There are differing opinions among officials about whether killing or capturing Kony would be enough to end his movement, which originated in the marginalized Acholi tribe of northern Uganda and offers an ideology that is a cult-like mish-mash of Christianity and traditional mysticism, held together by the force of Kony's charismatic and cruel leadership. Kony and two of his top lieutenants have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court and would theoretically face trial if captured alive.
The U.S. says it is here to provide logistical support, bolster intelligence sharing and improve the coordination among the four nations' armies now fighting the LRA.
"Our intent is to supplement host nation military efforts with advice and assistance that maximizes the flow of information to, and synchronizes the activities of, host nation units in the field," said Maj. James Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for U.S. special operations forces in Africa. "The end state for this mission is to enable local forces to be able to render the LRA ineffective."
Although local residents are impatiently expecting a major new military operation soon, they say they have seen little American activity, and the troops themselves keep a low profile. Obo's acting mayor said he hasn't met any of the U.S. troops. The one identifiable U.S. project is the construction of a bigger broadcast tower for the local radio station.
Rawlinson did not directly respond to a question about whether U.S. personnel would join the Ugandan military on patrols, but he said that it is the African militaries that "have the responsibility of specifically countering the threat."
Ledio Cakaj, a researcher who has interviewed 200 former LRA fighters, women, and abductees over the past several years, is openly skeptical that the U.S. involvement will make any difference in a battle that has gone on for decades.
"The so-called military solution has not worked for over 25 years," he said, noting that the LRA is far more organized and rational than it is often portrayed in Western media. "It is not practically possible to kill them all."
Locals in Obo have had their hopes raised before. When Ugandan troops arrived in 2009, they were warmly welcomed as protectors. But more than two years later, with Kony still at large and the Ugandan strategy for finding him opaque, that good will has evaporated. Locals say Ugandan soldiers sometimes rampage through town drunk, abusing civilians, and they accuse them of running business schemes instead of finding Kony.
For the time being, the U.S. presence seems to have straightened out their allies' behavior, and once again the people of Obo feel their liberation is near. How long the status quo can remain before that elation craters is impossible to know. Locals seem to anticipate Kony only has a few months, if not weeks, remaining.
Until then, life remains a daily struggle.
In mid-January, Mbolifue Dieudonne and his brother, Danambutigo James, carried peanuts and clothes toward South Sudan for sale. They crossed four rivers, climbed a mountain, and then they saw them: five reeking dreadlocked men, armed with AK-47s.
They dropped their goods and ran for it, but James was captured. He was marched a mile and a half and stripped of his clothes. "We will kill you," said a man on his right. But the commander, to his left, released him.
Just like that, he was free. Once again, the tormentors from another land had left him empty-handed. And once again, he had no explanation for the shadowy force that has turned his life upside down in a conflict he still doesn't understand.
"I don't know why they let me go," he said. "I'm still terrified."
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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