2014 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Jonathan Gandomi

Coordinated U.S. efforts to end the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of Africa’s oldest and most brutal extremist groups, and help victims overcome decades of violence.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of the oldest and most brutal armed groups in Africa, has murdered, raped, kidnapped and maimed tens of thousands of men, women and children, plundered villages and turned their captives into fighters, servants and sex slaves.

Countering the LRA and its infamous commander, Joseph Kony, has been one of President Obama’s top security priorities in Africa since 2010, combining U.S. military assistance to remove LRA leaders from the battlefield with humanitarian aid to help traumatized communities and individuals overcome decades of violence.

Jonathan Gandomi, a 34-year-old State Department employee, played a critical role beginning in the summer of 2012 guiding the counter-LRA strategy, working closely with U.S. Special Forces in the region, local tribal and religious leaders and a range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Scott DeLisi, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, said Gandomi has been central to the U.S. policy, working on the frontlines “building bridges among many different elements in the struggle against the LRA so that they recognized their shared interests and were able to create an effective, cohesive team headed toward a common goal.”

In the field, Gandomi convened meetings with U.S. Special Forces, religious and civil society leaders and LRA victims associations, resulting in new initiatives to promote defections from the LRA’s ranks, increase information sharing, expand early-warning networks and promote trauma healing.

An important part of the U.S. strategy has been to encourage Kony’s soldiers, most of whom were kidnapped as children, to leave the LRA peacefully. To this end, Gandomi helped advance a new safe reporting site concept where local communities are trained to receive defectors from the LRA’s ranks, working closely with local leaders and NGOs. About 15 sites now exist and are publicized through leaflets, radio broadcasts and helicopter-mounted broadcasts, and have been extremely effective in convincing many individuals fearful of retribution to flee Kony’s forces.

“Since 2012, over 100 men, women and children have peacefully left the LRA, including 19 in a single instance in December 2013—the largest single defection from the LRA in over five years,” said Michael Newbill, the counselor for economic and political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Uganda.

In addition to his work in the field, DeLisi said Gandomi served as his “primary voice in engaging officials in Washington and did an incredible job explaining what has been occurring on the ground.” This included providing advice to the National Security Council as well as developing action plans and analyses for the State Department that led to new authorities and enhancements for the counter-LRA effort.

“He is a young man, but an advisor whose judgment I trust,” said DeLisi. “He has shown tremendous cultural sensitivity that has allowed him to be effective communicating our values and beliefs in a way people in the affected countries can relate to and understand, and he has been my primary voice in engaging Washington.”

The LRA originally operated in northern Uganda but moved to the tri-border region of South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This area is one of the poorest, least governed and most dangerous regions in the world.

U.S. officials believe the LRA has been greatly diminished, with no more than a few hundred fighters. But it remains a serious threat, and villagers live in constant fear even as African Union–led troops and U.S. Special Forces pursue Kony. The United States has designated the LRA a terrorist organization, and the International Criminal Court wants to put Kony on trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

Peter Quaranto, the State Department’s special assistant for LRA issues, said Gandomi has been “the critical glue of the entire U.S. program,” embodying a comprehensive approach that in addition to the military component has centered on empowering local communities, helping people escape and ensuring a unity of effort among the different actors.

“He was willing to go into dangerous places under difficult circumstances to get this work done and really make a difference,” said Quaranto. “He is a very good listener and effective at bringing people together, whether he is working with an ambassador or a civil society leader, a local priest or someone who has just defected from the LRA.”

Gandomi, who left his African post in the spring of 2014 to take a position in the White House with the National Security Council, said it’s hard for most Americans to appreciate how much the U.S. role in the counter-LRA mission means to people in central Africa who have lived the nightmare of the LRA.

“This mission against the LRA has less to do with our national security and more to do with our national values,” said Gandomi. “It is bringing a tremendous amount of goodwill to the U.S., but most of all it is about restoring peace to a region that has been terrorized by the LRA for far too long.”