John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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U.S. Military Engagement in the Hunt for the Nigerian School Girls, Its Size and Meaning

by John Campbell
May 22, 2014

Nigerian army spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade sits in front of a poster reading "we will win" at a news conference in Abuja, May 19, 2014. (Joe Penney/Courtesy Reuters)


Boko Haram’s kidnapping of up to three hundred school girls has thoroughly engaged U.S. public opinion over the past few weeks. American narratives of its significance range from the humanitarian to persecution of Christians to the deprivation of educational opportunity for women 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, already some in the Congress are 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 so little American area expertise.

There is an interagency team currently stationed in Abuja, which is consulting with the Nigerians on what assistance the U.S. could provide. A formal intelligence sharing agreement between the two countries has been signed. And U.S. 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 U.S. military presence. It provides a benchmark against which future increases can be measured. According to the Times, the U.S. has sent eighty 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 thirty specialists from the Departments of State and Defense and the FBI to advise the Nigerians. According to the Times, about half are military with medical, counter terrorism, intelligence, and communications specialties.

These are not large numbers in comparison with other U.S. 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. No doubt in some quarters they will be seen as further evidence of an American “war on Islam.” It remains to be seen whether the U.S. team is large enough to have an impact on the rescue of the girls.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by d cammack

    The US is in a no-win situation here. Some in Africa demand that America comes to help, and complain when it doesn’t. Others see any US boots-on-the-ground as abhorrent, and proof of its imperialistic, anti-Islamic designs. Americans should be worried about the country being dragged into another complex and militarily unwinnable situation that the US doesn’t fully understand and can’t really be solved by outsiders. Carefully targeting help is about the best it can do…

  • Posted by Jim Sanders

    Although very different from 1967-70, events in Nigeria’s northeast look a lot like a civil war and the U.S. may have waded right into it, even if inadvertently. While attention is understandably focused on the tragic kidnapping of innocents, additional nightmares loom. Reportedly, a couple thousand Boko Haram members are held in Nigerian prisons, which are more effective agents of radicalization than conditions in the northeast. The government must hope that these prisoners do not escape, or are not liberated by other means. Meanwhile, press observes that pre-election violence in the country has already started. That will further stress security resources. More broadly, a slowdown in U.S. imports is hurting emerging markets. According to Businessweek, between 2011 and 2013, U.S. imports of Nigerian oil dropped 66% and for 2014-2015, the magazine projects a 30% drop in Nigeria’s currency against the dollar.

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