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HAUTE-KOTTO PREFECTURE, Central African Republic — The helicopter settles in the elephant grass, rotor wash flattening the six-foot-tall fronds.
The first man on the ground is Travis, a brawny Green Beret with a solemn demeanor. He scans the treeline, carbine at the ready, and the rest of the soldiers follow.
Three Ugandan troops lead the way as a trio of Americans disperse through the column, weapons at the ready.
On its surface, this is a simple mission. U.S. Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, have been ordered to "apprehend or remove" one of the world’s most notorious warlords from the battlefield, along with his top commanders.
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Joseph Kony built an army of child soldiers indoctrinated in his personality cult, robbing central Africa of a generation.
The self-proclaimed Christian prophet is accused of crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping and torture by the International Criminal Court.
The U.S. considers the elusive Kony a "specially designated global terrorist" and has offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
The area of operations is the size of California, with about 80 military personnel and several dozen support personnel tasked with finding around 150 fighters with Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, operating across portions of four countries in some of the world's most inaccessible terrain.
“You’re looking for a needle in about a million haystacks,” said Lt. Col. Cecil Marson, who commanded the operation's headquarters in Uganda until last spring. "You have to be judicious with your resources, but very aggressive."
Patrols can last days. They are hard: physically, mentally and tactically demanding. In most areas, the vegetation is thick. The only way forward is behind hooked machetes swung by the Ugandan point men. Even with a path cut through the grass and trees, the man in front disappears after only a few yards.
With extreme temperatures and oppressive humidity, heat exhaustion is a concern. So are wild animals. Crocodiles, hyenas, big cats, troupes of aggressive primates and venomous snakes all stalk these wilds. There are swarms of bees and disease-carrying insects. Long, needle-like thorns rip apart clothing and pierce flesh, and poisonous plants abound.
The list of dangers is long, even without the possibility of encountering armed fighters.
"Kony 2012 was a very big thing, but attention died afterwards"
But that is the goal of this patrol: to find the lingering remnants of the LRA.
President Barack Obama deployed forces here in October 2011 but the U.S. had been involved clandestinely in the LRA war since at least 2008.
The LRA has never attacked American citizens or interests and many in the U.S. military want this mission to end. They may get their wish.
As the Trump administration shifts its focus to counterterrorism, the Green Berets' mission to find Kony may be axed as early as this month with the warlord still at large.
Dubbed Operation Observant Compass, America is a relative newcomer to this fight. Uganda is not.
The Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), has been fighting the LRA for almost 30 years.
At the height of its power, the LRA counted as many as 3,000 fighters among its ranks.
It preyed upon villages of northern Uganda, kidnapping young boys and forcing them to commit atrocities against their neighbors and families.
But in recent years, the LRA splintered into small groups, its members traversing the long borders between Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan to escape their pursuers.
Uganda is wearying of the LRA fight. Last year, officials announced they were ready to pull their forces out of the hunt.
Col. Richard Otto has been battling Kony's forces with the UPDF for 20 years. One of his toughest challenges is simply getting his troops from point A to point B.
“Out here, the roads exist only on a map,” Otto said. American involvement has meant increased mobility and better intelligence.
The cooperation between U.S. special forces and the UPDF has led to notable successes. In January 2015, Green Berets were present after Dominic Ongwen, one of Kony’s senior commanders, turned himself in.
Ongwen had been wanted for war crimes, including his role in the massacre of 345 civilians in northern DRC in 2009. He is currently facing trial by the ICC.
The counter-LRA mission relies on the Americans. But without the Ugandans, it ends.
“We are conscious that our withdrawal may take the situation back to square one,” Otto said. Still, he believes the fight against the LRA is almost over. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
“I want to send a message to Ocan to come home. I came home with your children. You never had a chance to see your child, she is called [name withheld], you should come home and see your daughter.”
Messages like this, recorded by a former LRA member, echo across savannah and tropical forests via FM and shortwave radio. The broadcasts are supported through the work of American aid groups like Invisible Children.
In 2012, Invisible Children became the face of American activism in fighting Kony and rehabilitating LRA-affected communities with the release of a video known as “Kony 2012.” The video has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.
Some researchers took issue with what they called a loose adherence to facts in the mini-documentary, but Kony 2012’s impact in raising public awareness of the LRA is difficult to overstate.
“Kony 2012 was a very big thing, but attention died afterwards,” said Camille Marie-Regnault, a field worker for Invisible Children interviewed at the group's headquarters in Obo, Central African Republic.
Other American organizations also took an active role in the hunt for Kony. One was Bridgeway Foundation, run by a Texas philanthropist named Shannon Sedgwick Davis. It paid mercenaries to train African Union soldiers searching for Kony.
“To be clear, the objective of our work was never a manhunt for Kony, we set out to protect civilians who were being abducted and massacred,” Davis told NBC News.
Invisible Children has two main roles.
The first is maintaining the network of HF radio transmitters that provide an “early warning system” for tracking LRA attacks and movements.
The second is running a program to encourage defections from the group and rehabilitating former fighters and escaped abductees, so that they can rejoin their families and reintegrate into society.
“We are still working to convince people they can defect, and to convince people they can come out,” Marie-Regnault added.
There have been notable defections, including several bodyguards. In October, the LRA’s “chief intelligence officer” walked for four days from Sudan into CAR, where he was handed over to the UPDF with U.S. special forces present.
Abducted in 2003 at the age of 19, Peter Kidega Okello told the Ugandan Radio Network that he decided to escape after reading a leaflet printed by Invisible Children. He has since been repatriated to Uganda and reunited with his family.
The hunt for Kony remains a pet project in Washington’s halls of power. Activists and former military personnel describe routine high-level interest in the project, with members of Congress and the National Security Council sometimes seeking almost-daily updates about its status.
The Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request for Observant Compass was $22.959 million. In reality the operation relies on additional resources and funding from the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, a $59 billion slush fund used to pay for worldwide military activities, as well as national intelligence resources and State Department funds. U.S. military commanders have publicly stated its annual price tag to be closer to $100 million.
“The U.S., America, we are not at war in Africa — our partners are at war in Africa,” Lt. Col. Matt Maybouer, the commander of the mission said during a recent NBC News visit. “U.S. soldiers are not engaged in direct combat."
The helicopter lifts off, and the patrol moves away from the landing zone, directed by the hand gestures of Ricky, the team sergeant.
The Green Beret's team was one of three conducting a zone reconnaissance: a coordinated search for recent LRA activity. When they find it, teams pick up the trail like bloodhounds, tracking the fighters for days across miles of uninhabited wilderness until they make contact.
“Based on historic patterns of movement, we’ve identified key locations — such as river crossings and campsites — where we can expect to find signs of movement by the LRA,” Ricky said. (NBC News agreed to identify the men only by their first names, in exchange for a firsthand look at this operation.)
Most current knowledge about the LRA comes from the accounts of former members and abductees.
Defectors often describe the terrain in terms of natural features — many are children from distant villages with limited knowledge of local geography. Their accounts contain locations such as “the camp near the bee’s nest in the hollow tree trunk,” or “the river crossing near the old pile of bones,” according to a U.S. intelligence officer with direct knowledge of the operation.
Matching these generic terrain-feature descriptions to specific GPS markers enabled U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) to build a map of the world, as seen through the eyes of an LRA child soldier.
The result enabled the Green Berets to anticipate LRA movements. Commanders have used this knowledge to carry out operations that have sharply reduced the remnants of the LRA.
Maybouer, the commander of the mission, said that since Observant Compass began in 2011 the group's hideouts have fallen from 2,000-3,000 to around 125-150.
The remaining fighters are divided into groups, each led by a subcommander. At least one of these operates in Garamba National Park, a vast wilderness in northeastern DRC on the border with South Sudan.
That LRA subgroup is hunting elephants. They sell elephant tusks on the black market in exchange for cash, to buy weapons and supplies.
A mature elephant tusk sells for as much as $70,000. The LRA takes the tusks northwest, around 500 miles by foot or pack animal across uninhabited corridors of CAR and South Sudan, to Kafia Kingi. There, an illicit market in ivory — among other things — thrives.
Kony is still thought to be hiding in Kafia Kingi, known as “K2” by the U.S. military, moving into uninhabited parts of CAR when pursuit comes too close. In K2, seasonal markets buy and sell the spoils of poaching, funneling them to international smugglers. Much of it ends up on the black market in Asia.
The fight to end this trade is intertwined with the fight against the LRA. In August, the U.S. and its allies began an operation in Garamba aimed at pushing the LRA out of the park.
“The presence of the U.S. military may be acting as a deterrent against poaching activity,” Leon Lamprecht, an operations director for international NGO African Parks, which manages the 1,900 square-mile Garamba.
While African Parks does not have a partnership with SOCAFRICA, “we do know that the LRA, as well as other armed poachers’ groups, were sufficiently destabilized that only two old elephant carcasses were observed since August 1,” Lamprecht said.
Central Africa is an unstable region. CAR is in the lingering stages of a complex insurgency. South Sudan is on the midst of a civil war, while DRC is recovering from years of internal strife.
SOCAFRICA has carefully expanded its network of cooperation and access to local military infrastructure — such as forward bases and airfields — and capabilities as part of the counter-LRA mission. Although focused on finding Kony and his cohorts, American military officers are concerned about the potential for radical Islamist groups to take advantage of the chaos.
Several of the soldiers involved in Observant Compass mentioned Séléka, a rebel coalition made up of mostly Muslim members, that fought against the government of CAR during a civil war that started in 2012.
In Obo there are virtually no local military or police forces, only a small contingent of Moroccan peacekeepers operating under the United Nations. The presence of the UPDF and the U.S. military has created an island of stability. As a result, refugees have flocked to the area.
Residents of Obo praised the presence of the Americans.
“Things have been getting better here since they arrived,” said Anidje Michelina, a resident of Obo who runs a local cafe. “I want the LRA to leave this place. Thanks to the American forces, there is peace in this town. We used to sleep in the bush, but now we are sleeping in our houses.”
If the UPDF or the Americans leave, aid workers fear the security will evaporate.
“Obo sits at the crossroads between these areas of instability. I think this area post-LRA represents a really key opportunity for stability on this part of the continent,” said Invisible Children’s Sean Poole. He would like to see American involvement regardless of the eventual fate of the LRA mission.
Commanders of Africa Command, or AFRICOM, have publicly questioned whether the mission is worth the expense. In testimony before Congress in March, outgoing AFRICOM commander Gen. David M. Rodriguez bemoaned its cost. In November, AFRICOM’s current commander, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told Stars & Stripes: “We are at a point in time where we need to transition that mission.”
What Waldhauser meant by “transition” is not immediately clear. Under the Obama administration, the mission was reauthorized each year for 12 months at a time. In October, during the waning days of his presidency, Obama opted to renew the mission for only six months, in order to give the incoming administration flexibility in deciding its future.
“I imagine Observant Compass would be quietly wound down and renamed,” said Joseph Trevithick, a fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and a freelance journalist who has written extensively about AFRICOM. “In March there may be some temporary re-authorization, or they will already have an endgame that would allow AFRICOM to broaden the scope and replace the existing mission with one of regional counterterrorism.”
Paul Ronan is founder of The Resolve, an advocacy group that maintained a real-time database of LRA attacks. Last month the group announced it was closing its doors and folding its work into that of Invisible Children.
“The prospects for the reauthorization of this mission by President Trump are difficult to discern,” he said. “This mission has always been driven by the White House and the State Department. The Department of Defense is less enthusiastic about this mission.”
The White House has not publicly commented on the mission. As much of the National Security Council remains unstaffed, it is unclear whether the administration has an official position on the matter.
Despite reassurances that the LRA has been more or less defeated, capturing Kony is key.
Whether or not the U.S. is able to find Kony, his days may be numbered. Okello, the LRA intelligence chief, told Ugandan media the warlord suffers from severe stomach ulcers.
“If we don’t catch Kony,” one U.S. military officer said, “stomach ulcers will.”
But reports about his ill health have surfaced before, and after 30 years, Kony is still at large.