American special operations forces have for months been assisting African troops in their hunt for Joseph Kony, but so far the strongman has eluded them.
In October, months before a video by the charity Invisible Children put the warlord's brutality on the global stage, President Obama took a bold step by sending 100 elite troops to Africa. Their charge is to assist Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan in their fight against Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.
Rear Admiral Brian Losey, the top U.S. special operator in Africa, told reporters in late February that the American mission already is paying off.
"We've seen a decrease in the lethality of LRA attacks," Losey said, adding U.S. officials believe that is, in part, due to their work to make the African forces "more effective."
The State Department attributes some of that to Kony and his forces going underground while they size up the American mission, experts say.
But U.S. officials say American troops aren't involved in any direct fighting with LRA forces.
"I want to make it very clear that we are support and not leading this effort," Losey said.
The American commandos are helping the four nations get better at the basics of military blocking and tackling. The idea is that by improving equipment, communications and planning, African troops can defeat the LRA and find Kony themselves.
U.S. officials "expect continued progress in the coming months [because] the counter-LRA operations should become more effective," Losey said.
Osita Ogbu, a former senior Nigerian official now at the Brookings Institution, says the presence of American troops "is a psychological boost" to the regional forces.
"There is a sense of a bit of shock wave to the LRA that the international community is not going to take this atrocity lightly anymore," says Ogbu. "Having the troops there is a sign the U.S. wants to be engaged. And it is a very positive signal to a young country like South Sudan, where the LRA has always been."
U.S. Africa Command and State Department officials peg the number of LRA troops at just 250. "But this is no ragtag bunch," says Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They've been around for 25 years and they are very good at laying low when the heat is on, and at covering their tracks."
Those 250 fighters—and their leader—use largely ungoverned territory about the size of California and spread over several countries to their advantage. The region features thick jungles, making it difficult to locate and track LRA movements, says Ogbu.
"This is very much, for the U.S. troops and the regional troops, a challenge of terrain," he says.
Given the thick jungle redoubts, it's unclear whether Washington will eventually use surveillance drones to track LRA fighters.
Some anti-Kony activists have called on the U.S. to use drones to find the warlord. Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey, one of the creators of the viral "KONY 2012" video, wants the U.S. to snoop around with unmanned aircraft.
"I'm sure the U.S. has satellite capabilities, radio intercepts, all that kind of stuff," Keesey says. "Possibly drone surveillance. Those pieces are the best roles the U.S. can play, and then I just think it's better that way."
Ogbu and Downie agreed, saying American troops and diplomats can best assist the Kony hunt and the broader conflict with his army by training the regional militaries and helping them find ways to work together.
But it is a daunting task, says Downie. State Department officials have told him that the nations agree Kony must be hunted down, but often they deny their allies' access to their own soil.
"This makes things very challenging for this sort of operation," says Downie.
With such a challenging task, Ogbu says there is talk on the continent that more U.S. advisers would help.
"But it will take more convincing members of the [U.S.] Congress," he says. "Anytime boots on the ground are mentioned, people get nervous. And it is not going to happen this year, let's face it. That won't happen in an election year."