By Taylor Marvin
Invisible Children’s effort to stop war criminal Joseph Kony is the cause of the day, with their ‘Kony 2012’ video –released on Monday — already at over 7 million [update 3:00p Thursday] 40 million views on YouTube.
The viral campaign, designed to raise awareness and support for further US action targeting Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, has been remarkably successful: my Facebook and Twitter feeds are dominated by students reposting the video and calling for America to bring Kony to justice. Invisible Children is explicitly calling for an increased US military presence in central Africa: according to the Invisible Children website, the goal of the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign is that the US combat advisers dispatched to Central Africa last October “support the Ugandan Army until Kony has been captured and the LRA has been completely disarmed.” Despite the organization’s peaceful aim to “inspire young people to help end the longest-running armed conflict in Africa”, it also advocates more kinetic options: Invisible Children has funded central African military forces and rebel groups and favors direct military intervention to kill or capture Kony.
“I completely agree that Kony needs to be brought to justice,” Morehouse College’s Laura Seay remarked this morning, “but nothing about this IC campaign will make that happen.” Seay’s critical view of the Kony 2012 campaign isn’t unique. “It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor,” Mark Kersten pointed out at Justice in Conflict (via Lauren Jinkins). These criticisms are all valid, and the organization’s apparent preference for generating media attention over actually helping Africans is troubling. But what’s much more dangerous is Invisible Children’s breathless advocacy for US intervention in Central Africa without offering offering any critical view of how risky this intervention could potentially be. I’m not arguing that IC’s founders and supporters’ hearts aren’t in the right place — Kony is a monster, and one that deserves to be killed. But their best-case assumptions, faith in the effectiveness of violence, and complete disregard for half a century of ill-fated US interventions in civil wars is enormously irresponsible.
Make no mistake, dispatching US combat advisers to intervene in a civil war isn’t peacekeeping; it’s an American war. The frequent pleas for the US to enter conflicts to ‘stop war’ are nonsensical: American intervention at any level can only end conflicts by winning them. Unfortunately it’s not clear if advisory missions to Central Africa or even direct SOF involvement is capable of capturing or killing Kony at an acceptable level of US involvement. It’s also important to remember that any level of US involvement in a dirty, decades-long African conflict will be distasteful. The LRA extensively use child soldiers, and combating the LRA means treating children as legitimate military targets, a reality that will be difficult to explain to US audiences watching graphic news reports of maimed kids.
As I’ve argued before, wars should not be fought for idealism or the desire to ‘do something’ in the face of atrocities. As Peter J. Munson recently noted, “war and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument. It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.” Wars are always costly and always risky. The United States should only enter foreign conflicts if advocates of interventions can clearly articulate a realistic exit strategy from the conflict without relying on best case assumptions, and why the expected benefits of victory outweigh the risk and expected costs. Civilian deaths are awful, and it’s impossible to begrudge the desire to ‘do something’ to halt the slaughter of conflict. What is not forgivable is irresponsible advocacy of war without a clear-eyed assessment of its costs. The United States has no clear path to victory against the LRA, and while a stable Central Africa is certainly in the general interest of the United States, it is much harder to argue that this long-term goal merits US entanglement in a decades-long civil war. Kony is a monster, but the United States has no moral imperative to hunt down war criminals.
IC’s attempts to portray Kony as an exogenous cancer that can be cleanly removed from Central African society is misinformed at best. This morning Mark Kersten noted that “some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’.” Even in the immediate-term efforts to kill or capture Kony would be difficult. The LRA is a highly experienced fighting force, and while it draws less local support than other insurgencies, its intimate familiarity with the terrain is a significant operational advantage over US SOF and allied militaries. While the lethality and coordination between US special operation forces and intelligence agencies have improved since the failed 2008 ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ targeting Kony, operations against the LRA would be difficult and risky. Even increased advisory missions would not be casualty free — just last month four Air Force Special Operations Command-affiliated airmen died in Djibouti when their aircraft crashed, possible returning from a clandestine mission to Central Africa. Escalating US involvement in the conflict will mean more dead Americans.
Invisible Children refuses to acknowledge the risks and costs of the intervention they advocate. Indeed, IC’s founders seem to lack any understanding of the consequence of intervention.
Photo by Glenna Gordon.
Posing with weapons and looking hard doesn’t make you informed; it’s the face of a war tourist. Injecting arms into unstable regions is almost never a good policy — as journalist C.J. Chivers has spend a career ably documenting, guns don’t have half lives. “Modern military rifles can be adapted by their owners to tasks and roles their manufacturers had not foreseen,” Chivers recently wrote, noting “how long [weapons] can last after they travel from state custody.” An AK-47 has a service life measured in decades: arming the Ugandan military will have long-term consequences that are impossible to predict, but are unlikely to be positive.
As I argued when the Obama administration dispatched 100 combat advisers to Central Africa late last year, limited combat commitments create the conditions for unintended escalation by investing US credibility in a conflict’s outcome without the resources necessary to win it [slightly edited]:
“However, even advisory missions are investments in the outcome of a foreign conflict. This makes them vulnerable to an escalation dynamic: because advisory deployments publicly invest the US in a successful conflict outcome while often falling short of the force threshold needed to actually influence it, they create the potential for a frustratingly unsuccessful mission that encourages US leaders to ‘raise the stakes’ of their investment. This is exactly the dynamic that encouraged the gradual escalation of US combat commitment in Vietnam — few in the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations intended the US to fight a full scale ground war in southeast Asia. But advisory, and later limited combat, missions in South Vietnam invested US credibility in winning, a credibility problem that effectively committed the US to future escalation in the absence of immediate success. Restricting the publicity of limited deployments can reduce this future commitment problem: it appears that this is what the Obama administration is attempting to do with its limited and gradual deployment of troops to central Africa. But administration and military officials should be aware of this commitment dynamic, and be prepared to disengage and accept the reputation costs of public failure if the mission appears unable to achieve success.”
In US military history “advisory missions” tend to either be outright lies or escalate into open combat commitments. “One of the biggest issues with a simplistic ‘Stop Kony’ message is that discussions of Navy SEALs [sic] or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts,” Michael Wilkerson argued today in Foreign Policy. This danger isn’t a problem for the Kony 2012 campaign: escalation is its specific goal.
Unless Invisible Children defines the upper end of “nothing” as napalm strikes and a full-scale ground invasion, I’m going assume that there’s some hyperbole here. Still, “stop at nothing” is not a rational approach to gauging the value of US intervention; it’s an explicit commitment tying US credibility to Kony’s death no matter the cost. If the authors of the recent Senate resolution “ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran” are, to borrow Spencer Ackerman’s description, “too stupid to make foreign policy”, then so are the architects of the Kony 2012 campaign. Letting your enemy dictate your commitment level is a strategy should be left in the dustbin of LBJ’s war room.
Invisible Children’s unquestioning belief in the United States’ ability to bring about a desired outcome through violence should be a red flag for liberals: we’ve been here before. Despite becoming frighteningly proficient at small unit unconventional jungle warfare, US special operations forces were unable to shift the balance in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Three decades later US Rangers and Delta force personnel were unable halt atrocities in Somalia: despite enjoying complete tactical superiority over their irregular foes, US forces were ordered into a conflict they fundamentally did not understand, were unable to apprehend warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and generally made the situation in Somalia worse by prolonging the violence and destroying UN credibility in the country. While the effectiveness of US SOF have increased by leaps and bounds since 1993, it’s unlikely that JSOC and the CIA would be able to kill or capture Kony as easily as Invisible Children assumes.
If we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s that military solutions are never as quick and easy as their advocates assume. The US has rarely fought a war in the modern era that went according to plan. The advisory missions to Vietnam begun in the 1950s escalated to a war that killed over 50,000 Americans and nearly broke the US military. The Bush and Clinton administrations’ idealistic intervention in Somalia was an ill-conceived fiasco that Islamic militants still cite as evidence of the US’s fragility. The conflict in Afghanistan, hyped as a small war fought by special operations forces on horseback, devolved into a decade-long counterinsurgency that nearly everyone admits won’t end in a ‘victory’ anything near what its architects intended. The Obama administration’s war in Libya quickly escalated from the fiction of a no-fly zone to regime change, and only ended in Qaddafi’s blind luck capture and execution. Drone strikes targeting AQAP and al-Shabaab have become an open-ended and locally-inflammatory bombing campaign over two countries. Unconventional wars are risky and difficult. Why should operations against the LRA be any different? Unless Invisible Children can explain why, their advocacy for US intervention doesn’t deserve an audience.
Just because a cause is fashionable doesn’t make it wise. Invisible Children’s efforts to raise awareness is laudable, but its faith in military solutions isn’t. The Kony 2012 campaign is a good way to get Americans killed in a quixotic, ill-conceived war with no bearing on US interests.
Updated to include photo credit.