#BringBackOurGirls: US will send hostage team to Nigeria

If you want to see a multi-national popular pressure / “awareness” campaign that has actually made a difference, you’ll want to check out the #BringBackOurGirls effort all over social media in the United States and Nigeria.

The northern Nigerian separatist extremist group “Boko Haram” — background briefing here — recently kidnapped over two hundred girls from a boarding school as child brides for their members and sympathizers (and as a source of revenue). The Nigerian government, which has been more or less overwhelmed in the face of wave after wave of massive terrorist attacks by Boko Haram in the past several years, initially responded with relative indifference — essentially writing off the girls as just more unrecoverable casualties of the terrorists.

This prompted very justified outrage within the country — which is Africa’s largest economy, most populous nation, and the biggest power in West Africa — and within the major Nigerian diaspora population in the United States. This led to the creation of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign targeting three groups of people: Nigerian government officials, U.S. media and celebrities, and U.S. officials. After a slow start at the beginning, it caught fire and has gone viral. Tonight in particular, it is finally blowing up on Twitter, especially among celebs, although fortunately the two governments had begun grinding into action already.

The first and third groups of people are, of course, the ones most empowered to do something about the situation. But the celebs and U.S. media are key in force-multiplying the pressure on the U.S. officials. And that’s what we’ve finally seen happen, at very high levels.

Reversing course, Nigeria’s government and (very sizable) military have vowed to make an active effort to rescue the kidnapped girls — which is a huge improvement over the plan to do nothing.

And rather than ignoring the situation (or trying to find a way to bomb the problem away), the U.S. government is making specific and useful commitments to help bring the girls back, by sending a team of experts in hostage negotiation and recovery. According to Thompson Reuters reporting:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the American embassy in Nigeria is “prepared to form a coordination cell” that would include U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations.

The U.S. “coordination cell” also would include people who could provide expertise on providing victim assistance, Psaki said.

It’s a reasonably small and easy commitment to make but it could make a very real difference.

Keep up the pressure. This effort has affirmed, in my mind, that a persistent social media campaign with clear, narrow, and specific goals to mobilize government resources in multiple countries is possible. And it’s a much worthier cause than some of the other viral campaigns we’ve seen.

Unfortunately, the New York Times reported today that Boko Haram has kidnapped more girls in a new, smaller attack. Let’s hope the U.S. effort will result in everyone coming home as safely as possible.

Beyond that and the immediate Nigerian government response, the only true countermeasure in the long-term to the overall terror campaign raging across northern Nigeria will be to inject substantially more development aid and investment into the country’s north. That can provide jobs to disaffected and disenfranchised potential recruits, discouraging them from joining such terrible organizations.

Want to put names to the numbers? Here are 180 names of those girls kidnapped in Nigeria in the initial attack.

US widens Uganda military op, despite anti-gay law

uganda-flagDespite President Obama’s strong condemnation of the recent anti-gay law in Uganda, the United States has decided anyway to once again substantially ramp up its military assistance to the country — including sending 150 more troops — in their efforts to track down and neutralize the Uganda-originated regional threat of the LRA rebel organization, which has fled to (and destabilized) other nearby countries.

From the New York Times yesterday:

President Obama is sending more troops and military aircraft to Uganda as part of a long-running effort to hunt down Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel commander who is believed to have been hiding in the jungles of central Africa for years, a Defense Department official said on Sunday.

The president is sending several CV-22 Osprey aircraft, along with 150 Air Force Special Operations forces and other airmen, to join the American troops already in the region to help the Ugandan government find Mr. Kony.

The escalation, first reported on Sunday by The Washington Post, does not change the nature of the United States’ military presence on the ground in central Africa. American forces will continue to advise and assist their counterparts in the African Union’s military task force tracking Mr. Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army across Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Americans are forbidden to fight the L.R.A. themselves except in self-defense.

This continues a lengthening partnership started by President George W. Bush and significantly increased several times by President Obama. Here’s an excerpt from a previous post I wrote on the subject back in April 2010, after an 18-month military campaign across the region that cut the LRA’s size in half:

Uganda’s government, armed and assisted by the United States with “millions of dollars of military support, namely, trucks, fuel and contracted airplanes,” is hunting down the transnational Lord’s Resistance Army […]

You’ll notice it’s essentially the same as the beginning of this post, except the mission was somewhat smaller before, and that was four years ago.

One wonders how much of the purported accomplishments of these missions is greatly exaggerated. In that time, the LRA has doubtless kidnapped many fresh child soldiers to re-bolster his ranks. Kony himself remains nowhere to be found, with only rumors of his location pinpointed by the swathes of genocidal rampages that follow in his path as he throws matches into post-colonial tinderboxes of ethnic and religious tensions. He’s bad. But is this the right approach to end the threat?

Observers have previously tied specific U.S.-supported operations against Kony to his revenge-based slaughters of totally random, uninvolved villages in the region. These attacks are meant to “punish” Uganda and the United States for its actions. For example:

In December 2008 [under George W. Bush], Africom, the American military command for Africa, helped plan an attack on Mr. Kony’s camp in Congo. But Mr. Kony, having apparently been tipped off, escaped before the Ugandan helicopter gunships even took off. His army is believed to have killed hundreds of nearby villagers in revenge, leaving behind scorched huts.

And I thought we were going to pull back on this aid, in light of the anti-gay law — not increase it. Just last month President Obama was threatening to pull the plug:

Obama suggested that the Ugandan president — a key regional ally for both the United States and the European Union — risks damaging his country’s ties with Washington if he signs the bill into law.

“As we have conveyed to President Museveni, enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda,” Obama said.

Guess that was a bluff? I find it all very distasteful.

Helpful reminder from The Globalist Research Center (where I work) as to whom this military assistance is going — beyond even the gay persecution concerns:

With the ousting of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni is now Africa’s fifth-longest-serving national leader. Mubarak and Gaddafi had been in office for 29 and 42 years, respectively, at the time of their ouster.

Sworn in as president on January 29, 1986, Museveni has held the post for almost 28 years so far. He was once hailed by Western governments as a champion of equality and democracy — and rewarded with generous aid as a result. However, Museveni’s long tenure has led to an erosion of Ugandan democracy.

Will Central Africa’s problems really be solved by bringing more troops and helicopter gunships to a dictator who has held office for nearly three decades?

What should the longer objectives be in Mali?

French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)The Economist ran what I believe to be a fairly reasonable editorial on the French & African-led UN interventions in Mali. They argue that the intervention should be limited to driving the jihadist groups out of the northern cities (but not getting dragged into a quagmire by trying in vain to stomp out an insurgency in the semi-desert “wastelands” through force) and to stabilizing the interim government in the south and freeing it from the shadow of the military officials who overthrew the elected government last spring.

If the Islamist rebels are prevented from seizing the south and forced out of the northern cities, and if serious efforts are made to improve governance (and hopefully provide economic redress to longtime northern grievances that allowed a window for the jihadists to outflank the secular rebels), then Mali will be on a safer footing and the West will be less fearful of it becoming a terrorist safe-haven in West Africa, which in turn means less future interference. The total incompetence and lust for power of the Malian Army is largely to blame for the current situation and the need for an intervention; had the Army not tried to overthrow a twenty-year-old democracy during a tantrum over their own inability to beat back a poorly organized rebellion despite American counterinsurgency training and funding, the northern rebels (first secular, then Islamist) would not have been able to take sweeping control over extensive territory, and the Islamist threat would have been more imagined than real. That said, the United States and the other Western powers should never have let the situation get this far by ignoring the poverty and real tensions that provoked the latest of many northern rebellions, and they should not have relied so heavily on a southern government that was unprepared for any real military response let alone a multifaceted engagement strategy to prevent rebellion at all.

In the future, I hope we consider providing more humanitarian aid to the region, but I fear the rise of the real Islamists there will preclude that even more so now than when the alleged Islamists who were actually secular separatists were the dominant regional faction against the government. During the Cold War, we used the Marshall Plan to rapidly alleviate poverty and strengthen moderate socialist and Social Democratic parties in Western and Central Europe — to prevent the spread of communism — by providing humanitarian aid and institution-building aid in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviets tried to do the same in reverse, but this was trickier for them given their own economic problems. Islamic political parties in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia have built supporter networks rapidly in impoverish regions not with talk of waging war on infidels but by providing humanitarian services, non-governmental shadow institutions, and jobs to people who are ignored, unemployed, and hungry. In Europe, we were willing to buy out reasonable Socialists and their constituents to halt the spread of communism and advertise American/capitalist economic benefits. Instead of replicating this extremely successful policy in the Middle East and Africa, we have opted nine times out of ten to isolate, ignore, or repress political Islam, even when it is relatively moderate, yet we do not offer any comparable alternative humanitarian aid, institutional aid, or employment, let alone offer any loyalty buyouts of these parties.

Ultimately, I suppose the Western powers pay for this strategy choice in lost troops, terrorist attacks, and fighter planes that cost far more (and do so for a longer period) than aid and investments would. It’s also too bad that voters don’t see the merits and payoff of an alternative strategy and keep saying they want to reduce foreign aid even further. But at the end of the day, we need our leaders to lead, advocate, and educate the public. That’s something most of them just aren’t doing.

Mali update: African regional troops arriving; France playing wack-a-mole

U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jason SmithThe BBC Africa service reports that the first 200 Nigerian troops of the UN intervention force are on their way to Mali. Nigeria plans to deploy 700 more along with fighter jets in the coming weeks. They will be leading the African forces in the UN mission. French military ally and regional neighbor Chad has committed 2,000 troops. Benin, neighboring Ghana, neighboring Niger, neighboring Senegal, neighboring Burkina Faso, and Togo also plan to participate in the police action, with probably about 400 more troops between them.

The UN-created coalition (read: PDF of UNSC Resolution 2085 from December 2012) has been named the “African-led International Support Mission in Mali” (AFISMA) and is tasked with re-capturing northern Mali from Tuareg separatist groups, training the Malian Army who apparently didn’t take direction well from the US trainers, supporting the interim democratic government to prevent another military coup, and organizing the safety of humanitarian missions.

The deployment has been accelerated by quite a few months due to the sudden progression of separatist troops beyond the unofficial dividing line in the conflict which prompted the start of a major French military campaign last Friday in response. France and the other Western powers believe that many of the separatist organizations in the impoverished, sparsely populated semi-desert region of northern Mali have links to terrorism including Al Qaeda affiliates.

One of the major groups claiming to represent the political and military aspects of the Tuareg ethnic separatist movement is an explicitly Islamist political group called Ansar Dine, which purports to impose some form of Sharia law across northern Mali and possibly the whole of Mali. Their main rival group is the longtime leading organization of the separatists known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA being the French abbreviation), which is secular and pro-independence and probably wasn’t really tied to terrorism. However, the MNLA lost territorial control of northern Mali in June 2012 to the Ansar Dine in a series of internecine skirmishes while the Malian government was still in some disarray from the spring military coup. (The coup took place in the south during the latest of many northern Tuareg rebellions over the past 99 years.)

Although the Malian government has long accused the MNLA of terrorist links for the cynical purpose of getting “War on Terror” funding from Western governments, it is far more credible to assert real terrorist links between the Ansar Dine and similar Islamist insurgent operations in North and East Africa, including Al Qaeda of the Maghreb (North Africa) or more likely the Shahab in Somalia (who have themselves recently been severely disrupted by intense African Union military campaigns). This rise of Ansar Dine and their serious movements toward expanding into the more populous southern “half” of Mali has understandably caused an uptick in concern and attention from the Western governments, thus prompting the sudden French intervention last week.

Meanwhile, as West African troops arrive, France (which I’m not sure will be part of the AFISMA/UN mission at all) now has 800 troops on the ground in Mali and that number is set to swell to 2,500. 50 armored vehicles have been deployed northward toward the front. The unilateral French air campaign in the north in support of the Malian government in the south continues at full tilt out of air bases in Chad.

The Malian Army is only participating lightly in ground actions coordinated with these airstrikes — hampering efforts to consolidate and hold any gains — and are reportedly fighting in “hand-to-hand combat” with rebels just 220 miles north of the capital, which seems fairly unproductive to me. Although the French operation initially dislodged the separatist forces from the informal border line between north and south this past weekend, these rebel troops suddenly reappeared on Monday much further southwest into government-held territory.

However, the separatist force holding Timbuktu seems to have withdrawn entirely from the ancient city, according to locals. It’s a bit of a game of wack-a-mole right now without much ground cooperation to keep any ground “won” from the bombings.