Conflict & Justice

US forces are helping Nigeria — but there are limits to what they'll do

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Joe Penney/Reuters

Rachel Daniel, 35, holds up a picture of her abducted daughter Rose Daniel, 17, as her son Bukar, 7, sits beside her at her home in Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria on May 21, 2014. Rose is one of the more than 200 of her classmates on April 14 by Boko Haram militants from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno state.

The Obama Administration is trying to make clear what it is and what it isn't doing to help Nigeria find the more than 200 girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram militant group.  

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, says the US is focused on helping and working with the Nigerian government.

"And what they're helping the government in Abuja to do is build up its capacity to find the girls," she says. She was referring to the Amercan advisers already in Nigeria who are sharing their expertise in everything from intelligence to hostage negotiations. "We [are helping] them with capacity to find and trace the source of IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We help them with forensic capacity, with military training. We are helping them enhance their special forces units. We're helping them build a new ranger battalion."

The White House said on Wednesday that it had also sent 80 members of the US armed forces to Chad, along with a Predator drone, to aid in the search for the kidnapped girls. 

Sarah Sewall

"These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress. "The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required."

By law, President Barack Obama was required to notify the House speaker and the president of the Senate because the aircraft are armed, though the US forces in Chad will only be involved in maintaining the aircraft and analyzing data. They are not combat troops. 

Sewall says the specific US goal right now is simple: "Our role right now is really locating the girls — and that's why we've sent this interdisciplinary team to Abuja and that's why we've sent folks to Chad to help with the intelligence and surveillance and reconaisscance mechanisms that will hopefully allow us to pinpoint the location or locations of the hostages." 

Once the girls are located, says Sewall, it will be up to Nigeria to decide how to win their safe return.

She adds that the Obama Administration hopes the expertise it is sharing with the Nigerian military now will help further down the road.

"We're helping them do a variety of things that will be very important for the long-term struggle against this really heinous insurgent group," she says.

The US is not sharing all the intelligence and information it's gathering in Nigeria, but Sewall says they're sharing what matters. "We are sharing the information that we think is relevant to the search for the girls. So I'm confident that we're doing everything that we can to assist in the goal that we sent our team there to assist with." 

She says broader intelligence sharing is something the US and Nigeria can pursue after the current crisis over the kidnapped girls is over. "I think that's a separate question that we'll have to engage and answer. Right now, I think anything that's relevant to Boko Haram and relevant to the freeing the captured hostages is the first and foremost priority for sharing with the Nigerians."

The Nigerian government's own strategy for defeating Boko Haram has been bitterly criticized by the citizens of northeast Nigeria. They claim Nigerian forces have burned down houses, carried out extra-judicial killings, and detained without charge the wives and children of suspected Boko Haram militants. Sewall says the Obama administration has raised those concerns with the Nigerian government for many years. 

"It's been an ongoing topic of discussion. And we continue to urge the Nigerians both to investigate any allegations of such abuses and to hold people accountable," she says. "It's not the strength of the Nigerian military to do either of those things at this point in time."

But Sewall says she constantly presses the Nigerians to do more.

"We point out to them, not only is it absolutely required under international humanitarian law and not only is it the right thing to do as a matter of military professionalism. But it's absolutely essential in terms of the long term struggle against any terrorist or insurgent group that you protect the civilians in the area rather than harm them," she adds.

The US has taken a larger role in trying to hunt down Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that used to operate in Uganda.  American forces advise and assist African Union troops tracking Kony across Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The US also sent several CV-2 Osprey aircraft and Air Force Special Operations forces, along with other airmen, to help the Ugandan government find Mr. Kony.

"In both cases, the terrorist/insurgent groups are heinous and so I'm not going to try to explore any moral equivalency or contest between the two," says Sewall. "But clearly in the case of the hunt for the Lord's Resistance Army, that is something that has been requested by the states involved. They are in fact leading that charge and the US is in a support and coordination role."

It's different with the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. It was the US that offered the help. Sewall say right now the US is supporting the Nigerians in their effort to find their citizens and free their school girls. "And if and when the Nigerians ask for different kinds of assistance, that will be a separate conversation."

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