The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian school girls has captured international attention and sparked a twitter campaign. Yet few outside of Nigeria paid attention as the terrorist group responsible, Boko Haram, killed thousands of people in previous attacks on churches, schools, police stations, newspaper offices, beer halls, bus terminals, and more. When the organization assaulted a school with male students, it simply murdered them.
Americans understandably want to help, but Washington must avoid getting entangled in another interminable conflict, this one featuring relentless Islamic extremists battling brutal security forces. Only Nigerians can find a way to simultaneously defeat a terrorist organization which kills more indiscriminately than al-Qaeda and reform a political system which seems to guarantee failure.
Nigeria should be an African powerhouse. With a population of roughly 175 million, the continent’s largest economy, and abundant oil reserves, the country’s potential is obvious. Yet around 100 million people live in poverty and the state is incapable of keeping the lights on. Corruption is pervasive, with politics a popular means of self-enrichment. Rampant violence has turned Nigeria into a nation of armed guards, high walls, and checkpoints.
“Getting involved in Nigeria may be emotionally satisfying, but it isn’t likely to help.”
Worse, Nigerians have endured civil war and extended military rule. Only recently has civilian rule taken root. Nevertheless, with the country evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, political machinations are often sectarian and always complex. Muslim northern states imposed sharia law over objections from Christian minorities; mob violence between Christians and Muslims cost many lives, especially in Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt.
The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram began more than a decade ago and turned to escalating violence after its leader was killed in government custody in 2009. The name is loosely translated Western education is prohibited, or more accurately, non-Muslim education is prohibited. While BH has complained of corruption and human rights abuses, its principal cause today is radical Islam. Social problems have increased its appeal to disaffected young men, but BH’s penchant for slaughter transcends any political grievances.
The government’s response often has been ineffective, even counterproductive. Although the authorities pushed BH out of urban areas and frustrated the group’s hope of creating a territorial caliphate, unlawful killings, mass arrests, and other abuses help sustain support for the guerrillas. Boko Haram has responded with terrorism, killing ever more promiscuously.
BH operates with relative impunity in three northeastern states. From 2009 to 2012 the organization killed some 1500 people. Another 1500 have been murdered so far this year, with killings almost daily. For instance, after the kidnapping Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 300 Nigerians in an attack on a town near the Cameroon border. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. BH kills security personnel, Christians, Muslims who oppose killing Christians, students seeking an education, and anyone else who dissents from the group’s extreme Islamist agenda.
The kidnapping highlighted the failure of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The military may have had advance warning of the attack yet did nothing; its response afterwards was scandalously slow. The authorities barely noticed the kidnapping at first and initially rejected offers of foreign assistance.
The region where BH operates is remote, mixing bush and mountains, and after a month there is little hope of rescuing the girls. State Department spokesman Marie Harf admitted: “as we have many indications, many of [these girls] have likely been moved out of the country to neighboring countries at this point.”
Today the Nigerian government appears to hope that international interest will wane. When questioned at the World Economic Forum being held in Abuja, Nigeria’s Finance Minister responded that she was tired of answering such questions. President Jonathan said “I believe that the kidnapping of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria.” But he may be the only person in Nigeria who so believes.
The burst of publicity caused the Obama administration to dispatch a multi-agency delegation. The mission may meet an emotional need, but offers few benefits and many snares. After all, why is the U.S., rather than oil-rich Nigeria, offering a financial bounty for the capture of BH head Abubaka Shekau? With British and French advisers also on the ground, what does U.S. involvement add in the former British colony? Of all the world’s violent insurgencies, why intervene in Nigeria? Washington already is far too busy militarily around the globe.
Most important, America can do little to save the girls or stop Boko Haram. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki explained that the U.S. group contained “law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations.” Law enforcement? Investigations and hostage negotiations?
This is not a complicated “Who done it?” mystery. The culprits admitted their atrocity and the government knows where they operate. In fact, several girls escaped and described the kidnappers’ location, only to be rebuffed by the military.
Moreover, Boko Haram is not an African equivalent of Jesse James’ gang or a random crew of bank robbers. BH cheerfully, even gleefully, kills, wounds, kidnaps, and destroys en masse. That is its raison d’etre. Who expects the group, which previously has murdered government mediators, to negotiate seriously, let alone with Americans? Even if BH’s offer to trade the girls for prisoners is genuine, the U.S. has nothing to contribute.
The U.S. might have some useful satellite intelligence and specialized equipment, which Abuja previously requested. But those could be transferred without a large and very public delegation.
No doubt the Nigerian army would benefit from professional training—which Washington already is providing. The U.S. embassy acknowledged that “In recent years, and at their request, we have also worked with them on their nascent counter-force.” Alas, Nigeria’s military suffers fundamental flaws beyond America’s reach. For instance, despite the country’s oil wealth, the army appears to be under-resourced given its mission. That likely reflects institutional corruption as well as civilian memories of brutal military rule.
Worse is the lawless behavior of the security agencies, including police and intelligence agents. Amnesty International reported that after a Boko Haram attack in March in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state (where the girls’ school was located), government personnel indiscriminately killed more than 600 people. Two years ago Human Rights Watch warned that security forces “engaged in excessive use of force, physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, stealing money during raids, and extrajudicial killing of suspects.” Many Nigerians understandably fear the army as well as Boko Haram. Noted HRW, these “abusive tactics at times strengthen the Islamist group’s narrative that it is battling government brutality.”
Even if the U.S. avoids being identified with heavy-handed Nigerian security services, it risks being swept into Nigeria’s larger religious, tribal, and political riptides. These currents are complicated and violent, and some could cut across international boundaries. So far Boko Haram has restricted its murderous activities to Nigeria. Despite some limited links with other terrorist groups in the region, the organization looks more like the idiosyncratic Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army than the pan-Islamic al-Qaeda.
Active U.S. involvement against BH, however, risks turning the conflict into one of international jihad. Then BH may both seek out other terrorist groups and broaden its attacks to Americans. Drone attacks on the Pakistan Taliban apparently encouraged those formerly parochial insurgents to develop terrorist plots against America, including the attempted bombing of Time Square in New York City. The U.S. should avoid making other nations’ enemies its own.
Finally, what is the end point for American involvement? Can U.S. forces go home if the girls are found (other female students have been kidnapped too)? What if the children aren’t located? It will be hard for Washington to abort the mission no matter how hopeless the objective.
With failure almost inevitable, there will be pressure on the U.S. to do more, even enter the conflict directly. Secretary of State John Kerry already has talked of doing “everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram.” Rep. Edward Royce (R-Ca.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, advocated development of a “long-term strategic, multifaceted approach to help Nigeria combat Boko Haram.” Policymakers may be tempted to transform today’s limited operation into a long-term support program, perhaps even buttressed by American special forces.
Much the same process has occurred with the administration’s expanding mission to eradicate the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, formed in 1987 in Uganda. The U.S. long provided money, intelligence, and logistical assistance for Kampala’s military operations against the LRA. Three years ago President Obama deployed about 100 special forces to aid the Ugandan government in defeating the LRA, largely ousted from Uganda, and capturing its leader, Joseph Kony.
The group had killed, abducted, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people over the years, but by 2011 was much reduced, mostly due to Ugandan action. The LRA in no way threatened America. Nevertheless, the administration cited “national security and foreign policy interests” and promised that the mission would be “short term.” Kellen McClure of Freedom House predicted that there were few other bad guys in the world who could “be ‘dethroned’ as easily.”
However, the terrain is daunting and the surrounding countries, especially Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan, are chaotic and violent. Col. Kevin Leahy, commander of the 100 Special Operations troops, admitted last year that “This isn’t searching for a needle in a haystack. It’s like searching for a needle in 20 haystacks.” American troops are still looking.
The LRA is said to have dwindled to just 250 guerrillas and is launching far fewer attacks. Leahy declared: “For all intents and purposes the LRA is a defeated force.” To what extent that is a result of America’s presence is impossible to say—the U.S. force added sophisticated capabilities, but the Ugandan military has been reducing the LRA’s range for years. Nevertheless, in March the administration announced that it was nearly trebling the number of American personnel and deploying at least four CV-22 Ospreys. The enhanced force is to offer additional advice and assistance to an African Union force tracking the LRA. What if Kony continues to evade capture? Will U.S. forces stay on for the rest of his life—and his successor’s?
Although the LRA is America’s most active combat commitment in Africa, the U.S. has been increasingly active across the continent. Indeed, despite America’s lack of serious security interests in Africa—other than the sense that everything everywhere must matter to Washington, irrespective of what it is or who it affects—the Pentagon set up the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and has been steadily augmenting America’s “presence” on the continent. Some deployments, such as Djibouti, are public. Others are more obscure. AFRICOM’s Captain Rick Cook told a group of defense contractors: “We have shifted from our original intent of being a more congenial combatant command to an actual warfighting combatant command.”
Washington’s default policy should be to stay out. The fact that there is conflict somewhere on earth does not require Washington to join it. Rather than jumping into the Boko Haram imbroglio, the U.S. should be backing away. Africa long has been full of wars which, though tragic, do not threaten America. Washington should avoid involvement and preserve peace at home.
One can hardly imagine the pain felt by the families of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But the U.S. can do little to help and Washington’s intervention risks creating blowback Americans can ill afford. Only the Nigerian people can bring peace to Nigeria.
Getting involved in Nigeria may be emotionally satisfying, but it isn’t likely to help Only Nigerians can save Nigeria