Boko Haram has shocked the conscience of the world by kidnapping more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last month in the name of radical Islamic reform. Its stated effort is to “destabilize” a government in the capital, Abuja, that it sees as corrupt and unjust.
The question of what the United States or any other government can do has now come to the fore. As of this writing, the Obama administration had sent a group of about 40 advisers to Abuja from the military, State Department, and FBI, and has reconnaissance planes flying in the area where the girls are thought to be held, which is heavily wooded and about the size of New England. The US has also said it’s providing satellite images.
Will this tip the balance? Perhaps. But as recent history shows, ending insurgencies is hard, as are needle-in-a-haystack manhunts in lawless areas where distrust of the government and foreigners runs high.
Ten years of effort and billions spent rebuilding the Iraqi police and military haven’t ended that country’s insurgency, which has roared back to life in the past two years thanks to a central government unwilling to reconcile with disaffected segments of its population.
In Afghanistan, where America’s longest war is winding down, the Taliban remain powerful in large parts of the countryside, and the routine use of torture by security services is helping their cause.
In a more limited effort, the US sent 100 special operations forces to Uganda in October 2011 to help in the hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, whose forces have been involved in murder, mutilation, and systematic rape for years.
In March of this year, President Obama more than doubled the US military effort against Mr. Kony, who has moved relatively freely between lawless areas in the Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan, and Congo. While the efforts of the African Union task force hunting Kony have suppressed attacks by his movement, Kony and his militia of an estimated 300 members have yet to be brought to heel.
That should be a caution to anyone who thinks US military involvement will definitely bring a happy end to the hostage-taking by Boko Haram. The group is known to move with ease in a zone between Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad where everyone speaks the local language, Hausa, and no one cares much about borders.
This doesn’t mean that US training and advice couldn’t improve the effectiveness of Nigeria’s security services. It most certainly can. And while US special operations forces are among those best equipped to hunt for the girls and their captors, sending those kinds of troops into the field is highly unlikely.
Mr. Obama is probably wary of another military commitment and, at any rate, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his government have traditionally refused to allow foreign troops to operate in the field.
Stopping a cycle of violence by Boko Haram and retribution from the government is crucial. That aspect of the problem was covered extensively in a long monograph that scholar James Forest wrote on “Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria” for the Joint Special Operations University in May 2012.
He writes that “[e]ngaging the local population in the fight against Boko Haram will be vital to the success of Nigeria’s counter-terrorism strategy,” and argues that US special operations forces could prove useful in developing contacts with community leaders and building a strategy that mobilizes locals in the struggle against the group.
Last summer, states in northeast Nigeria began to encourage citizen vigilante groups made up of those angered by the killing of their loved ones.
But for now, Nigeria reportedly still is not ready to allow a presence on the ground of even the limited scale of the effort against Kony.
Until that changes – or the government shifts its strategy on its own – Boko Haram will probably remain a political and military player.