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So Crazy It Just Might Work

Swashbuckling journalist Robert Young Pelton is crowdfunding a mission to hunt down Joseph Kony. Is it genius or folly?

Robert Young Pelton thinks he can do what no one else has done: find the fugitive warlord Joseph Kony. And he wants your help in doing it.

Pelton, a journalist-cum-adventurer, has traveled the world tracking down and interviewing the world's most dangerous men. He was in Grozny hanging out with Chechen rebels while the city was getting pounded by Russian forces. He linked up with Liberian rebels during their assault on Monrovia. And he tracked down and interviewed Francis Ona, the leader of a separatist movement on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific.

Now he's turning his attention to the most wanted man in Africa. Together with two filmmakers, Pelton is planning an expedition to central Africa, where he will attempt to track down Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), in the jungle wilderness. Where activists and African troops -- aided by U.S. Special Forces -- have failed, Pelton believes he can succeed and find the man responsible for the kidnapping as many as 66,000 children and pressing them into service in his rag-tag army or as sex-slaves.

So is Pelton completely crazy? Or is he, maybe, just crazy enough to pull it off?

Joseph Kony isn't just any African warlord. His brutal insurgency in central Africa and a nasty habit of kidnapping children and forcing them into service in his guerilla force have made him an international pariah. And that, in turn, has made him a celebrity of sorts. The destruction he has left in his wake and the deeply emotional pull of the damage he has inflicted on children and their families have spawned an energetic relief effort and a campaign to capture a man that many view as the head of a personality cult. Last year's viral video campaign, Kony 2012, aimed at raising awareness about the warlord and advocating for his capture only raised that sentiment to a fever pitch.

But a viral Internet campaign has done little to bring authorities closer to apprehending Kony, who is wanted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court. It is Pelton's intention to show the legions of do-gooders who have flocked to the cause how it should have been done from the start. "What I'm hoping to be is the lightning rod, in other words the guy that points out that it's actually quite easy to get these people if you don't draw lines around how far you can travel or where you can go," Pelton told Foreign Policy.

As Pelton sees it, previous efforts to find and capture Kony have been hopelessly limited and crippled by the intentions of the groups involved. "All these actors have an agenda and they have limitations to what they are prepared to do, and they after a while start to benefit from the existence of Kony," Pelton says. "It becomes a self-licking lollipop."

The United States has deployed Special Forces troops to the region with the ostensible purpose of helping to capture Kony, and while those troops have in recent weeks intensified their effort to find the warlord, he remains conspicuously at large. But their failure, Pelton says, should come as no surprise. The real reason for the presence of U.S. troops, he says, has as much to do with the rise of Islamic extremism in the region as it does Kony. Deploying Special Forces to capture Kony is merely an effective cover story. As for Invisible Children, the group behind Kony 2012, it remains based in Uganda, a country Kony has long left behind. Hopelessly limited by geographic boundaries, the group has become limited by its own infrastructure and its simplistic argument that Kony's capture will suddenly solve all Uganda's serious problems, critics say. (Nevermind the fact that the group has raised millions of dollars off Kony's back for an organization with deep ties to anti-gay, creationist groups and was co-founded by a man whose celebrity took on a life of its own after he suffered a breakdown and paraded naked through the streets of San Diego.)

Pelton's message to these groups is that it's time to put up or shut up -- and by finding Kony he's aiming to point out the essential phoniness of those who have so far failed to locate him. For a similar reason, Pelton is crowdfunding the trip. (You can find his IndieGogo page here.) "The reason I'm using crowdfunding is to see whether the world gives a shit. Do you really want to get rid of Kony? Give me five bucks," Pelton says. "So it's almost like a very Shakespearean play, you know. We are going to see who's more evil -- the people who want to get rid of Kony and do nothing about it or Kony himself."

If Pelton sounds deeply cynical, it's because he is. After fleeing a mind-numbing marketing career for the thrills of war reporting, Pelton has been to just about every hot spot imaginable. And his encounters with rebels and terrorist leaders -- the full list of which reads like a virtual who's who of revolutionary fronts, armies, guerillas, and movements of one radical flavor or another -- has taught him that the popular images of these men are usually off the mark and lack nuance. "You think of them as icons of evil and then when you dig into their story there's a very different story behind them," Pelton says. In the case of Kony, he says, while the LRA has committed horrific crimes, it was founded on a set of political grievances that rarely receive any attention.

That instinct -- to go and talk to rebel leaders and terrorists where they live and fight -- has also put Pelton in a strange nexus of careers: both a journalist and an alleged intelligence contractor. In 2008, Pelton teamed up with Eason Jordan, a former CNN executive, to create a site called AfPax Insider, a journalistic entity that sought to help U.S. officials better understand the region. But that outfit became caught up in an off-the-books intelligence operation run by a rogue Pentagon official. "We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people," Pelton told the New York Times, which exposed the official, Michael Furlong. Another Pelton initiative, International Safety Networks (ISN), pitched potential clients on its ability to "create sustainable solutions for clients who operate in high risk areas." Pelton told Mother Jones that ISN was an effort to capitalize on his work in war zones, and with "successful programs" in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, Myanmar, Liberia, and Yemen the outfit carried an unmistakable whiff of a private intelligence agency. "I have a history of being in multiple war zones doing multiple things," he told the magazine. "What commercial value is there in that?" To complete his tumultuous relationship with the world of military contracting, Pelton is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Erik Prince, the founder of the infamous contractor Blackwater, over the rights to Prince's memoir, which Pelton says he ghostwrote.

The Kony project, then, is something of a return to his roots for Pelton. "If you watch the movie Apocalypse Now, what I'm doing is I'm getting on the boat, and the journey is going to be a lot more fascinating than when I meet Mr. Kurtz at the end," says Pelton, who, with his prominent moustache, looks like a man sent by central casting to play an extra on a Francis Ford Coppola riverboat heading upriver. "By the time we meet up with Kony you understand exactly why we found Kony and why for 20 years we couldn't find bin Laden and all these international fugitives." In comparing Kony to bin Laden, Pelton isn't so much comparing the scope of their crimes but the ways in which they evaded capture. Popular imagination -- and the consensus opinion of American intelligence agencies -- held that bin Laden was in all likelihood sequestered somewhere in a cave along the AfPak border, a primitive hiding place that lined up with views of bin Laden himself as a primitive, retrograde man. A similar line of thinking applies to Kony, who, for example, was described by the Washington Post as using "Stone Age" tactics to evade his pursuers in the jungle. Those pursuers, Pelton thinks, probably wouldn't be surprised to find him swinging from tree to tree in the jungle while subsisting on bananas.

By documenting his journey, Pelton plans to trace the tribal and ethnic politics that Kony has used to evade capture. Like bin Laden, Kony has received shelter from states in the region, a fact that Pelton believes can illuminate the ways that tribal politics could be the key to the warlord's continued survival. "It's not so much just an exercise to find somebody as a publicity stunt or an exercise in what badass bounty hunters we are," Rob Swain, a filmmaker and aid worker who will be one of Pelton's companions on the trip, told Foreign Policy. "It's about what got us here. How come he's still free?"

But the question still remains, how will Pelton and his team actually find the man?

In theory, Kony could be anywhere in an area approximately the size of California. "The first thing you do is you announce to the world that you're looking for Joseph Kony, and that your mandate is zero. I have no law enforcement mandate, I have no military mandate, I only have a moral mandate to find out why people can't find him and where he is," Pelton says. "I can't arrest him; I can't shoot him." Already, the tips have started to pour in, and Pelton says he has a decent idea where Kony is hiding -- and the U.S. Special Forces, by the way, are looking in all the wrong places. As Pelton sees it, finding men like Kony is actually a lot easier than you might think. "The logic that goes into their hiding is usually formed at the local level, meaning that the local smugglers, the local militias know exactly where the planes are flying, where the army is searching," Pelton says. The key is getting inside that circle, and once that happens, the questions start answering themselves. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the U.S. Special Forces hunting Kony. They just can't go where Pelton does; if they did, they'd get killed in a heartbeat.

For Pelton, the Kony case reminds him of the time he tracked down Francis Ona, the leader of the Bougainville separatist movement. In his book, The Hunter, the Hammer, and Heaven, Pelton tells the story of when he went to find Ona on the island of Bougainville. During his first attempt, he was rebuffed after locals became convinced that he was in fact a mercenary out to kill Ona. Not eager to wander into the camp of a rebel leader who believed he had orders to kill him, Pelton retreated. But after several years of stalemate, Ona got around to reading the faxes that Pelton had sent him and changed his mind about the journalist. Pelton returned to the island and travelled to Ona's mountain refuge -- the place the word "Heaven" refers to in the title. There he told him of his struggle to achieve independence. Persistence, a healthy dose of empathy, and a bizarrely successful track record of interviewing the world's villains all added up to success for Pelton.

For $450,000, Pelton thinks he can do the same thing with Kony. Do you believe him? Then give the man some money.

Courtesy of Robert Young Pelton

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Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Confessions of a Drone Warrior, by Matthew Power, GQ

Meet the 21st-century American killing machine, who's still utterly, terrifyingly human.

Despite President Obama's avowal earlier this year that he will curtail their use, drone strikes have continued apace in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. With enormous potential growth and expenditures, drones will be a center of our policy for the foreseeable future. (By 2025, drones will be an $82 billion business, employing an additional 100,000 workers.) Most Americans-61 percent in the latest Pew survey-support the idea of military drones, a projection of American power that won't risk American lives.

And yet the very idea of drones unsettles. They're too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties-the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we've slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it's too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

For Bryant, talking about them has become a sort of confessional catharsis, a means of processing the things he saw and did during his six years in the Air Force as an experimental test subject in an utterly new form of warfare.

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Enduring Exile, by Alia Malek, Guernica

A family's journey from Armenia to Syria and back again.

But by September, six months into the uprising and crackdown, no one could avoid a certain vulgar calculus: Anto was marked, a Syrian-Armenian Christian in a Syria of looming sectarianism.

Aleppo was home to tens of thousands of other Syrian Armenians, but in these hills, Anto was alone. "You're like an Arab in Tel Aviv," a man from Idlib told him.

Idlib and the surrounding area were becoming strongholds for opposition fighters, both secularists and jihadists. In the growing chaos, religion and ethnicity had become a congenital liability: the wrong belief or background, at the wrong moment, could be fatal. Guilt had become collective; one individual could be traded for another of the same sect or community in escalating cycles of brutality and vengeance.

To the more conservative people in the hills, Anto was already an affront, with the alcohol serving, singing, and gender-mixing in his restaurant. For the more ignorant, his being neither Muslim nor Arab-despite his being Syrian-made him fair game as a scapegoat for a regime that claimed to be supported by minorities. It also made him an easy target for kidnappers hoping to net a pretty ransom without the risk of angering a much more numerous or powerful community. For those who, in their fervor, believed a better Syria required that everyone be the same, there would be little room for him. Pragmatic Syrians reasoned that the casualties would be many before anyone would stop to consider or even question the hell that they had just meted upon each other.

MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images


The War of Rape, by Stephanie Mencimer, the Washington Monthly

What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?

And yet there's a strange paradox about sexual assault. The crime is massively underreported to law enforcement, but at the same time, a fair number of people lie about it. The best official estimates suggest that between 8 percent and 10 percent of all rape claims are false. And unfortunately, sometimes when people lie about rape, they lie spectacularly. Crystal Mangum did so in 2006 when she brought charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Tawana Brawley did so in 1987 when, as a teenager, she nearly sparked race wars in New York by falsely accusing six white men, including police officers and a prosecutor, of raping her.

As told in the media, Jones's story neatly fit the feminist rape scenario. Brushed off by law enforcement, she sought justice with a civil case, only to be victimized again by defense lawyers using her sexual history to try to discredit her. Her story was both haunting and familiar. Even so, there were some glaring departures from the standard narrative: law enforcement did not, in fact, brush off Jones's case, a fact that reporters glossed over in the early coverage of her story.

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Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?, by Abigail Haworth, the Guardian

What happens to a country when its young people stop having sex? Japan is finding out...

Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures? Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Across urban Asia, Europe and America, people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, single-occupant households are on the rise and, in countries where economic recession is worst, young people are living at home. But demographer Nicholas Eberstadt argues that a distinctive set of factors is accelerating these trends in Japan. These factors include the lack of a religious authority that ordains marriage and family, the country's precarious earthquake-prone ecology that engenders feelings of futility, and the high cost of living and raising children.

"Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction," Eberstadt wrote last year. With a vast army of older people and an ever-dwindling younger generation, Japan may become a "pioneer people" where individuals who never marry exist in significant numbers, he said.

TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

The Price of War, by Letta Tayler, Foreign Policy

A new report details the civilian costs of U.S. drone strikes -- and failures to compensate the families of victims. 

The Obama administration acknowledges the program's existence but, with rare exceptions, refuses to publicly confirm individual strikes, including the six that I investigated during two trips to Yemen.  Among the details that the United States will not reveal are how many people it has killed, including civilians. It also refuses to detail the full legal framework under which it carries out the killings, or what actions it takes, if any, when attacks go awry.

In Yemen, it's an open secret that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have carried out an estimated 80 targeted killings in the country since 2009, killing more than 470 people, most with drone-launched missiles. Yet the United States has only formally acknowledged the two strikes that killed three American citizens: the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom U.S. officials described as chief of foreign operations for AQAP; Samir Khan, the editor of AQAP's English-language magazine, Inspire; and Awlaki's teenage son Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in an attack that targeted someone else.

It's as if the hundreds of Yemenis also killed in U.S. strikes -- including dozens of civilians -- never existed. "We Yemenis are the ones who pay the price of the ‘war on terror,'" said Faisal Jaber, a relative of the two Jaber cousins killed in Khashamir. "We are caught between a drone on one side and al Qaeda on the other." 

-/AFP/Getty Images