On April 14, the anti-western militant group Boko Haram kidnapped over 270 teenage girls from a boarding school in Nigeria. Since then, reports have come out that the girls are being auctioned off as wives to their captors for as little as $12 a piece.
This incident seems to have really brought the brutality of the group to the forefront, despite the fact that less than a month earlier, Boko Haram shot and burned 59 male students at another Nigerian boarding school, telling the girls to leave and go find husbands (Boko Haram is extremely conservative, believing women should not be educated and should play a traditional domestic role in the family).
Earlier today, the Obama administration announced that it would be increasing its role in the search effort, sending a team of military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel to assist the Nigerian government.
I’m all for doing anything that might increase the chance of returning the kidnapped girls to their families, but please excuse me for being cynical about this latest news. For me, it immediately recalls memories of the botched #Kony2012 campaign.
If you need a refresher, back in 2012, the non-profit group Invisible Children launched a campaign with the goal of raising awareness about Josef Kony, leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), and his practice of kidnapping young boys and turning them into child soldiers.
Following the explosion of the #Kony2012 campaign, both local forces (like the Ugandan army) and specialized foreign units (like the U.S. Special Forces) stepped up their activity in the region, with hopes of capturing Kony and ending his reign of terror once and for all. Two years later, he is still at large (most likely in a remote area of the Central African Republic), with many of his LRA soldiers still with him.
My point is this- when we hear about horrific crimes like Boko Haram’s recent mass-kidnapping, we respond with our most unrefined emotion: anger.
We get pissed off that such backwards and extreme ideologies like those espoused by Boko Haram even still exist in our modern world. We get pissed off that the local governments are either too corrupt, too scared or simply too apathetic to really do anything about the crimes. We get pissed off that some people aren’t as pissed off about the tragedy as we are.
When we get mad, we get vindictive. We hear about the horrific things being done to the girls in begin to equate justice with vengeance, while completely losing track of the real issues here.
Everybody seems to want to send in all our best guns (figure of speech) and shoot Boko Haram out of the jungles where they’re hiding- this is simply unrealistic. The central region of Africa has millions of square miles of virtually uncharted “bushlands” (African use the term “the bush” to describe uninhabited dense areas of forest).
Trying to track down Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack… if that needle was constantly moving locations and was way more familiar with the layout of the haystack than you.
The American government is famous for saying it won’t negotiate with terrorists (even though we’ve done so on many occasions). If Obama were to announce right now that we were negotiating a ransom for the girls, he would likely be blasted in the media as a spineless terrorist-appeaser.
But would that really be so bad? Try to remove your emotions from the decision- nobody likes the thought of rewarding people for committing heinous crimes like this kidnapping, but we’re already three weeks removed from the original crime: what are our chances of recovering even a fraction of the girls (alive) using force? I’d say that chance is almost zero.
Boko Haram promulgates a message that western culture (specifically western education) is evil, and that western powers like the United States are trying to spread evil progressive ideologies and create modern-day forms of colonialism. We cannot give them more ammunition for their propaganda machine.
One thing our foreign policy “experts” haven’t seemed to grasp in recent years is how we constantly create more enemies for ourselves by taking the bait of fringe militant groups. Look at Al-Qaeda for example: how many future insurgents did we create from all of the “collateral damage” (ie. civilian deaths) that resulted from our stubborn obsession with eradicating this group?
One of the biggest reasons why we are disliked by many people in other countries is that we are perceived as a schoolyard bully who is constantly trying to police the whole world. Sending in our special forces to fight a guerilla war in the jungle with an army that has no uniform and is full of young kids is just asking for trouble.
Boko Haram’s leadership would use this move as proof that the U.S. cared less about the girls’ well-being than about their own strategic interests in the region. And they would definitely make sure to publicize all of the graphic images, especially the ones of dead children (even if the kids were child soldiers).
Because of these factors, I think that negotiation is clearly the better option. It has the highest likelihood of recovering the girls safely and the lowest likelihood of becoming another black eye on our foreign policy record. Plus, it would show we cared more about the principles of equality and universal education than we do about maintaining a military presence around the world.
And if it was successful, why couldn’t we just go after Boko Haram afterwards? They would no longer have any leverage in the situation and the fact that we made sure to secure the girls first would probably make it a lot less likely that people would be suspicious of ulterior motives.
Obviously, we can’t ignore the fact that we would be, in effect, helping to fund Boko Haram by paying them a ransom for the girls. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more important to us: the lives of the girls, or revenge against Boko Haram. The latter will always be an available option, but we may be quickly running out of time to accomplish the former.