U.S. officials: Nigerian military too corrupt, inept to defeat Islamists, rescue girls

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, administration officials last Thursday offered what the New York Times described as an unusually candid and public assessment of the Nigerian military.

“We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” said Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs. “The Nigerian military has the same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does. Much of the funding that goes to the Nigerian military is skimmed off the top, if you will.”

The administration officials in last week’s hearings also used the opportunity to say that the United States delayed designating Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization at the specific request of the Nigerian government. Moreover, the security problem in Nigeria continued to deteriorate in large measure as a result of the heavy-handed approach the Nigerian military employed, and the indifference of the Nigerian military to the life and well-being of civilians in northeast Nigeria. The Nigerian government kept ignoring American warnings to soften brutal tactics that only fueled Boko Haram’s insurgency, the American officials said.

U.S. surveillance aircraft, manned and unmanned, have been making flights over the heavily forested region in northeastern Nigeria where the abducted girls are likely being held.

“We’re basically searching for these girls in an area that’s roughly the size of West Virginia,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “So it’s a tough challenge, to be sure.”

Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the top general overseeing American missions in Africa, met with other senior American and Nigerian officials last week in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, to discuss Nigerian operations as well as the Nigerian military’s “gaps and shortfalls,” Friend said.

Asked whether Nigerian forces were capable of rescuing the hostages, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CBS News on Thursday, “That’s an open question.”

“We just don’t know enough yet to be able to assess what we will recommend to the Nigerians, where they need to go, what they need to do, to get those girls back,” Hagel said.

Gen. Carter F. Ham, a retired head of the military’s Africa command, said, “My sense is that U.S.G.[U.S. government] will remain in a supporting role to Nigeria…. I do not think the U.S.G. will seek unilateral action.”

The kidnapping of the Nigerian girls gave rise to a world-wide campaign to have them released. All twenty female senators, from both parties, joined by many senators who usually support a more robust use of American power abroad, called on the administration to do more to help rescue to girls.

U.S. military leaders warned, however, that there are limits to what the United States could do.

“The United States of America doesn’t have the capacity, the capability to go rescue every kidnapped person around the world,” Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview this week.

The administration officials who testified at last Thursday’s hearing were open in voicing U.S. frustration at Nigeria’s political and military leaders for failing to follow U.S. warnings about the extremist group.

“We have been urging Nigeria to reform its approach to Boko Haram,” said Robert P. Jackson, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “From our own difficult experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, we know that turning the tide of an insurgency requires more than force. The state must demonstrate to its citizens that it can protect them and offer them opportunity. When soldiers destroy towns, kill civilians and detain innocent people with impunity, mistrust takes root.”

The Times notes that administration officials stressed that they have repeatedly tried to persuade the Nigerian authorities to adopt a more holistic approach to fighting Boko Haram, which the State Department designated a terrorist organization last year.

There is another obstacle to U.S. military help to Nigeria, in addition to military aid funds being stolen by Nigerian government officials and military gear and equipment sent to military units being stolen and sold by the commanders of these units.

The Pentagon’s Alice Friend told lawmakers that finding Nigerian army units which have not been involved in gross violations of human rights has been a “persistent and very troubling limitation” on American efforts to work with the Nigerian military.

The Leahy Law, named after Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont), bars the United States from providing training or equipment to foreign troops or units which commit “gross human rights violations” like rape, murder, or torture.

International observers have reported instances of the Nigerian military burning hundreds of homes, destroying villages, and committing other abuses as it battled Boko Haram and the presumed supporters of the Islamist group. A State Department inspector general’s report last year, for example, said that of 1,377 Nigerian soldiers vetted in 2012 to receive training, 211 were rejected or suspended because of human rights concerns.

“We have struggled a great deal in the past to locate units we can deal with,” Friend told the lawmakers, although training has now begun with one unit of rangers deemed to have met the Leahy standard.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) kept asking Friend whether the Nigerian military had the capacity for a rescue operation, but she said she was unable to assure the committee chairman that the Nigerian military could do it even if it had “actionable intelligence” on the girls’ whereabouts and help from other countries.