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A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012

Posted on Mar 14, 2012
AP / Stuart Price

The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, answers journalists’ questions in 2006 after a meeting with U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan. Now, a video by the advocacy group Invisible Children about the atrocities carried out by the LRA has been racking up millions of views.

Sara Weschler lives in Gulu town, not far from where Joseph Kony was born. She has been involved with northern Uganda and the LRA issue since 2005, and moved to the region after college. She works as a communications officer for Information for Youth Empowerment Programme (—a small local NGO founded by LRA returnees and other war-affected youth to promote peace and post-conflict recovery. After a video about the Lord’s Resistance Army became an international phenomenon, Weschler wrote this letter to share her perspective and set the record straight.

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I’m coming to all of this a bit late, I know. But it’s hard to respond to Internet phenomena in a timely manner when power supplies are cut almost every evening and you’re busy fighting off a fever. The fact that a ship in Mombasa harbor dropped its anchor on the region’s primary Internet cable two weeks back doesn’t help with connectivity either.

For starters, let me say this: As a viral campaign, #KONY2012 (or #StopKony) is simply astounding. Granted, I’m not the most Internet savvy member of my generation, but I honestly cannot think of a group or cause that has more successfully harnessed the power of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so forth. The question is, however, to what end?

From what I’ve seen on Twitter, the campaign has spawned two types of reactions. The first, and by far the more prevalent of the two, is fervent, unquestioning, self-satisfied (and self-righteous) support from people who know very little about the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] and who are, in many cases, hearing the name Joseph Kony for the first time. The second is of the seething, venomous backlash variety—people who have been involved with northern Uganda and the LRA for years, who are infuriated by the superficiality and sensationalism of this campaign and who basically want to rip the campaign’s creators, Invisible Children [IC], to shreds.

I am, of course, adamantly not in the first camp. But I’m going to try my best not to slip too far into the vitriol of the second. I’ve noticed that in the aid and advocacy world the cheapest way to make yourself feel good about your own work is to condemn the efforts of another. So while I feel a need to point out the inadequacies of this campaign, I will try to keep the IC bashing to a minimum. A number of commentators (Rosebell Kagumire, Mark Kersten, Angelo Izama, Tom Murphy, to name a few) have come out with measured, balanced responses, and I hope that I can manage to make my case in a similar vein.


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The members of Invisible Children are by no means bad people. While the school sponsorship work they do in northern Uganda is neither unique in its method nor remarkable in its achievements, it is a perfectly decent, solid set of programs. Meanwhile, their contribution to the LRA Crisis Tracker and their work on early-response radio systems in South Sudan, the Central African Republic [CAR] and the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] are extremely valuable. My problem with IC, though, is that it is more concerned with image than with substance, that it prioritizes creating the illusion of a momentous and world-changing movement over effecting actual positive changes on the ground, and that it propagates a narrative of Western saviors swooping in to rescue “Africa.” Its latest campaign and accompanying video, “StopKony/Kony2012,” are no exception.

The overarching claim of the movie (which, because I am in northern Uganda and it takes me three hours and eight tries to stream a 30 minute film, I have, admittedly, seen only once) is that there is an evil man somewhere out there in Central Africa. He has spent more than 25 years waging a brutal war for absolutely no reason, his army consists of 30,000 abducted children, and he cynically uses any attempts at peace talks or negotiation as an opportunity to rearm his troops and strengthen his power. The biggest problem is that no one knows about him. But if “we” spread the word and pressure the U.S. government to maintain military assistance to the Ugandan army, then by the end of this year “we” can capture Kony and end this horror.

Where do I even begin?

Misrepresentation of the Facts

The statistic cited for the number of children in Kony’s army comes from legitimate U.N. reports, and is in fact on the low end of estimates concerning LRA abductions (many sources put the number closer to 60,000). However, this count represents the total number of LRA abductees since the army’s inception in the mid-1980s. In its current state, the LRA is believed to consist of only a few hundred soldiers. This is not to say that it has ceased to be a threat. In the years since the Juba Peace Talks, the LRA has killed hundreds upon hundreds of civilians and forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. But the fact remains that the video distorts and sensationalizes the truth.

In addition, the claim that all attempts at peaceful negotiations have failed because of deceit on the part of the LRA is erroneous and one-sided. On several occasions—most notably at the end of the 1994 talks spearheaded by Betty Bigombe—it was unilateral acts of bad faith from the Yoweri Museveni regime that sabotaged the peace process.

Finally, we come to the central conceit of the #StopKony campaign: that the LRA continues to exist because it is utterly unknown; that spreading awareness is all it would take to put an end to this conflict.

Jan Egeland, former United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, once referred to the LRA conflict in northern Uganda as “the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on Earth.” Such a statement would seem to corroborate IC’s assertion that “99 percent of people” in the world have no idea who Kony is. The problem is, Egeland made that assessment nearly a decade ago.

The claim might even have rang true as late as early 2005. But ever since July of that year, when Kony and four of his subordinate commanders became the targets of the first arrest warrants ever to be issued by the International Criminal Court, the LRA has been, if not a household name, at least a term well known to politicians and policymakers across the globe. 

The sort of mass “awareness” that this campaign is now spreading does not serve to further an international understanding of this issue. Instead, it misleads people and leaves them with a dangerously convoluted impression of the LRA conflict and what it would take to end it.

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By CardboardSeas, March 20, 2012 at 2:30 am Link to this comment

Wow, TJ, you have clearly drunk the IC Kool Aid and now what flows from your mouth is the stream of ignorance fed directly from the IC source. It’s hard, really, to know where to begin. In reading your comments, I am reminded of those cults in which members became brainwashed through various unpleasant methods but once brainwashed came to believe the rationale of the cult and their own submission/subordination. IC sounds like such a cult. IC has managed to convince you that the story of Uganda is now the story of IC and that Uganda and IC are somehow historically intertwined. In this way, IC can decide not only what the storyline of Uganda is but how it will end. For IC, the story of Uganda began with their first video and ever since it has been IC who has decided how this story will end. Truly, it is like an epic movie and Kony 2012 is what, Part II of the series? It is rather mind boggling how the soldiers of IC so smoothly can narrate this – truly mind boggling for those outside of the cult whose minds have not been altered by the Kool Aid.

And then there is this disturbing part of your comment:

“There are thousand [sic] of Ugandans [sic] and Sudanese children who have [sic] held and cared for and have literally been saved from death because some one [sic]  got their hands on a IC dvd or saw someones [sic] bracelet or read a shirt someone was wearing at school.”

How does it come to pass that these thousands of Ugandan and Sudanese children become “saved from death” through the purchase of dvds, bracelets, or t-shirts? Is it because, having seen said paraphernalia, hundreds of young middle class Americans jump on a plane to Uganda or Sudan and rescue them? Is that how it goes?

This full grown movement that is currently inspiring you is a fiction. And it is not an innocuous fiction; it has been created and is funded off the backs of the suffering of nearly 2 million Ugandans who have only recently known peace. This full grown movement is entirely unrelated to anything happening in northern Uganda and whatever the Acholi are coming to understand of this American movement they are most certainly not happy. If you want to see the reaction of folks from Liratown, check this video out:

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By TJ, March 18, 2012 at 11:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i read most of this and have also spent some time in Uganda Gulu and Kitguim
included. Much of that was with former LRA members, and there victims. I think
what she Fails to understand is that this campaign is invisible children’s attempt
to keep their promise to stop Kony and bring closer to there small piece of the
story. Grimes may be right in her assessment and her claims that there are
many more things that the ppl of uganda are in need of. but the aim of kony12
and IC is to finish the awareness campaign and the story they started with their
first video! They are one small part of the war against the LRA, and this
campaign is historical and unprecedented in its nature. Another mistake she
appears to make is how she measures the success of IC’s direct impact in
Uganda,While she may be accurate in her description of the work they have
done in Uganda itself, she fails to measure the totality of this orgs impact on
this issue as a whole. My friends and I who have raised thousands of dollars and
between all us taken dozens of trips to uganda and the sudan are a fraction of
those who have been influenced and have acted upon the message of Invisible
children! You can’t measure their impact without consider the thousand of
young people that have joined with hundreds of orgs around the world to do
anything they can for the Africa children. There are thousand of Ugandans and
Sudanese children who have held and cared for and have literally been saved
from death because some one got their hands on a IC dvd or saw someones
bracelet or read a shirt someone was wearing at school. What I find incredible is
that rarely you see an awareness campaign morph and grow into a full blown
movement. I was part of this movement. and the result of it is millions of young
people now not just with a heart for war orphans but a social conscience in

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By Linda Miller, March 18, 2012 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A very illuminating, insightful and detailed report “from the ground.” I appreciated having so much inside information, from someone who’s spent time (and continues to spend time)in Gulu, helps me understand some of the nuances of this complex and sad situation. Here in the states, mainstream media provides very little in the way of background or “on the ground” info. in any depth when it comes to Uganda.

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By mrfreeze, March 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

Bill Maher gets it right:

Indeed, the American sheeple will a) wonder what “country” Africa is (shades of S. Palin), b) wonder why our Ipads aren’t made there, c) wonder what’s on American Idol tonight.

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By jrundin, March 17, 2012 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

Do check out what the War Nerd has to say about this.

I’m not sure what solutions there are to Africa’s problems, but, having met some of the Christian missionaries who claim to be helping Uganda, I’m fairly sure that they are not the solution but actually part of the problem.

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By moonraven, March 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment

Cardboard Seas:  Spot on.

This is just another aftermath of rapacious colonialism—and it will not be brought into order by another big blast of colonialism under the guise of humanitarian intervention.

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By moonraven, March 16, 2012 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment

Yes, cassandra, there is a lesson there:  don’t believe anything the US government tells you.

Biin Laden died of kidney failure in December 2001 in a hospital in Dubai.

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By moonraven, March 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm Link to this comment

I am offended by all of these stories for untravelled gringos about countries that they couldn’t find on a map—even one with the countries’ names.

This is just a distraction, a little break from t.v. for a population that cares absolutely nothing about folks in other countries.

Hell, they don’t care about folks in their own country, either.

It’s all to put folks into the jetsream of supporting all the invasions, attacks and dirty tricks that your government carries out around this planet.

Just say no to this dope.

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By gerard, March 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm Link to this comment

As our own country becomes increasingly disordered, aggressive, frightened and dysfunctional,it’s time to concentrate on reconstructing what used to be a halfway possible democracy for a mixture of people who wanted to live together in a habitable world.
  Not only are there a lot of less habitable places close by, but recently we have been projecting our problems on them, one way or another—all under the pretense of “helping”. The damage we have done, to them and to ourselves, bears some scrutiny.
  It might be a good idea to concentrate on mending what we have broken, here and abroad, and refraining from further aggression, deceit and wishful thinking.

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By Pat Johnson, March 16, 2012 at 10:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Sara for giving us an objective, fair and balanced assessment of this complicated situation. It is refreshing to see that there are still people out there who can put forth the effort needed to distinguish between the shades of gray that these situations consist of. There is far too much propoganda out there from both extremes.Such propoganda comes very easy. But objectivite reporting like yours requires careful thought and effort. Hopefully the voices of peace and reason, like yours can be heard above the clamor.

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By Oceanna, March 16, 2012 at 6:42 am Link to this comment

Evil thrives in ignorance and denial.  Museveni’s rampages of torture, rape, and
death throughout Uganda and the Congo began long before the LRA’s.  He also
implemented child conscription into the UPDF at least a decade before Kony.

Both individuals certainly qualify as evil.  But what about the evil of defending
Museveni, of propping up his unpopular regime, through going after one of his
primary opponents in the name of humanitarianism?

Understandably, no leader in any African country wants to host the DOD’s
Africom, which remains in Germany. That is, except Museveni.  But there are
impediments to that besides the LRA, like the will of the Ugandan people. 

I can’t think of anything more cynical than invoking the suffering and
conscription of children to gain a greater US foothold into the African continent,
while propping up a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions over
multiple decades and who also conscripted child soldiers.  Evil needs and
enables further evil, and has no qualms with invoking a mission of goodness. 

Kony’s operations had receded in recent years.  Will they be revitalized from
foreign intervention, much like AQ’s?  The US has had a string of disasters in
Africa.  Is the past prologue?

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By Shenonymous, March 16, 2012 at 12:50 am Link to this comment

Are we our brother’s keeper?  What do we humans really owe one
another?  Aren’t these really the basic questions we must ask our-
selves and fellow humans in all seriousness and come to some
definable moral self-awareness?  From everything that is reported,
Kony is nothing but a wretched murderous villain.  What makes one
think they have rights over others?  One further question is and we
must, simply must, because from all the discussion it has not even
been attempted to be answered, but it demands an answer, what
would be justice for Kony?

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By Edyth Koch, March 15, 2012 at 11:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I would like to suggest that Sara Weschler go to “The Real News Network” blog and watch a much more credible video about Joseph Kony.  I think that Truthdig should investigate Weschler’s statements and right a opposing article which discourages a rally for military intervention.

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By Amber Owen, March 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am a sheep. I want to do something to help the region achieve peace in
the future. What’s the chances of all the intellectuals and locals and
experts getting together and coming up with even one thing you can all
agree on that I can do to help. Keep it simple or I’ll lose interest and not do
anything at all. I’ll get back to you in 10 years or so and see if you’ve come
up with something yet. From an Aussie

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By Maani, March 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm Link to this comment

With due respect to Ms. Weschler, like CardboardSeas I am troubled by some aspects of her letter.

First, I believe she does as much misrepresentation of the video as she claims the video does of the situation.  Some of her comments are so incorrect that I wondered if we had watched the same video.  Since she admits to having only seen it once (and then only in “spurts” due to unreliable connectivity), it may well be that she simply “misremembered” certain things in the video, and possibly even “added” things that were not there.

More importantly, however, it seems that, for all her depth of explanation and explication, she misses what to me seems the most obvious point here: capturing Kony and correcting the wrongs that have nothing to do with him (historic wrongs, gov’t wrongs, etc.) are not mutually exclusive.  Both are important, and both can and should be done.

In this regard, though she claims to want to avoid outright “vilification” of IC and the Kony2012 initiative, she avoids it only by a hair.

For someone claiming that supporters of the initiative lack an understanding of the “nuances” involved, she seems to be lacking in some nuance of her own.


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By steven, March 15, 2012 at 12:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I disagree with sending military support to Uganda. The further militarization of
countries and nations has only led to more wars and conflicts never solved them.
We truly need to help these children but we also have to think the president of
Uganda asked the US to get Kony, although he himself has commited countless
crimes against his people probably much more than Kony since the Uganda
president has the military on his side… Just common sense how much can a small
rebel army really do compared to a military with thousands? I think we should try
all these men as criminals in the world court and prosecute those involved to clean
up their political system and allow Ugandans do run their own country not greedy,
murdering leaders.

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By CardboardSeas, March 15, 2012 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

I too have lived in Gulu - off and on since 2006 and I believe I have met Sara.

I find this letter problematic and simplistic. Perhaps you lost me when you so narrowly and binarilly divided those who were pro and those who were anti, and that those who are anti are vitriolic and reactionary due to their own advocacy work. Interesting. As you say the cheapest way to defend one’s own work is to trash another’s (I paraphrase). In this way you dismiss any criticism other than the few that you point out as “balanced.”

You are an expert then? And as an expert are more optimistic than your friend who is a local?

Despite deep frustration throughout Uganda around Kony 2012, you seem to be optimistic that IC’s video will do good in raising awareness. And yet. And yet, you yourself say, awareness to what end? Indeed. In comparison, has the “awareness” of the Save Darfur campaign been in any way effective?

And what is more important: a bunch of teenaged Americans with increased (if temporary) awareness, or deeply offended Ugandans who cannot for the life of them understand why Americans would be running around wearing KONY 2012 on their shirts?

Perhaps you should spend some time asking folks in Gulu how they REALLY feel about IC and all that they have done in Gulu.

So, YAY!!! Americans have gained awareness!! And YAY!!!! Invisible Children has raised $15 million USD that they can now spend on lavish salaries and new movies! And YAY!!!! Ugandans have gained….oh. wait. Ugandans have gained….nothing. Nothing.

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By James M. Martin, March 15, 2012 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

War being waged “for no reason”?  This is about like saying that a murder is “senseless.”  The problem with that is that the perp has plenty of reasons, mostly boiling down to one word: power.  Also, he is using religion as a justification for his acts.  He wants to establish a theocracy with himself as head.  Let his actions be a warning to Americans who think the wall of separation between church and state is a “myth.”  It is not.  And it was placed in the Constitution precisely to prevent Kony types from taking over the United States.  That goes for Santorum and the other theocrats running for president against Obama.

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By diman, March 15, 2012 at 8:37 am Link to this comment

Attention, all of you internet liberals, participating in yet another phony bring-this-guy to justice act!!! You can not right the wrongs of this world by simply clicking “like” and “follow” on the anti-social sites that you have turned your life to!!!

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By Oceanna, March 15, 2012 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

“Though the crimes of the LRA outweigh those of the UPDF, we should still
think twice before throwing in our lot with Uganda’s national army.”
Really? Even though Musevieni’s UPDF, which previously went by a different
name until the mid 90’s, has been around a lot longer than the LRA and placed
the Acholis in concentration camps for 20 years?  For whatever reasons, Ms.
Weschler who resides in Uganda, omits that Musevini is the commandeer-in-
chief of UPFD   and that prior to the LRA, the UFPD was consriting children, too. 
I also find it amiss that she fails to mention that Ugandans are in the midst of a
mass protest against his regime as the US throws a lifeline out to it.

“Kony is a nightmare, but Museveni has caused the deaths of millions of people
in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. In 2005 the International Court of Justice found
Uganda liable for what amounts to war crimes in Congo: mass rapes of both
women and men; disemboweling pregnant women; burning people inside their
homes alive; massacres and; plunder of resources. Congo lost six million
people after Uganda’s occupation of parts of Congo. The Court awarded Congo
$10 billion in reparations; not a dime has been paid.”

“From what I’ve seen on Twitter, the campaign has spawned two types of
reactions. The first, and by far the more prevalent of the two, is fervent,
unquestioning, self-satisfied (and self-righteous) support from people who
know very little about the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] and who are, in many
cases, hearing the name Joseph Kony for the first time. The second is of the
seething, venomous backlash variety—people who have been involved with
northern Uganda and the LRA for years, who are infuriated by the superficiality
and sensationalism of this campaign and who basically want to rip the
campaign to shreds.”
I find this is a very ambiguous article, which purports to be objective while
seriously misconstruing concerns over the video and its push for “humanitarian
intervention.”  It seems to be effective at denying the Ugandan movements
against Museveni, while minimizing his barbarity and reign of terror for

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By Milt Lauenstein, March 15, 2012 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There are a lot of situations causing much more suffering thin Joseph Kony and his
band of about 200. Why give him priority over more pressing situations? For
example, Uganda’s dictator Museveni may have caused more suffering than Kony
has, to say nothing of Zimbabwe, Darfur, and Somalia.

The U(S has sent 100 military personnel to assist Museveni in his fight with Kony.
What good will that do when Kony isn’t even in Uganda?

The $1 million video promoting military action may succeed in distorting our
priorities even further from what makes sense. What would make much more
sense would be for the US to cooperate with the rest of the world to make it less
hostile to people rather than to rely of arms to solve every problem.

Milt Lauenstein

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By Arianna, March 15, 2012 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Sara for your enlightening piece.  My only fear is that most people who see the video will not have read it.  The majority of the populace here in America, are sheeple and will jump on a bandwagon for almost any reason.  This hype is a good way for the participants and the donors to feel good about “doing something” for humanity.  I strongly feel it will have an adverse effect.  Not only will much of the monies donated probably fall into the wrong hands, but
a military intervention by the US will only serve as a
platform for the pillaging of much of Africa’s sovereignty and resources.  Who would be the bad guys then?

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By prisnersdilema, March 15, 2012 at 5:44 am Link to this comment

there are also evil men in Wahington,who like to steal the resources of other countries,
by sending in the American military, under the pretxt of aid.

We can never be sure of their motives. Can evil men do good works? Or is their every
act tainted, hoplessly by their past lies and wanton slaughters.

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By Wayne Gersen, March 15, 2012 at 4:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for describing the complications that underlie Uganda. Sadly, not all the
MSM is ready to acknowledge that complexity. In today’s NYTimes Nick Kristoff
wrote: “The video doesn’t contain errors, but it does simplify things greatly to hold
attention. Complexity is, er, complicated: It has been a leading excuse for inaction
during atrocities — during the Armenian genocide, during the Holocaust, during
Rwanda, during the Bosnian slaughter. Each episode truly was complicated, but, in
retrospect, we let nuance paralyze us.” He overlooks the reality that we SHOULD
have been more paralyzed before we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan where we are
only now learning about the cultural nuances. As your email indicates, we don’t
live in a black and white world….

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By Inherit The Wind, March 15, 2012 at 3:37 am Link to this comment

You mean it’s better to spend millions or even a billion bucks on a reward for this monster’s head than spend a trillion and a half and 4500 American lives on an invasion?  Thinking like that would make you hated by the Republican party, you know!  (and a sizable minority of Democrats as well).

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By CassandraSpeaks, March 15, 2012 at 1:43 am Link to this comment

We invaded Afghanistan 11 years ago to get bin Laden, and when we finally got (and murdered) him, it wasn’t because of the long, bloody, expensive, counterproductive war at all. Bin Laden was caught because of the large reward offered, and a small special forces operation.

There’s a lesson here.

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