Even If We Find Them, It’s Unclear Whether Military Forces Can ‘Bring Back Our Girls’

A Defense Department official said Thursday that the Nigerian military is unwilling to take on Boko Haram.

Activists from a coalition of more than 40 African women organisations march on May 15, 2014 in the streets of Kenya's capital Nairobi demanding the release of more than 300 schoolgirls abducted from schools in nothern Nigeria by muslim extremist group Boko Haram.
National Journal
May 15, 2014, 10:53 a.m.

In a testy ex­change dur­ing a Sen­ate hear­ing Thursday, a De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial re­peatedly told Sen. Robert Men­en­dez that the U.S. gov­ern­ment couldn’t say wheth­er Ni­geri­an forces are pre­pared to res­cue more than 300 girls who were kid­napped in the coun­try last month. The Demo­crat was not pleased with her re­sponse.

“Here’s my prob­lem. Here’s my prob­lem, Friend,” an in­creas­ingly ir­rit­ated Men­en­dez told Alice Friend, the prin­cip­al dir­ect­or for Afric­an af­fairs at the De­fense De­part­ment. “We’re go­ing to sup­port [Ni­geri­an forces] as much as pos­sible. But if we found ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence that iden­ti­fied where a large part or all of the girls are, and we do not be­lieve or we don’t know if they have the ca­pa­city to act on it, what good will that be?”

Al­though State De­part­ment and De­fense of­fi­cials are now on the ground in Ni­ger­ia, help­ing gath­er in­tel­li­gence and train Ni­geri­an forces in host­age ne­go­ti­ations, it’s un­clear wheth­er the Ni­geri­an mil­it­ary is cap­able of us­ing any of that to act. Friend told Men­en­dez at Thursday’s Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing on ter­ror­ist group Boko Haram that she could not spec­u­late on the Ni­geri­an mil­it­ary’s read­i­ness.

But the Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or from New Jer­sey pressed on.

“It is im­possible to fathom that we might ac­tu­ally have ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence and that we would not have the where­with­al either by the Ni­geri­ans them­selves or by oth­er en­tit­ies help­ing the Ni­geri­ans to be able to con­duct a res­cue mis­sion. And so all of this would be worth­less,” Men­en­dez said, in­struct­ing Friend to re­turn to the com­mit­tee with that in­form­a­tion at a fu­ture date. “We’re not go­ing to wait un­til we find out that we have ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence and then find out that we don’t have the ca­pa­city to do this.”

“I’d be happy to come back to you with that in­form­a­tion, sir,” Friend replied.

“Je­sus,” Men­en­dez sighed, pulling away from the mi­cro­phone.

The situ­ation in Ni­ger­ia, Friend ad­mit­ted earli­er in her testi­mony, is a mess. The mil­it­ary there is poorly trained, poorly equipped, and so afraid of an in­creas­ingly bru­tal Boko Haram that its mem­bers are re­luct­ant and per­haps in­cap­able of tak­ing on the ter­ror­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion. The mil­it­ary had been kept for dec­ades at a low level of cap­ab­il­ity, Friend said, be­cause of fears by the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment about a pos­sible mil­it­ary coup. Those con­cerns are no longer an is­sue in Ni­ger­ia, Friend ad­ded, but the weak­ness of the mil­it­ary there re­mains a dan­ger­ous real­ity.

Even worse, per­haps, is a grow­ing fear with­in the ranks of the Ni­geri­an mil­it­ary of tak­ing on Boko Haram. “They don’t have the cap­ab­il­it­ies, the train­ing, or the [equip­ment] that Boko Haram does. And Boko Haram is ex­cep­tion­ally bru­tal and in­dis­crim­in­ate in their at­tacks,” Friend said. “So we are now look­ing at a mil­it­ary force that’s, quite frankly, be­com­ing afraid to even en­gage.”

The De­fense De­part­ment’s ef­forts to train Ni­geri­an mil­it­ary of­fi­cials have been crippled by a U.S. law passed in 1997 to com­bat hu­man-rights ab­uses. The Ni­geri­an mil­it­ary has at times re­spon­ded to ag­gres­sion from Boko Haram with their own hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions. Be­cause the Leahy Law, as it’s known, pre­vents the U.S. mil­it­ary from as­sist­ing any for­eign mil­it­ary that has com­mit­ted hu­man-rights ab­uses, the De­fense De­part­ment is hav­ing dif­fi­culty find a unit that it can leg­ally help.

“It af­fects [our abil­ity to en­gage in Ni­ger­ia] very much,” Friend told the Sen­ate pan­el about the law. “We have struggled a great deal in the past to loc­ate units that we can work with and, in­deed, to con­vince the Ni­geri­ans to change their tac­tics, tech­niques, and pro­ced­ures to­ward Boko Haram.”

For now, the U.S. is fo­cused on find­ing the kid­napped girls. Re­ports in­dic­ate that they may have been sep­ar­ated and pos­sibly taken to neigh­bor­ing Cameroon, Ni­ger, or Chad. Friend did not con­firm such a re­port, but said that the U.S. is co­ordin­at­ing with Ni­ger­ia, and its three neigh­bors to the north and east, as the search con­tin­ues.

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