A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.
Boko Haram’s kidnapping of up to 300 school girls has thoroughly engaged US public opinion over the past few weeks.
American narratives of its significance range from the humanitarian importance, to the persecution of Christians, to the deprivation of educational opportunity for women, and to a resurgence of Al Qaeda.
The inadequacies of the Nigerian military, and corruption within the Nigerian government, have been profiled by Obama administration officials in congressional hearings.
Under these circumstances, some in the Congress are already urging that the United States must do more directly if the girls are to be rescued, and administration officials say that the United States will do whatever is necessary. “Mission creep” seems all but inevitable in a situation with so many unknowns and with so little American area expertise about issues in northeastern Nigeria.
There is an inter-agency team currently stationed in Abuja. It is consulting with the Nigerians on what assistance the US could provide.
A formal intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries has been signed. And US military support personnel have been sent to Chad.
The Nigerian media is already reporting signs of backlash against American criticism and perceptions of international assertiveness within Nigeria’s borders.
Nigerian military officers yesterday claimed to know where the girls are being held. They also stated that “foreign specialists” have provided no concrete assistance in the search for the girls, and a northern Nigerian imam has warned of an Islamic back lash should foreign troops go into northern Nigeria.
Under these circumstances, the New York Times provides a useful breakdown of the US military presence. It provides a benchmark against which future increases can be measured. According to the Times, the US has sent 80 troops to Chad, mostly to support the unmanned drones and surveillance aircraft being used in the search for the girls. In addition there are about 30 specialists from the Departments of State and Defense and the FBI to advise the Nigerians.
According to the Times, about half the group are military personnel with medical, counter terrorism, intelligence, and communications specialties.
These are not large numbers in comparison with other US deployments.
But, the numbers are large enough to show that the United States is engaged in what amounts to a struggle between the Nigerian government and its domestic Islamist insurrection.
o doubt in some quarters the US help will be seen as further evidence of an American “war on Islam.” It remains to be seen whether the US team is large enough to have an impact on the rescue of the girls.