Everyone wants to do something about Boko Haram.
That’s fine. Nevertheless, as I argued on Wednesday, Twitter hashtags won’t recover these girls. Even apart from that, what has happened is only the symptom of the larger Boko Haram disease. Absent a strategy that exerts significant military pressure on the group, it will simply keep doing what it’s doing.
Unfortunately, as we’re seeing, the Nigerian government is little better. Beset by corruption and weak leadership, it has allowed Boko Haram to wreak its chaos. Additionally, the Nigerian military is variable in professionalism and limited in capability. It also lacks the popular trust of many Nigerians. So what should America do?
Well, first, we need to admit what we’re unwilling to do. A major U.S. ground deployment is clearly out of the question. American public support would disappear in the face of more than a few American casualties. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the country is sick of war. Moreover, in an election year, the already hyperpolitical Obama White House will be paranoid about the appearance of another Somalia.
How about the much-vaunted Special Operations Forces (SOF) option?
Again, easier on Twitter than in reality. Not only does Boko Haram operate over a vast area, its stronghold in northeastern Nigeria shares borders with three other nations. Correspondingly, any SOF task force would need three things. First, it would require significant troop strength. The U.S. could send elements from the Special Forces Groups (“Green Berets”), but with the direct-action, hostage-rescue capabilities needed here, Special Mission Units (SMUs) would also be needed. More specifically, I believe the U.S. would have to send at least two squadrons (about two hundred men) from either Delta Force or the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU, better known — at least since 2011 — as SEAL Team Six. To enable their effectiveness, those forces would have to be accompanied by aviation, intelligence, logistics, and command-support personnel. The White House would also have to procure military operating authorization from Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon (perhaps also Chad and the Central African Republic). AFRICOM is a smaller combatant command of the U.S. military, and even with credible SOF support from other nations (the UK seems interested), it would take major resources to make this work..
A focused SOF mission also presents two other obstacles. First, whatever Zero Dark Thirty might suggest, special forces are not omnipotent. Many SMU operators have been wounded or killed since 9/11; their adversaries are highly dangerous, and Boko Haram is no exception. Second, a major SOF deployment to Nigeria would require some tough choices over priorities. For a start, the Special Forces Groups are stretched by their heavy commitment to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Similarly, while emergency standby squadrons from Delta Force and DEVGRU could be deployed to Nigeria, doing so would limit U.S. contingency options. Of course, American SOF already operate out of East Africa against the groups al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which recently released a video) and Al-Shabab (the Nairobi mall massacre). As such, a scout team was probably sent to Nigeria a couple of weeks back. Still, that would have been a small team.
A big Special Forces option would be doable, but very messy. And that conclusion brings me back to the hashtag I floated on Wednesday: #HellfireBokoHaram (that is, strike them with drones).
As I see it, drones offer three unique benefits as a prospective tool against Boko Haram. Most obviously, drones are drones. They don’t put U.S. military personnel at risk. Second, the drones offer a symbiosis of intelligence collection and military lethality. In short, they would enable the U.S. to covertly monitor Boko Haram formations over long periods of time and then incinerate some of them with Hellfire missiles. Third, the drones double as a psychological weapon. The experience of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Co. in the Pakistan FATA (federally administered tribal areas) proves that the drones don’t simply wreak havoc upon the enemy’s command-and-control apparatus; they deny freedom of movement and induce paranoia. Helpfully, the U.S. already has a drone base in nearby Niger. This is the foundation from which we could slowly bring Boko Haram to its knees.
Put another way, it’s time to #HellfireBokoHaram.