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.