Uganda's decision to end its search for a notorious warlord, as well as a new bounty on his head, does not change the mission for roughly 100 American special operations troops sent to help patrol the dense jungles of central Africa, U.S. officials say.
The State Department announced on April 3 it will give up to $5 million for any information that leads to the arrest, transfer or conviction of three top leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army, including Joseph Kony, the elusive and brutal guerilla leader featured in a viral online video. This news came the same day that Kony's native Uganda announced it would cease hunting the LRA leader in neighboring Central African Republic, which is currently rife with political disorder.
The U.S. deployed a small group of special operations troops to Uganda in late 2011 to train regional forces to track down Kony. A Pentagon spokesman confirms they are still in the fight.
"We are in support of the Ugandans, to the extent to which they modified their part of the effort, we are still there to help them," says Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Rob Firman. "We are committed to the mission."
The new State Department bounty is an example of the "whole government approach" the U.S. is taking in delivering a wide variety of efforts for capturing Kony, Firman says. The militant leader proclaims he is a god and, with his group, is accused of kidnapping and displacing as many as 2 million people since the late 1980s – many of whom the LRA forced into becoming soldiers or sex slaves.
The roving unit of U.S. commandos operates largely in Uganda, CAR and South Sudan – though their operations also take them into northern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But their search may be fruitless. Dr. Tom Snitch, a University of Maryland professor and former senior advisor to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says there is a good chance Kony is dead.
"Someone who is that much of a megalomaniac, who for four years to be voluntarily silent and hiding, from a psychological point of view that would seem kind of hard to me," he says. "You would think sooner or later someone would trip him up."
Other populist leaders such as Osama bin Laden made a point of distributing messages or videos that proved their existence and that they continued to work for the cause they purported.
"A lot of these guys have the aura of invincibility until they have 'Zero Dark Thirty' happen," he said, referring to the Hollywood depiction of the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden.
"It seems to me that a guy who was sitting down for interviews … suddenly decides to climb into a hole for four years and not come out and say to his supporters, 'I'm here in an undisclosed location working hard for you,' it just seems out of character for somebody of that nature," Snitch says.
U.S. officials said in March 2012 that the American troops are not involved in any direct fighting with LRA forces. Their presence helps serve as a "psychological boost" to the regional forces, according to Osita Ogbu, a former senior Nigerian official.
"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," he told U.S. News last year. "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."
Central African Republic has teetered on the brink of political collapse in recent months after rebel leader Michel Djotodia and his Seleka fighters captured the capital and ousted President Francois Bozize. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the "general ferment and lack of security that resulted from the Seleka rebel takeover" caused the shift in U.S. strategy.