I am deeply ambivalent about the current cry to #freeourgirls–the international Twitter campaign to pressure Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, to release some 300 girls it has kidnapped. Like everyone else I am appalled at the brutality and inhumanity of Boko Haram, which has even some jihadists disassociating themselves from its actions. And I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of the U.S. working with the Nigerian government to free the captives.
As Michael Rubin notes, this is the kind of humanitarian mission that can engender a lot of goodwill. The problem is that such goodwill can evaporate quickly–as it did in Pakistan after the U.S. helped provide relief following a 2005 earthquake. Pakistanis were grateful but today that country remains as anti-American as ever, with 74 percent of those surveyed by Pew in 2012 describing the U.S. as an enemy.
What we really need in Pakistan is the same thing we need in Nigeria: not one-off humanitarian assistance but a sustained and serious commitment to nation-building. It is the lack of effective governance that has allowed Pakistan and to a lesser extent Nigeria to become a playground for jihadists ranging from al-Qaeda to the Haqqani Network and Boko Haram. Whatever the fate of those poor kidnapped girls–and everything practicable should be done to liberate them–many more innocents will die in Nigeria unless the government can reduce its rampant corruption and increase its effectiveness such that it can effectively curb Boko Haram in the future.
That is a big job, and one primarily for the Nigerians. But the U.S. also has a stake in the outcome because we don’t want Islamist extremists destabilizing the No. 1 oil producer in Africa. Unlike Michael, I do believe that nation-building is a job for the U.S. military–at least, it is a job that the military has been doing ever since the Lewis and Clark expedition laid the foundations for America’s expansion from sea to shining sea. But it is not a job for our military alone. There needs to be a major interagency effort–with a big contribution from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, not just the Department of Defense–to help Nigeria to build more effective and accountable governmental institutions starting with its security forces.
This is obviously a long-term project that will not offer a quick payoff such as a mission to rescue the kidnapped girls. But it has the potential to do more good in the long run.