geographer, anthropologist, sociologist or other person that studies human beings, there is no such thing as an “ungoverned area.” Humans create governance structures whereever they interact with one another, those governance structures can be brutal, unfair, even lethal, but they still exist. ‘Ungoverned space’ is security-speak for “A state doesn’t control it” and the fact that they’re even thinking in those terms raises a red-flag for where the rest of the letter is going.

The next interesting paragraph is quite jaw dropping in its assumptions:

However, we fear that unless existing U.S. efforts are further expanded, your strategy may not succeed.

Okay. Cards on the table – expand existing U.S. efforts (the military advisors).

The Ugandan and other regional militaries pursuing LRA commanders and groups continue to face daunting challenges. Their operations are hamstrung by flagging political will, weak cross-border coordination, the absence of tactical airlift, and the withdrawal of more than half of the Ugandan troops initially deployed to the field.

This entire segment is a straw man argument. Let’s look at potential solutions to those problems:

1) Flagging political will – What, exactly, will America do about the choices of these countries not to pursue the LRA? Could it be that a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo might have other problems? Or Uganda? Or South Sudan? Depicting this as a ‘problem’ indicates that it needs to be ‘solved.’ By writing to the President of the United States, I assume that IC wants Obama to lean on Uganda et al to make Joseph kony public enemy number one, irrespective of the problems that they might have assessed within their own country.

2) Weak cross border coordination – I don’t know where to begin with this, so I turned to Google Maps for quick visual reference:

Otherwise known as "big"

and for comparison: South Carolina.

The two maps are to scale. What IC are talking about is trying to get four states, who all have their own internal problems, to assert control over a region roughly the size of South Carolina. How many people are in there? I don’t know. How many ongoing conflicts and local issues would such an effort effect? I don’t know. My guesstimate answer to both would be “lots”. The point is, IC don’t know either, and they’re the ones asking the President of the United States to take action in the area. I’m not a development worker, but as a human being with a brain, my first inclination would be to sit down, shut up and listen to the people living there before embarking on a half-baked crusade, rather than imposing my own narrative of what the biggest problem is, and what needs to be done first. Talking of crusades…

3) ‘Tactical airlift’ – I personally thought Peter Singer had it right in ‘Taking George W. Bush Seriously‘, so I’ll do the same to IC on this point. Let us suppose that the panacea of tactical airlift will somehow enable the four states to hunt down Kony. Okay. Now let’s look at the logistics. Tactical airlift means planes and helicopters. That means runways, bases, pilots and mechanics. Where are they going to go? Are any of the four states offering to let the US build a base on their turf? No? Thought not. For some reason, maybe to do with the history of colonialism and decolonisation, these states happen to be quite sensitive to things like that. Can you blame them? Not really. Even if, if, one of those states was to let America (or whoever) build a base, then that base has to be supplied, it will have a logistics chain to keep it operational while the ‘tactical airlift’ does its magic. That means an influx of tens of millions of dollars into whichever local economies happen to be nearby. Normally people say “Hey, money, good thing, right?” but pumping extremely large sums of money into an economy, particularly one that might be affected by conflict is going to destabilise that region. People will find better paid work supporting a military facility than building a sustainable economy of their own. Think of dumping a big military base in the middle of a warzone as akin to striking oil. So your tactical airlift takes Kony out, and now your big base has destabilised half a country. Great job. Not quite as pyhrric as Team America: World Police, but still.

As for:

Moreover, bureaucratic inertia and cuts in the U.S. foreign assistance budget have drastically limited the scope of non-military aspects of the strategy’s implementation, which are equally important to the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.

Hey, I’ll give IC a pass on that bit. Fair play. But back to the nuts and more nuts of IC intervention. I will skip the bit about advisors and the threat the LRA poses, what with most informed observers stating that the LRA isn’t much of a threat anymore. Instead, let’s look at this gem:

In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, $35 million was authorized to strengthen regional efforts to protect civilians and pursue top LRA commanders. These funds should be used to provide enhanced mobility, intelligence, and other support for ongoing operations, though it is crucial that any beneficiaries be monitored closely and held accountable for abuses committed against the civilian population or any other illicit activities.

If you take a second look at the NDAA you will find that $35 million doesn’t buy a hell of a lot. I think it is what the defence industry would refer to as ‘chump change’. Again, I wonder if anyone at IC has any idea about the costs of military equipment and operations. Let’s think about providing ‘enhanced mobility’ for a second. Obviously they can’t be talking about tactical airlift, since planes cost a hell of a lot more to run than $35 million. So I’ll be kind, and think that they’re referring to trucks or something. As pointed out before, that means either running it yourself (requirements: base, troop deployments, logistics) or giving it to a local state. I consider the second option to be dangerous, since it means arming state governments to go after one person, with little control over what they do with the equipment. Is the $35 million going to include monitoring? How is America going to monitor the use of its equipment in another country halfway around the world? What happens if that country does something bad with it against civilians, or uses it against opposing factions within the country? The Obama strategy of advisors is pretty good in my books because it does not involve these technology transfers. If someone starts slaughtering civilians, they can jump on a plane and fly away.

The next throwaway word was ‘intelligence’. Sounds great, huh? Let’s improve our intelligence support to their operations. Two problems: human intelligence collection and ISR capabilities (spy planes, to the lay readers). Human intelligence collection means probably starting from scratch and sending the CIA (or whoever) deep into an area of the world where they probably don’t have much backup. Let’s just say that’s a total non-starter for $35 million. ISR capabilities means planes or drones. Both of those require runways and… we’re straight back to the ‘tactical airlift’ problem.

Gem three:

Congress also directed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that up to $10 million be used for programs that provide early warning to communities vulnerable to LRA attacks, help LRA abductees escape peacefully, and enhance telecommunications and road infrastructure in affected areas. The absence of basic infrastructure is key to the LRA’s ability to perpetrate mass atrocities. As such, it is vital that your Administration utilize the full $10 million to expand existing efforts in these areas, which currently benefit only a small fraction of the affected population. Programs to increase LRA defections – such as direct outreach to LRA commanders, expanded radio programming, aerial leafleting, the establishment of safe zones for surrender, and community sensitization – are a particularly important and underutilized means of reducing the LRA’s capacity to attack civilians. In Central African Republic (CAR), where most LRA commanders are currently located, no such efforts exist; U.S. military advisors are uniquely positioned to help expand these activities in CAR.

This paragraph is so wide-eyed and half-baked that… Well, let’s start with infrastructure. Let’s look at the operational area again, and compare it to the size of South Carolina. Now let’s build basic infrastructure to cover the entire area for $10 million. If this were remotely possible, or feasible, half the NGOs in the world would be out of business. I’m all for advocacy, but in publishing this letter, it seems like IC is making the argument that this is a possibility. It isn’t. If the lack of infrastructure is key to the LRA’s threat, then maybe IC should be arguing for more cash. Otherwise it sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now let’s talk about safe zones. What makes a safe zone a safe zone? The ability and inclination to use sufficient force to deter or defeat anyone that wants to make it unsafe. Otherwise, you get Srebrenica. To effectively secure a safe zone, you need an army, not 100 advisors. How, exactly, are US advisors therefore uniquely positioned to expand these activities in the CAR? If the CAR isn’t creating these safe zones, are the advisors meant to do so unilaterally? Are they meant to order the army of a sovereign state to do so? Persuade them? Again, it seems to me that IC either don’t know what soldiers do, don’t know what the limits of their use are, or they are being willingly deceptive. I give them the benefit of the doubt. In this instance – America cannot unilaterally create safe zones without deploying vast numbers of troops.

The reason I’m writing this all out is that these are the sort of nuts and bolts questions that need to be asked around any military deployment. War kills people, and the use of the military should be a matter of necessity. IC appear to perceive military force as some sort of silver bullet – pull the trigger, solve the problem, walk away like Clint Eastwood. It never has been, and it never will be. If IC want to see the expansion of US military activity, then they should say so. That should be the debate – “Dear Obama, please spend $X million dollars on these activities…”, if not, then they’re selling their supporters the idea that their campaign can change things that it can’t. More than that, if they are serious about selling a military intervention, then they need to be upfront about the risks as well as the possibilities. If they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to military matters then they should remember their medical ethics before arguing for military action – “First, do no harm.”


Edit – We don’t usually “sell” things on this blog but if you’re interested in these issues, the Department has a number of MA options including the Conflict, Security and Development MA led by Professor Mats Berdal, as well as the distance learning MA War in the Modern World.


29 thoughts on “Invisible Children’s Military Disconnect

  1. Pingback: Joseph Kony and Crowdsourced Intervention | Kings of War

  2. Tyler says:

    Hi, James…I am Entconomics from Reddit. I was the author of the “The Kony 2012 is a Fraud” post that reached Top 3 on Google search yesterday for “Kony 2012” and was removed and deleted by Mods. I started searching on google this morning and have seen my name and posting everywhere. I have a list of sources and theories on the whole Kony 2012 and more importantly – the thing people are forgetting – the Uganda Oil Reserves that have been recently discovered in Northern Uganda. I find it VERY peculiar this Kony 2012 video is now being released. Email me if you wanna discuss.

    • I would like to have your article, I want to translate it to spanish and make people in Mexico to think before getting sensitive.
      Kony Here in Mexico is moving a lot of people by the heart.

  3. There is no doubt that the KONY 2012 campaign has over-simplified a complicated problem, It is also mobilizing public opinion in ways that aren’t likely to have much useful effect. Much of what the KONY 2012 campaign wants is already being done with broad bipartisan support. More important, the key challenge is–as you correctly note–how very difficult it is to actually find and engage the LRA given local geography, politics, and capabilities.

    That being said, I think your critique rather exaggerates the interventionist position of IC and creates a strawperson of some of their policy recommendations.

    1) The US certainly has effect on the political will of regional states (that’s what diplomacy is all about).

    2) No one is suggesting cross-border coordination is easy, especially in areas where there is no agreement on the border. On the other hand, everyone recognizes it would be useful, and so one does what one can do to enhance it. Again, welcome to diplomacy, which is usually a process of incremental gains under difficult circumstances.

    3) “Tactical airlift” in this part of the world is often about dirt airstrips, aging contracted STOL and helicopters, and private contractors–not major airbases.

    I won’t get into the intel issues, but there are also useful things that can (and ARE) being done that don’t involve major investments. IC’s references to early warning, etc. note (which your analysis doesn’t) that these programs are already underway to some extent, and all that is being suggested is that the US contribute modestly.

    “Safe zones for surrender” does not involve protection of large civilian areas by armed troops, but has more to do with contact, approach, and disarmament protocols to assure that any LRA troops attempting to surrender are not accidentally attacked.

    Finally, IC is not calling for stepped up military deployments, but rather trying to create political pressure to assure that current efforts are sustained and that their resourcing is modestly increased.

    I write this with no particular brief for the Kony 2012 campaign. As previously noted, I think its viral appeal masks its limited utility. However, I am struck by the extent to which the critique you offer seems embedded in an inappropriate Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya paradigm that presumes external assistance need be big, expensive, and noisy. It doesn’t need to be. Indeed, it usually hasn’t been.

    In short, the “disconnect” here is not just about IC but also the failure of commentators to recognize that a lot of things actually get done in the world with a little FID, a few radios, some sanitized intel sharing, cash, and/or a couple of drunken Ukrainian pilots, an aging Mil-8, and duct tape.

    • Quintin says:

      …a little FID, a few radios, some sanitized intel sharing, cash, and/or a couple of drunken Ukrainian pilots, an aging Mil-8, and duct tape.

      The question is Rex: will that bring in Kony?

    • Hi Rex,

      Thanks for the comments! My intention isn’t to straw-man IC. The basic problem, as I see it, is that they haven’t thought through the ‘sharp end’ of their strategy, nor the possible ramifications of what happens if they succeed in changing US policy.

      I don’t see how Kony can be captured without significant military assistance, or intervention, at least not within the 2012 time-frame. Part of my post (which I should have made more prominent) is that it seems strange that IC would be putting pressure on Obama to keep up the little aid given, when it appears to me, as an outside observer, that the goals they have set themselves require a far greater investment.

      As I stated in my previous post, I want to see the guy in cuffs, and the fact that a lot more people now know about him is a very good thing. But, and this is a big but, whatever pressure and aid America applies/gives to accelerate Kony’s capture will have second and third order effects.

      In terms of intervention paradigms, yes, I’m thinking a little larger than you, but that’s because I don’t think a little FID will go far enough. Furthermore, giving governments cash and equipment is still problematic, whether it is ageing soviet gear, or brand new NATO-issue weaponry. Everything I’ve said about technology transfer still stands.

      I don’t want to ‘knock’ IC, as others have done on many different grounds, but it seems to me that they haven’t thought through this part. After all, what happens if Obama does put on the pressure, and nothing happens? Do we start punishing all four countries for not coming up with the goods? Is it right that we should be forcing a particular issue on these countries because of an internal, western, perception of what is right and wrong there?

      To end on a note of positivity: the best thing that IC could do right now is to take all of this publicity and put it to good use. They could easily assimilate round table discussions and create some TED-style website that would put local NGOs in contact with the world at large. What they need to do, in my opinion, is open up the debate a little – host an online conference where their detractors in the field offer up alternate solutions, where the local NGOs and local communities tell the world what they want to happen. The way I see it, what has happened, happened. They can’t unrelease that video (nor do I think they want to) but they can put the publicity to good use, and do some good for the people that they want to help (I 100% believe them when they say they only want to help the country). What the world at large needs is access to the people on the ground, conflicting opinions and the basis on which to form a viewpoint, not a single narrative.

    • I agree that the current c100 advisors and a few million in aid is not likely to terminate the LRA or Kony. However, it is more likely to do so than the status quo, and is more sustainable and practical than any substantial commitment of US resources. TIn other words, the probability of success needs to be weighed against the cost, and there are times that pursuing a Policy A (with small probability of success y and small cost z) is a better approach than Policy B (with improved probability 3y but greatly increased cost 5z). In this case, moreover, there are other advantages to the US (in terms of deepening mil-mil linkages) that probably offset cost z. After all, a primary purpose of AFRICOM is to deepen US contacts in the region

      Whatever the problems with KONY2012 campaign, I actually think they’ve got this part right—I don’t read them as at all calling for major military information, but rather mobilizing to sustain the Administration’s recent policy initiatives, plus some incremental additional resources.

      More generally, however, I do agree with your point that proponents of R2P type appeals have generally done a very poor job in assessing the military cost and feasibility of interventions, a problem particularly evident in much of the interventionist discussion on Syria.

  4. Pingback: KONY 2012 and Issues of Western Interventionism, Ctd. « The Red Notes

  5. There are no guarantees, but modest assistance certainly improves the odds (and has side-benefits for the US in terms of intel and mil-mil relations).

    No one is calling for a major commitment (not even KONY2012), nor would it be terribly useful.

    • Quintin says:


      The point being (as much as I can gather): the …little FID, a few radios, some sanitized intel sharing, cash, and/or a couple of drunken Ukrainian pilots, an aging Mil-8, and duct tape is pretty much already in place and had been for some time.

      If this is indeed so, then what IC (and with my current understanding, you as well) are saying, is this: “Keep on doing what we are doing, but could we now have Kony as well please?”

      From a military perspective, if the current ways are inefficient (due to a number of local factors), and the current means are insufficient, then the end of capturing Kony will remain an aspiration at best (as it had been for the past 23 years). Kony will successfully manage to evade us for another two decades. And that is as close a guarantee as can be given at this stage.

    • The decision to partner US SOF (and, indeed, likely embed them) was only taken in October, in large part to address the weaknesses evident during previous efforts.

      (Moreover, if the story is true about Kony being warned of OP Lightning Thunder by last-minute SIGINT of sloppy helo pilot chatter, the mission almost succeeded.)

    • Quintin says:

      Sorry Rex, but I cannot resist…

      …sloppy helo pilot chatter…

      Were these the drunken Ukrainian pilots ones?

  6. R. says:

    It’s worth pointing out that a covert operation has been tried before and it didn’t end so well.

    I came across this article from The Daily Beast: — it details what happened when the UN sent in US trained Guatemalans to hunt down Kony.

    The video portrays the governments looking for Kony as lazy or lacking in political will, but that’s unfair to the situation. Resources have been put into this area of the world for a better part of the decade, probably independent of IC’s lobbying efforts, in defeating the LRA.

    If something like a failed covert operation ended up as horrific as it did for highly trained fighters, I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to see a larger scale military operation.

  7. James Bean says:

    I spoke to a recently captured combatant the other day and a former-LRA-combatant-now-scout. They said they haven’t killed one LRA combatant so far; but two American advisors were winged in a firefight. This is after how long? Maybe, just perhaps, the military alternative some of us believe is the only way, doesn’t (and won’t) work. Foreign soldiers battling with malaria in Central Africa to find a fugitive warlord who has evaded capture for over 20 years… Sound promising to you? Or, just thinking out loud, how about deal with those that have returned and make home something to come home to?

    • Rex Brynen says:

      According to media reports, US advisors have only been forward deployed for a few months.

      A military solution and a developmental one are not necessarily mutually exclusive (although I personally think the latter, while having many other positive effects, is even less likely to end the LRA).

  8. Pingback: More on KONY 2012 | Zenkos

  9. James says:

    As I’m sure many of you know, KCL currently has a fundraising wheeze called ‘World Questions, King’s Answers’. But it’s good to see people here doing the opposite: asking difficult questions about global ‘answers’.

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