Obama's Other War

Can Barack Obama really defeat Central Africa's worst guerrilla warlord?

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.  

The LRA bonanza corrupted the military, funding kickbacks and corrupt arms deals. Museveni's top commanders skimmed money from the pot by purchasing obsolete equipment at exorbitant prices and inflating budgets with the salaries of non-existent soldiers. In February 2002, for example, as Ugandan troops prepared to invade Sudan to go after Kony, the military registers listed 7,200 soldiers when in fact the army's northern-based 4th Division had only 2,400. During the ensuing offensive, as the LRA once again slinked away, the army chopped down southern Sudanese teak forests, shipping the valuable timber back to Uganda.

Throughout the years, the United States willfully turned a blind eye to the kind of corrupt double-dealing and genuine incompetence that allowed Kony and his band to slip the noose time and time again. In exchange, America got a valuable proxy force in Africa. Ugandan peacekeepers make up more than half of the AU Mission in Somalia, where Washington sees the growing influence of Islamist extremist group al Shabab as a real threat to its own security.

In December 2008, President George W. Bush backed a daring Ugandan military strike on LRA bases in Congo's remote Garamba National Park just weeks before he left office. When the day came, however, the Ugandan military -- working under U.S. supervision -- used loud attack helicopters to perform what was meant to be a secret ambush and never delivered a promised batch of ground troops. LRA defectors said in recent interviews that Kony had been tipped off and fled before the attack even started.

The Garamba strike was a disaster of epic proportions. Dispersed but unscathed, the LRA spread even farther from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moving into the lawless frontiers of the Central African Republic (CAR) and back into Sudan, and bringing their vicious tactics with them. "The last two years have been among the bloodiest in their history," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Since 2008, Kony's men have massacred some 2,300 civilians and abducted over 3,000 more in a remote area straddling the borders of the Congo, southern Sudan, and CAR. More than 400,000 villagers have fled their homes there. In 2010 alone, Kony's fighters have so far led more than 240 deadly attacks.

Still, the Ugandan army declared the Garamba operation a success, and it is no wonder why. So long as the conflict is outside Uganda's borders, Museveni can count it as a win. He's expected to win reelection in February, extending his hold on power to a full three decades. In the north, where just 16 percent  voted for him in 2006, he's finally able to campaign as the people's protector, a tactic that always won him votes in the south.

Back in Washington, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold raised concern about what had happened. "Thus far, this operation has resulted in the worst-case scenario: It has failed to stop the LRA, while spurring the rebels to intensify their attacks against civilians," he said in a statement to the Senate in March 2009. Feingold helped draft a bill that required the United States to work toward the end of the LRA and mandated that the White House come up with an anti-LRA strategy. The bill found 65 co-sponsors in the Senate and cleared both houses with ease.

But now that the strategy has been written and the United States is supposedly about to defeat Kony for good, the outlook is bleaker than ever. The strategy promises "enhanced integrated logistical, operational, and intelligence assistance in support of regional and multilateral partners." A quick look at those potential partners doesn't inspire optimism: They include an astoundingly dysfunctional Congolese army, a Central African military of just a few thousand troops already deployed against its own domestic rebellions, and a southern Sudanese force that was not long ago a rebel army. None of these forces is up to the task of hunting the LRA. Nor are the U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Congo and the CAR any better positioned for the task. The strategy suggests improving the blue helmets' ability to protect civilians, which may help a bit. Still, both missions are already in over their heads just trying to protect civilians. One U.N. official in Congo called Obama's plan for annihilating the LRA "mission impossible."

Back on Capitol Hill, matters don't look promising either. Any real action would need to be funded by Congress, and the law's two primary backers, Feingold and Republican Sen. Samuel Brownback, are leaving the Senate -- Brownback to become governor of Kansas and Feingold as a victim of the Tea Party revolution. In any case, with Republicans controlling the House and keeping a firm boot on the neck of Senate Democrats, it's unlikely that discretionary spending for any such humanitarian campaign will be available soon.

In the end, America's rare and noble commitment to erase the LRA from the earth will likely be no better than the years of half-measures that preceded it. Most of the military assistance under the new strategy will go to the Ugandan army. In  two years of operations, the $23 million in U.S. support has paid for the killing and capturing of a mere 23 LRA officers, according to interviews with U.N. officials. Continuing that level of support, or even increasing it, would allow for the Ugandan operations to carry on, keeping the LRA threat away from Uganda's own borders but falling far short of what's needed to finish Kony off.

During a recent campaign stop in the Acholi town of Aworo, Museveni told the unenthusiastic crowd, "In the end we defeated the terrorist Kony.... He thought Garamba was heaven. We went to Garamba, we fought him there. He went to Central African Republic, so we shall fight him there. That's how we got peace here." One of the scores of party activists being bused around the country to support the president held aloft a yellow sign: "We Don't Want Change."



Sweden's Problem Isn't Immigrants, It's the Internet

As a country tries to recover from a shocking attempted attack, the normal accusations don't really stick.

It was only a mixture of bad luck, incompetence, and the inadequacy of Swedish provincial hardware stores that stopped Taimour Abdulwahab from becoming a mass murderer. When he blew himself up just off one of the busiest shopping streets in Stockholm, only one of the six pipe bombs he had strapped around himself exploded. The rucksack full of nails on his back was not transformed into shrapnel; the car he had left parked a couple of blocks away likewise failed to explode.

Still, in the days since the Dec. 11 bombing, Swedish columnists on both the left and right have been eager to make the reassuring discovery that the averted catastrophe serves as further proof of their respective analyses of national politics. Jan Guillou, writing in the left-wing Aftonbladet, claimed that Sweden made the terrorism problem worse, partly by "joining in the American crusade in Afghanistan" and partly by repressive laws against "encouragement to terrorism" that would never be used against white Swedes. Meanwhile, Ulf Nilson, a former foreign correspondent writing for Aftonbladet's right-wing rival Expressen, caused an uproar when he referred to the diminishing number of "pure Swedes" and the growing influence of Islam in the country.

What all these explanations have in common is that they assume that homegrown terrorism is a political problem with its root causes in Swedish social conditions. In reality, however, the problem is primarily a psychological one that has been enabled by broad immigration patterns and deepened by technology that fosters social alienation. Unfortunately, these causes can't and won't be easily undone.

Four days after the attempted bombing, the Swedish security police produced a long-planned report on violent Islamist extremism in Sweden that put the true problem into some relief. It concluded that Islamist terrorism was not a huge threat to Swedish society, nor to its fundamental values, because "the people active in these networks are primarily concerned with supporting and assisting terrorism in other countries." Unsurprisingly, large immigrant communities do tend to bring the grievances of their home countries with them, often growing only more fervent and extreme. But the point should be that those grievances are brought with the immigrants themselves, not cultivated upon arrival.

Abdulwahab -- who was born in Baghdad but grew up in the small, almost entirely ethnically Swedish southern town of Tranas -- was part of an enormous wave of mostly humanitarian immigration into Sweden in the last 30 years. The figures for 2009 show that 14.3 percent of the Swedish population was born abroad. When you add second-generation immigrants, the total rises to 18.6 percent. The largest group is still Finns and other Scandinavians, but refugees from the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia have been the fastest-growing groups for decades.

For most of the last two decades, the idea that this large-scale arrival of immigrants from troubled, war-torn countries would have negative consequences as well as good ones has been unthinkable -- not to mention unspeakable -- in most of Sweden. Only in the far southern province of Skane was there a substantial anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, who have been established in local government there for years. In September, they burst into parliament, where they now hold the balance of power between the leftish opposition and the center-right government, both of which ignore them and devoutly hope they will go away.

That is not to say that the Sweden Democrats have any answers or that this is the type of problem a national parliament can really address. European countries have varying ways of combating the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism through economic and social policy, but the differences are ultimately superficial. Cross-border political comparisons usually obscure more than they reveal: Whatever the architectural demerits of the heavily ethnic French banlieues, or Germany's inner-city immigrant ghettos, they ultimately say little about the inner lives of the people who reside there.

Yes, Abdulwahab's schoolfellows in Tranas remember him as a sociable and well-integrated figure, whereas in Luton, Britain (where he had gone to study), he left the local mosque after an argument over his extreme views. But where was he really living throughout this entire time? From the initial evidence, it seems most likely that he was really radicalized neither in Sweden nor in Britain, but in the place where we all nowadays live -- online. Most of what we know about Abdulwahab comes from his online life: a dating site where the suicide bomber advertised for a second wife, with the permission of his first, and his Facebook profile, where he liked both "the Islamic Caliphate" and his "Apple iPad." He posted videos of Iraqi prisoners being harassed by U.S. soldiers and sermons from radical clerics.

Of course, the Internet is not only a bulletin board where terrorists leave behind traces of their individual lives -- it's also an endless repository of inflammatory material that terrorists use to fuel their homicidal fantasies. It's not long before they are soliciting the endorsements of more experienced criminals: Nidal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, famously wrote emails to fugitive terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, seeking his advice before executing the attack.

Things were very different when I was a young man living in a Swedish provincial town quite similar to Tranas, shortly after my own immigration from England. I had no real choice then but to check Swedish books out of the library and speak Swedish with my neighbors and colleagues. Integration was painful and took a very long time. But there wasn't any other social life on offer. When I returned there 25 years later, there were girls in headscarves in the library; more to the point, they were huddled around Internet terminals displaying Arabic and even English pages. I don't mean that they were living in an imaginary world. It was certainly no more imaginary than the one that I had made for myself without any technological assistance, from books and memories and the knowledge that I was an outsider. But it was not geographically anchored.

Neither, of course, was the small-town society around them. This, too, is increasingly constructed by people who see the world through screens and monitors. Closely knit small-town life was once the soil in which Sweden's concept of integration was rooted. With that life permanently altered by technology, that ideal is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Not only are the immigrants reluctant to settle where they are; increasingly, there is no there there for them to integrate into. As national particularities and national cultures dissolve, it seems that we all -- immigrant and native, religious and secular -- are in this together. Wherever this is.