Machine Gun Menace

Hollywood shouldn't glorify this pistol-packing vigilante.

"The Lord I serve is the living Lord Jesus. And to show you he's alive, I'm going to send you to meet him right now!" — from Another Man's War, by Sam Childers

As a blockbuster plot, it's hard to beat: The Rev. Sam Childers was on a mission from God. In an effort to escape the demons of a misspent life of petty crime and violence, he left his bad-boy biker ways behind and dove headfirst into one of the world's bloodiest civil wars, armed to the teeth, personally rescuing child soldiers from the grasp of a brutal African militia. Childers then sold his worldly possessions to build an orphanage to house the rescued children and is now going after the man responsible for their suffering -- and by the grace of God he will, with great vengeance and furious anger, kill him. Personally.

That's how Sam Childers tells his life story. He's also the hero of Machine Gun Preacher, Hollywood's latest take on the "white man saves Africa" theme. The movie stars Gerard Butler of 300 fame as Childers and was directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace); it opens throughout the United States on Friday, Sept. 23. But as is often the case with Hollywood movies based on supposedly true stories, the whole truth is more complicated. Blockbuster movies turn rough situations into smooth narratives where the good guys know what needs to be done -- and do it, damn the consequences. In the real world, though, actions ripple out and even the best-intentioned amateur humanitarian can make a bad situation worse.

The movie is based on Childers's 2009 memoir, Another Man's War. He tells his life story in a rambling, disjointed mishmash of personal redemption and righteous African crusade. Childers starts at the beginning: He was a biker gang member who loved to fight and always had a sawed-off shotgun within reach; he used and sold drugs and once stabbed a hitchhiker. Then he found Jesus Christ. He kicked the drug habit, turned his life around, and went on a mission trip to Sudan.

Childers first went to southern Sudan in 1998, when the area was being ravaged by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal guerrilla group led by Joseph Kony that was infamous for abducting children, forcing the boys to fight and the girls to become sex slaves. There are no doubts that Kony is a callous, despicable theocratic thug -- and likely a madman -- responsible for taking thousands of innocent lives but Childers's account of his intersection with the man is troubling.

In his memoir, Childers tells the story of building an orphanage in Nimule, a small town near the Sudan-Uganda border. Between constant appeals for donations, Childers expounds shallowly on Sudan's recent history, rails against radical Muslims, brags about his guns, and offers pointers for conducting armed rescue missions (tip: tape two AK-47 clips together to speed reloading.) Childers says he started leading a heavily armed posse of Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers to rescue Kony's child soldiers by force. And, apparently, he set out to track and kill Kony himself.

It would take a miracle for all of Childers's claims to be completely true, starting with the SPLA story. In his book he describes leading a group of SPLA soldiers who call him their commander. The SPLA begs to differ: As Childers was touring the United States to promote his book and raise money for his charity, an SPLA spokesman released a statement saying, "The SPLA does not know Sam Childers ... the SPLA is appealing to those who are concerned to take legal measures against Sam for ... misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him."

After I quoted this news release on my blog, one of Childers's backers sent me a scan of a "letter of support" that SPLA Lt. Gen. Obuto Mamur Mete purportedly sent Childers. That letter simply states that Childers runs an orphanage in Nimule and is authorized to possess a pistol and rifle for personal security -- a far cry from stocking an arsenal and running armed raids to kill Kony. Then last month, the Daily Mail quoted the same Lt. Gen. Mete as telling the Sunday Times, "Sam Childers was responsible for an orphanage in southern Sudan; that was all. His claims to have fought alongside us are a lie. He has never even seen the LRA."

There are pictures of Childers on his website, guns in hand, with current or former SPLA forces. And perhaps he did indeed take a handful of irregulars on these ill-planned missions. It's also possible that the SPLA's disavowal of Childers is part of attempts to be seen as more legitimate, especially now that it is the official military of the world's newest country, South Sudan. (Last year, the SPLA announced it would demobilize all of its own child soldiers.) 

Or these inconsistencies may be just the tip of the iceberg. After I initially wrote about Childers, I spoke with him by phone, hoping to clarify some prior public statements. Various interviews have described him showing off his cache of pistols, machine guns, grenades, and RPGs. In a must-read Vanity Fair profile, Childers claimed to have sold weapons to "factions in Rwanda and Congo." I wanted to know more about his weapons -- from where he got them and to whom he sold them. But in our conversation, Childers denied having ever sold weapons to anyone in Africa.

It has been only a few months since another memoir of an American saving children in a war-torn country -- Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea -- was revealed to be a massive fraud. When the story broke, many people close to Mortenson said that they had quietly expressed doubts for years about his tales and the management of his charity. Perhaps they feared rocking the boat, upsetting the cult of personality that had grown around him -- and wasn't Mortensen's heart in the right place, anyway, even if there were some worrying inconsistencies in his story? Didn't he do some good too?

But let's put aside the question of whether every word of Childers's book and his recent interviews is true. It's his narcissistic model of armed humanitarianism that we should be worried about. In his book, Childers describes a scene in which he and his gang of SPLA soldiers drive toward a group of LRA militiamen, firing indiscriminately -- at God's urging, of course. It may look cool on the big screen, but this crosses a line from humanitarianism to misguided vigilantism. Childers's underlying assumption seems to be that the region's conflicts would end if the good guys could just kill enough bad guys. This assumes not only that the good guy can magically discern who the bad guys are, but that killing -- from attacking the LRA to selling weapons -- doesn't fuel future conflict.

Childers justifies his tactics with a shop-worn thought experiment. "Just for one moment imagine if [that child] was yours and I could go stop it," he asks

But by conflating humanitarian work with Wild West-style vigilantism, Childers makes the world more dangerous for the many aid workers risking their lives to do good in places like South Sudan. The anonymous aid worker who writes the widely read blog Tales from the Hood makes this point: "We [aid workers] very often go into insecure places where our presence and the associated suspicion that we may have ulterior motives puts not only us, but our local colleagues and those we're trying to help at greater risk, too.... Every time [Childers] puts up another video of himself jumping into his white SUV with an AK47 across his lap, he increases the likelihood that I or someone I care about is going to get shot."

Hollywood loves a hero. And now that the silver screen has its Rambo-preacher-orphan-saver, there may be no stopping the Machine Gun Preacher. Even if many American Christians skip the movie because of its R rating, his Angels of East Africa charity will likely reap donations galore.

What's next for Sam Childers? He said he wants to set up operations in Somalia (no way that could go wrong). In the end, perhaps it's Childers himself who says it best. "Who on earth would give money to some pistol-packing ex-biker dude who might be as crazy as the rebel leader he was after?" he writes. Alas, too many already have.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images


All Roads Lead to Islamabad

If the killing of peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani and the attacks on Kabul tell us anything, it's that peace in Afghanistan will only come when Pakistan wants it.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The Obama administration's reconciliation and transition efforts and parallel attempts to repair U.S.-Pakistan relations faced fresh challenges as the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was implicated in major attacks against the United States, NATO, and Afghanistan.  

On Sept. 14, six insurgents launched a 20-hour siege on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul. American officials subsequently assigned responsibility for the attacks to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, just four days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar met at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York to reset frayed U.S.-Pakistan relations. Although some discussion during that meeting addressed a reposturing of the U.S. presence in Pakistan, Clinton primarily reiterated the message already conveyed by top officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen: Pakistan must stop supporting the Haqqani network or else.

On Sept. 17, Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani spoke with Reuters in a rare telephone interview in which he allegedly claimed that his group no longer resides in Pakistan's sanctuaries. It had moved to Afghanistan, he claimed, where it enjoyed the support of senior military and police officials. Haqqani also said that his group would partake in peace talks with the U.S. and Afghan governments -- as long as the Taliban did. But a few days later, on Sept. 20, a suicide bomber thought to be negotiating on behalf of the Taliban assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, a former president of Afghanistan, and head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Initial information alludes to the Haqqani network's involvement in this attack as well.

So what should we make of all this? Are any real efforts at peace negotiations now dead and buried? The escalations of violence coupled with attempts at diplomatic overtures are emblematic of the underpinnings of the reconciliation effort as defined by the United States: support dialogue, but keep the pressure on. Recent public statements by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker confirm U.S. support for this approach, but the accommodation of this strategy by the Taliban and associated groups suggests that they are beating the United States at its own counterwarfare narrative. This is not to suggest that the current dialogue is wholly legitimate or reconciliation-worthy. Haqqani's comments should be taken with a grain of salt. He and his father have carefully cultivated relationships with local groups in Pakistan that will not diminish quickly. There is also fresh debate on the Haqqani network's ideological links with al Qaeda and whether they are so strong that they prevent the type of political resolution the Afghan and U.S. governments seek with the Taliban.

But what's clear is that Pakistan is at the heart of any possible peace negotiations. As Panetta remarked following the Sept. 14 Kabul attack, "Time and again we've urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis, and we have made very little progress in that area.... We're not going to allow these types of attacks to go on." How far would the United States go to prevent such attacks? Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Sept. 16 that unilateral action in Pakistan by the United States should not be ruled out. The reality is, however, that the United States needs Pakistan, not least for logistics support for the estimated 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

That being said, Rabbani's death and the attacks on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters come at a time of great transition for the United States in Afghanistan, but more importantly in its relationship with Pakistan. U.S. policymakers and Congress have reached their limits in overlooking Islamabad's tacit relationships with militant groups in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. Doing so comes at too great a cost to the continuing efforts in Afghanistan, not to mention President Barack Obama's planned force drawdown. The United States will no longer tolerate Pakistan's rumored role in these attacks; but the reality on the ground indicates that Pakistan's patience with the United States has also run out.

Fresh public criticism in Pakistan of the United States reflects the view that Washington is failing in Afghanistan and, as a result, continues to desperately use Pakistan as a scapegoat; hence the continued attempts to "corner" Pakistan regarding its support of the Haqqani network. Privately, however, the view espoused by the Pakistani political and military establishment remains that Washington has excluded Islamabad from a seat at the negotiating table and, as a result, Pakistan has no choice but to continue to hedge against a reconciliation process that potentially does not work in its favor. Chief among Pakistan's fears is that the Afghan government would look favorably toward India, allowing for an expanded Indian diplomatic and development presence in Afghanistan that would threaten Pakistan's sense of security. Ultimately, Pakistan's recurring links to attacks on U.S. and Afghan interests signal Islamabad's view that the United States cannot go at it without Pakistan -- if the United States continues to exclude it from peace talks with the Taliban, Pakistan can undo the entire process.

With regard to Rabbani specifically, the official Pakistani view will recall that he was warmly welcomed in Islamabad as part of the High Peace Council's efforts to engage Pakistan on reconciliation -- something it thinks the United States has sorely failed to do. Nonetheless, the perception in Pakistan was that his Northern Alliance affiliation and non-Pashtun status could have worked at odds with Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghan President Hamid Karzai may feel pressure to appoint an ethnic Pashtun as Rabbani's replacement, or at least someone more in Pakistan's favor.

Beyond Pakistan, Rabbani's death is a hugely symbolic blow to the public image of Afghan-led reconciliation -- with strategic implications for Karzai's efforts to garner public support for a return of the Taliban into Afghan political life. The High Peace Council's efforts provided public diplomatic cover for evolving private negotiations. They also incorporated regional actors and reconciled, moderate Taliban into discussions, allowing Karzai to show the Afghan public that the Taliban may be willing to talk under certain conditions -- and that the region could be engaged positively on Afghanistan's future.

Rabbani's death challenges these notions. It limits the political space within which Karzai can convince multiple competing actors to subscribe to reconciliation, ensure a smooth transition from International Security Assistance Force control to an Afghan lead, and secure a deal on what Karzai views as a personal legacy issue. These multiple actors include Northern Alliance groups that view Taliban and Pakistan involvement in reconciliation with continued suspicion. The increased frequency of attacks linked to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence will only harden these groups' calculus toward Pakistan, against Karzai's reconciliation efforts, and increase their tilt toward India and Iran. As a result, U.S. regional engagement efforts are likely to become infinitely more complex. Washington already struggles with a severe lack of engagement with Iran and an inability to balance the competing interests of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. These dynamics also stand to derail ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan (which to date has produced minimal tangible results), but have the potential to increase confidence on both sides regarding their respective policies in Afghanistan.

Rabbani's death and other recent attacks also reveal the increased strength of Taliban penetration into Afghan security, police, and government circles, serving as reminders to others involved in reconciliation that their lives are potentially endangered. As for Afghan's tribal political calculus, Rabbani's death may adversely impact the involvement of Tajiks in the peace process and possibly worsen tensions between Pashtuns and Tajiks, which could threaten prospects for a reconciliation process that adequately represents Afghanistan's minority interests. The irony, however, is that the practical implications of Rabbani's death are less significant: The High Peace Council was never all that empowered as a negotiating force by the Karzai government and was never recognized by the Taliban as such.

Ultimately, these grim events reaffirm the view that the path to reconciliation in Kabul runs through Islamabad -- and Pakistan aims to make sure that the United States knows this full well.