LONDON (Reuters) - A YouTube video gone viral has propelled Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, back onto the agenda, entrenching his position at the top of the list of the world’s most wanted men.
But how long the current spike of interest will last is far from clear. Hits on the video appeared to have fallen sharply in recent days, while the charity has also found itself on the receiving end of a savage backlash.
Produced by U.S.-based group “ Invisible Children”, “Kony 2012” has scored more than 77 million hits in less than a week.
With others watching on other sites including the charity’s own, the true total may be higher still.
The message was blunt - and in the eyes of many overly simplistic. It argued that the world and the United States in particular should do more to capture a man indicted almost a decade ago by the International Criminal Court and who still tops their list of suspects at large, accused of multiple war crimes including kidnapping children to act as soldiers and sex slaves.
Such unexpected publicity, insiders say, usually leads to desk officers in foreign ministries and intelligence agencies finding phones ringing with insistent demands something be done.
“A campaign like this definitely energizes the political level and that in turn energizes the diplomatic machine,” says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador and now senior fellow for African affairs at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations. “Democracies are really exceptionally responsive to the public ... “Kony 2012” is bound to have an impact (but) what the practical results will be I think is too early to tell.”
Partly as a result of similar if lower-profile campaigns by civil society groups, the United States late last year sent just over 100 special forces and support personnel to Uganda and nearby countries to help find Kony. But analysts say their main priority has been training local troops rather than engaging in the manhunt themselves.
“These things can galvanize policymakers,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) now head of transnational threats and political risk at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“But unless the safety of nationals or direct interests are involved, there is unlikely to be much of a response over and above anything which might already be happening - such as capacity building for indigenous security forces.”
While Kony’s new-found name recognition might make his capture an appealing prospect in a US election year, a “Black Hawk Down”-style military debacle that cost American lives would be a political disaster for President Barack Obama.
Having been forced from Uganda by a concerted local offensive over several years, Kony and a few hundred followers are believed to have fled at various times to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and now Central African Republic.
But more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq - including thousands of special forces raids - have left the U.S. military hardened and much more used to operating in challenging environments than in 1993, when a botched attempt to seize Somali militia leaders in Mogadishu left 18 Americans and perhaps as many as 2000 civilians dead.
Using ever more sophisticated surveillance and data-crunching technology, Western intelligence agencies have also become much more successful at tracking down high-profile targets.
However, with Kony and his followers now believed to be avoiding telephones and other electronic communications and simply using local runners as they move from village to village, pinning him down may be no easy task.
“The campaign aims to harden the U.S.’s engagement in the fight against the LRA,” said Ned Dalby, central Africa analyst for International Crisis Group. “But worries ahead of the election about U.S. servicemen being killed in Africa will likely prevent the American army going beyond its advise-and-assist role.”
Still, the belief that technologies such as drones and much more precise use of special forces-type operations will lead to fewer military or civilian casualties could draw the U.S. and others into many more perceived “light touch” interventions.
“There is definitely a movement taking shape that wants to use the military force of the United States and other Western countries to achieve humanitarian objectives,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
“You see this on countless message boards calling for an air or drone strike on (Syrian leader) Bashar al-Assad’s headquarters, a quick blow that “solves” problems. With Kony, the idea is that new technologies allow you to find and capture him without having to resort to a large Iraq-style intervention.”
But support for the video and its message is clearly not universal. In the week since it was first posted, “Invisible Children” has found itself on the receiving end of a rising volume of criticism. Detractors have questioned how it is spent charitable funds — including the proceeds of merchandise advertised in the video — and accused it of putting forward a false picture of the situation on the ground.
The video, it is said, gives the clear impression that the war is ongoing and that Kony remains a powerful force in northern Uganda whereas in reality he has fled.
“We appreciate it (the video) but it is achieving nothing,” says Veronica Eragu, a Ugandan lawyer and now senior fellow at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington D.C. “It is about making some people feel good. It does not reflect the reality ... or all of the effort that we Ugandans have put in ... you can even say it is a form of neocolonialism.”
Clearly stung by the criticism, “Invisible Children”, after a brief period of near-silence in which it says its website repeatedly crashed from the volume of hits, has tried to fight back. Its chief executive posted a long video on the website in which he attempted to answer many of the questions posed by critics and the charity also says it will try to answer as many as possible of the thousands of questions lodged via Twitter.
But at least some of the negative onslaught, activists elsewhere say, may be a little unfair.
“It’s easy to criticize,” said one communications specialist working in the human rights sector on condition of anonymity. “A lot of it is reasonable. But a lot of it is also people thinking ‘why weren’t we able to do that?’ and carping from the sidelines.”
Reporting By Peter Apps; Editing by Susan Fenton