For 15 hours, a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers shepherded four dozen South Sudanese commandos through an unremitting nighttime rainstorm, plunging into elephant grass so tall and thick they could not gaze beyond the reach of their arms. They heard the telltale cry of a panther and the ripples of crocodiles lurking in the bogs. Quicksand sucked a few men down to their waists before their comrades could haul them out.

Their destination was a crude encampment used by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a band of rebels led by the messianic warlord Joseph Kony, who has spent years kidnapping and killing villagers — and eluding his pursuers — across a wide swath of central Africa. By the time the troops reached the camp, as beams of morning light pierced the treetop canopy, the rebels had absconded again. The soldiers gave chase for a day, summoning tracking dogs and an infrared-equipped drone, but their quarry melted into the dense Congolese jungle.

The September raid did capture, almost perfectly, the state of the under-the-radar U.S. campaign to help hunt down Kony and his top lieutenants. After two years advising and assisting local troops in four African nations, American forces have significantly expanded their activities — but Kony is still not in handcuffs or a casket.

The assault on the camp last month was the first time U.S. Special Operations advisers had provided in-the-field support to African forces searching for Kony’s rebels in Congo. To the north, in the lawless Central African Republic, where Kony is thought to be hiding, U.S. soldiers have intensified support for Ugandan troops seeking his redoubt. The Americans also have increased training of South Sudanese and Congolese units participating in the hunt.

U.S. troops have forged unconventional alliances, collaborating with members of the advocacy group whose viral Internet video last year made Kony one of the world’s most famous thugs and coordinating with two American philanthropists who are paying for teams of tracking dogs to accompany the African forces.

He may no longer be in the headlines, but the search for warlord Joseph Kony goes on. The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran goes to Africa to see how U.S. forces are expanding the hunt after two years of advising local troops. (The Washington Post)

Senior U.S. officials say the Pentagon has asked the White House for permission to further widen the mission by temporarily basing sophisticated Air Force CV-22 Osprey aircraft in Uganda, allowing American and African troops to move across a broader area and more quickly assault Kony’s camps. Personnel to operate the Ospreys, which can land like helicopters but fly like planes, would nearly double the number of U.S. troops based in Uganda.

“We’re at a new stage in this mission,” said Col. Kevin Leahy, who commands the 100 Special Operations troops pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army. “All of the pieces are coming together, and we’re pushing on all fronts.”

Kony is a tenacious adversary. His fighters, some of whom were conscripted as children, are divided among several semiautonomous cells spread across an area the size of Texas. They remain peripatetic, bedding down in camps nestled deep in the jungle, under foliage that shields them from cameras on American drones and satellites. They eschew two-way radios — their signals can be tracked — and attacks on villages large enough to quickly summon help.

“This isn’t searching for a needle in a haystack,” Leahy said. “It’s like searching for a needle in 20 haystacks.”

Under rules set by the Obama White House, the Special Operations troops involved in the pursuit are not allowed to conduct unilateral missions — their role is limited to training and advising African forces. Visits to front-line jungle bases revealed no indication that the edict is being violated, but the mentoring of local military units extends well beyond classroom instruction and mock drills. American soldiers have begun to drop into the jungle from helicopters and skulk up to rebel camps with their African partners. If a battle ensues, the Americans are supposed to pull back; their rules permit shooting only in self-defense.

The U.S. military plays a far more critical role in everything that leads up to the raids: the compilation of intelligence reports, the planning for missions and the provision of helicopters to transport troops. Defense contractors have expanded jungle bases and built airstrips. Air Force Special Operations pilots haul supplies in planes intended to avoid a second glance — Polish-built twin-props painted to resemble civilian aircraft.

In many ways, the military effort is regarded by top commanders as a model for addressing pockets of instability around the world — facilitating local forces to lead the fight instead of having Americans charge ahead as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hunting Joseph Kony

“The Americans are providing the resources that we lack,” said Ugandan Brig. Samuel Kavuma, the general who commands Ugandan, Congolese and South Sudanese forces participating in the search.

The hunt is one of the most unusual military operations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Kony is not an Islamist extremist or a narcotics smuggler. He poses no jeopardy to the United States, nor is he an existential risk to any African nation. Although he once held sway over a substantial portion of central Africa, the Ugandan military campaign to neutralize him, which began more than a decade before U.S. troops arrived in the region, has shooed him from populated areas. His ranks decimated, he is thought to command fewer than 250 fighters.

Even so, U.S. military officers and diplomats in the region contend that he remains a target worth pursuing.

“Is Joseph Kony a direct threat to the United States? No,” said Scott DeLisi, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda. “He’s not targeting U.S. citizens. He’s not targeting U.S. embassies. He’s not al-Qaeda.”

Instead, DeLisi said, Kony merits U.S. involvement because his malign behavior runs counter to “our core values.”

“Why is the United States engaged in the world, for God’s sake?” he said. “If we are true to what we believe in as Americans . . . we need to get rid of Joseph Kony.”

Invisible Children

The U.S. military’s journey to the camp here has its origins in the same young activists who created the “Kony 2012” Internet video, which blasted into American public consciousness in the spring of that year.

The filmmakers, three young friends from San Diego, started campaigning against Kony a decade ago after making a movie about “night commuters” — children in northern Uganda who walked for hours every evening to sleep away from their homes because they feared abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army. They established a nonprofit group called Invisible Children and screened their documentary at hundreds of high schools and colleges, exhorting viewers to write members of Congress and raise money to aid Kony’s victims.

In 2008, after peace talks between Kony and the Ugandan government collapsed, Invisible Children began to advocate for a more robust U.S. response to assist African nations in pursuing him. The filmmakers were joined by three other young Americans who had established an advocacy group, now called The Resolve, seeking to raise awareness about Kony in Washington.

Although Kony was the first person ever indicted by the International Criminal Court, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan crowded out interest in central Africa. But the activists were undeterred. They harnessed their army of youth volunteers to lobby members of Congress to support legislation requiring increased U.S. assistance.

“We had all of these high school students calling up congressional offices,” recalled Michael Poffenberger, Resolve’s executive director. “At first, they were totally bewildered.”

Not for long. The activists organized a rally outside Oprah Winfrey’s television studio and managed to get on her show. They held rallies involving thousands of students, which garnered local news coverage across the country. In 2009, they brought 1,700 children for a day of lobbying in Congress. The following week, a bill calling for greater U.S. efforts to disarm the Lord’s Resistance Army — but stopping short of requiring the deployment of U.S. troops — attracted more than 100 sponsors. Republicans and Democrats signed up with equal vigor.

When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-
placed a hold on the legislation, the groups rallied students to sleep on the sidewalk in front of his office in Oklahoma City. Despite the frigid nights, the crowd swelled to more than 150. After 11 days, Coburn caved.

The bill was signed into law by President Obama in May 2010, prompting the State and Defense departments to dispatch teams to Africa to study options for increasing U.S. involvement. At the time, Ben Keesey, the chief executive of Invisible Children, thought that if U.S. advisers were sent, “it wouldn’t be more than five or six people.”

Several senior military commanders voiced skepticism in the early strategy sessions, questioning whether deploying forces to kill or capture Kony met core U.S. national security interests. Civilians in the Pentagon, State Department officials and staffers at the National Security Council, some of whom had worked closely with Invisible Children and Resolve, were far more supportive of a military deployment, viewing it as the quickest, most effective way to resolve the problem.

“This wasn’t a top-down decision,” Poffenberger said. “It was pushed by the working-level folks.”

Their arguments found favor with senior members of Obama’s national security team, including Susan E. Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, then a senior NSC official, both of whom regretted that the United States did not intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the late 1990s.

Although the activists cheered Obama’s decision in October 2011 to send 100 U.S. military advisers, they recognized that the White House would need ongoing political cover. Senior Defense Department officials told Congress the mission would last for months, but Keesey and Poffenberger knew better. Kony isn’t an easy man to find.

The following March, Invisible Children released “Kony 2012,” the 30-minute video in which Jason Russell, one of the group’s founders, delivers an impassioned plea for a sustained campaign to pursue the rebels. Within a month, it had been viewed 88 million times.

When Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, sought to tell Obama about it, the president cut him off. “I know all about that,” he told Rhodes, according to people familiar with the conversation. “Malia talked about it over dinner last night.”

This August, 75 House members sent a letter to Obama urging him to “remain committed” until the Lord’s Resistance Army “is defeated once and for all.” A month later, when Obama announced he would ask Congress to approve airstrikes against Syria for using chemical weapons that killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children — far more than Kony is thought to have killed in the past few years — only eight of the 75 issued statements in support of the president’s request.

Key tool: Defections

The American advisers wanted to get to work as soon as they arrived. After offering Ugandan soldiers some brief training on bases, the Americans planned to head up to the Central African Republic and delve into the jungle with them. U.S. officers involved in the mission figured they had only months — as the Pentagon officials told Congress — to capture or kill Kony.

But the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, refused to permit the advisers to leave their bases. Under rules set by the White House, decisions about what the U.S. troops can and cannot do rest not with the Pentagon but with the State Department. And State, in the view of one Special Operations officer involved in the mission at the time, “didn’t want to take any risks.”

DeLisi, the ambassador in Kampala, said the restriction was imposed because the Ugandan government feared that U.S. troops would swoop in, snatch Kony and deprive it of credit. “They had to see that we are not here for a headline, we are not here because of a video,” he said.

As the advisers set out to assuage Ugandan worries, Invisible Children’s field staff urged them to focus on encouraging rebels to defect. Many had been forced to fight at gunpoint. Life on the run in the jungle is miserable. Those who had made it out in recent years said that many others also want to flee but that Kony had convinced them that they would be killed or imprisoned by Ugandan authorities. The American activists saw an opportunity: The Special Operations troops could focus their energy on air-dropping leaflets to encourage defections and driving around to persuade villagers in the Central African Republic to welcome those forsaking Kony.

American forces initially scoffed at the idea. “We just kill people,” Sean Poole, Invisible Children’s representative in Uganda, said he was told by a Special Forces soldier in the initial months of the mission. “We don’t care about defections.”

But locating rebels to kill or capture proved far more difficult than the soldiers expected, and U.S. officers began to come around on defections. They now regard peeling away rebels as the most effective way to weaken Kony. After the September raid in Congo, the Americans scattered tens of thousands of postcards over the surrounding area, some featuring photos of rebel commanders who have switched allegiances and are living comfortably in Uganda. “You are not safe,” other cards read. “You must surrender.”

Defections have become “our most destructive tool,” said Leahy, the Special Operations commander.

Although the Ugandans eventually lifted their ban on joint patrols, the mission began to spiral downward this year. At the outset, the State Department had wanted the military to work with more than the Ugandans — U.S. diplomats believed it was essential to train troops from Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, all of which had been affected by Kony, to mount a coordinated campaign and increase regional ties.

But despite repeated efforts, Congo’s government, which does not regard Kony as a significant threat, refused to commit troops to the hunt — or allow Ugandan forces to operate within its borders. The South Sudanese were slow to offer personnel, and when they did, the Americans were equally slow to begin training.

The biggest blow came when militiamen toppled the Central African Republic’s government. After the coup, the Ugandans stopped searching for Kony in the Central African Republic because of concern they would be attacked by the militiamen.

The U.S. military command responsible for Africa also began to lose enthusiasm. With al-Qaeda militants asserting themselves across North Africa, top commanders worried about tying up so many Special Operations troops on the Kony mission. They proposed scaling back the effort to simply train Ugandan forces in Uganda, shutting down newly constructed bases in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Obama was not eager to retrench. In January, during an Oval Office ceremony to sign legislation expanding the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program — it now offers a $5 million bounty for information leading to the capture of those indicted by the International Criminal Court — the president singled out Kony. “We need to get this guy,” Obama told leaders of Invisible Children, Resolve and the Enough Project, another human rights group that has drawn attention to Kony’s atrocities.

The new leader of the Africa Command, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, soon pushed aside plans to scale back. “We reviewed a range of options,” he said in an interview. Continuing the mission, he decided, “had the best chance of success.”

A senior administration official involved in Africa policy said the military still would prefer to downsize the effort, “but they sense the political wind and they’ve concluded that the best way out is through Kony.”

A ‘model’ of cooperation

The September raid may have been a tactical failure, but U.S. commanders view it as a strategic victory. For the first time, the Americans’ renewed vigor was matched with meaningful contributions from Congo and South Sudan — and critical leadership from Uganda, which has resumed hunting Kony in the Central African Republic.

The progress was on display two days before the raid, when South Sudanese commandos stood at attention on an American-run base near the Congo border to listen to Kavuma, the Ugandan general, wearing a green African Union brassard, lecture them about ethical warfare.

“Do not kill children! Do not kill women! Do not kill someone who has put his hands up!” he shouted. “Only kill those who are trying to kill you.”

The South Sudanese troops, many of them lanky Dinka tribesmen, waited for Kavuma’s admonitions to be interpreted into Swahili, and then they nodded. To the U.S. Special Forces troops standing to the side, who would accompany the South Sudanese on the raid, the lecture felt remarkable.

“A Ugandan general commanding South Sudanese forces going into the Democratic Republic of Congo — that’s a model of regional cooperation,” said the Special Forces team captain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Defense Department restrictions on the identification of certain Special Operations personnel. To the south, at a base in Congo, the other half of the captain’s team was preparing a contingent of Congolese troops to assault a second rebel camp near Garamba National Park.

For the Americans, the breakthrough was the result of patience — and diplomacy. Instead of acceding to U.S. requests for cooperation, Congo’s government embraced the creation of a regional task force led by the African Union. The South Sudanese agreed to participate, as did the Ugandans, who saw the task force as a way to resume operations in the Central African Republic. Although it was not part of the original U.S. plans, American diplomats and commanders jumped on board, viewing it as the most viable way to get the nations working together.

The mission also has prompted an unusual degree of cooperation between the military and non-governmental organizations. Aircraft chartered by the U.S. government have dropped defection
fliers printed by Invisible Children. In turn, Poole and other activists are advising the military on its defection campaign, and they have provided troops with intelligence about rebel movements gleaned from a network of informers in the Central African Republic and Congo.

African troops and their U.S. advisers are also being aided by two American philanthropists, who are paying $120,000 a month for six Belgian Malinois tracking dogs and their handlers. The dogs have accompanied soldiers on patrols and raids. In September, they were helicoptered into the rebel camp near Garamba to assist in the search for fleeing Kony loyalists.

The dog teams are funded by Howard G. Buffett, the eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and Shannon Sedgwick Davis, an activist from Texas who heads the Bridgeway Foundation, the charitable arm of Bridgeway Capital Management, a large investment firm that devotes half of its after-tax profit to human rights causes.

Howard Buffett and Davis also bankroll a helicopter and an airplane used to move supplies and broadcast defection messages with giant loudspeakers. Prior to the arrival of U.S. advisers, the Bridgeway Foundation paid for a private security firm to train Ugandan troops involved in the Kony hunt.

“We want to back them up with what they need,” Buffett said of the military. “We’re trying to fill the gaps.”

Although the U.S. military possesses tracking dogs, deploying them to Africa could violate the terms of the mission because it would place American handlers at the front of patrols, putting them closer to combat. The privately funded canine teams, which operate in close coordination with the Special Operations task force, are not governed by the same restrictions.

“There isn’t a rule book” for such assistance, Davis said. “We’re writing it as we go.”

Pinpointing the needle

Kony’s army has not perpetrated a large-scale attack since the U.S. deployment commenced. His principal aim now appears to be avoiding his pursuers.

“For all intents and purposes,” Leahy said, “the LRA is a defeated force.”

And therein lies the challenge for the U.S. military. If Kony’s ranks were larger and more active, American officers think they would be on his tail. “He’d be on the radar,” one said. “We’d be picking up his [communications]. We’d be tracking his movements.” Instead, “we’re on our own version of the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden, in triple-canopy jungle, with a lot less resources.”

As a consequence, U.S. commanders have concluded that the most critical step in getting to Kony is not training the African forces — the Ugandan army can hold its own in a gunfight — but pinpointing his location. Although reports from villagers and defectors have been helpful, the U.S. military has increased the frequency of drone and other surveillance flights over the Central African Republic. “He’ll pop up,” the officer said. “It’s only a matter of time.”

When he does, Leahy wants to hustle in Ugandan troops and U.S. advisers. The most effective way to do so, his superiors contend, is with fast-moving Ospreys. For now, however, top White House officials have put the aircraft deployment on hold. Increasing the troop contingent beyond the 100-person limit set by Obama would require, in the view of White House lawyers, the notification of Congress under the War Powers Act. Some administration officials think such a move could complicate negotiations with legislators on other matters.

To civilian U.S. officials and nongovernmental activists, the request for the Ospreys was a milestone, regardless of whether they are approved. It is an unambiguous indication, they said, that the military has bought into the mission, perhaps even more so now than political leaders in Washington.

Leahy’s view of how the mission should end — “with Kony gone” — is no different than that of the leaders of Invisible Children and Resolve. “If we let up now, these guys can come back,” he said. “They can regenerate.”

He and his team are convinced they are getting closer to Kony. But they still don’t know for sure how near — or far — they are. “It’s easy to hide in the jungle,” he said. “We have to be patient.”