The president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, was afraid on May 16 to fly to the Northeastern city, Chibok where about 250 high school girls were kidnapped in April and are being held hostage by an Islamist extremist group known as Boko Haram.
Also fearing to engage the Islamists, apparently, was the American military which, instead of sending in the marines, sent in a handful of advisors and drones to help the hapless Nigerian military mount a belated rescue attempt.
While the girls remained as hostages, on Saturday, May 17, leaders from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Benin, the United States, Britain and France met in Paris to declare total war against the widening threat of Boko Haram (the name means Western education is forbidden).
"Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an al Qaeda operation, it is an al Qaeda of West Africa," Jonathan said in Paris.
"There is determination to tackle this situation head on... to launch a war, a total war on Boko Haram," Chad's President Idriss Deby said.
By offering only advisors, the United States sent the same message it sent Ukraine when it offered ready-to-eat military meals to help them resist Russian rebels -- that we are not serious.
While Nigerian soldiers hunker down in their barracks counting the money they have skimmed from their budget, the Boko Haram fighters use machine guns and pickup trucks to terrorize all who refuse to join them. In the past five years 3,000 have died.
The Boko Haram leader warned in a video that unless Nigeria released prisoners from his group he would sell the girls for $12 each as lawful booty from a war to establish Sharia, Islamic law.
The United States is sending drones to seek out the hostages -- pretty unlikely given the forested terrain. And U.S. advisors will tell the Nigerian army where to go and what to do.
This is unlikely to work. Nigeria's army once ruled with an iron fist and threw critics into jails for years to silence them. Lately, the army has submitted to the civilian government. But it has remained as thoroughly corrupt as the local and national government.
With 170 million people Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation. And with vast offshore petroleum rigs it produces two million barrels a day worth about $200 million dollars daily and $73 billion a year.
However some 46 percent of the people remain in poverty according to the World Bank.
In addition, the mainly Muslim north, dominated by the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups, feels it is less developed than the mainly Christian and Animist South and East -- dominated by the Yoruba and Ibo ethnic groups. This resentment seems to fuel the Boko Haram movement. But if Islamist appeals to ethnic brotherhood and religion fail, there is always stark terror and bloodshed to win recruits. "Join us or die" seems to be the message left in slashed throats, burnt schools and smoking villages.
This bloody movement mirrors the 10-year Islamist insurrection that swept nearby Algeria in the 1990s. After failing to win power in an election, Algerian Islamist rebels led by veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War slaughtered 200,000 innocent people before they were brutally suppressed by government troops. The president of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave me the figure of 100,000 deaths in an interview for the Washington Times 10 years ago.
Nigeria's inability to mount a strong defense against Boko Haram recalls previous half-baked efforts to halt violent insurgencies in Vietnam, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda and Afghanistan. However, the French and the British have recently used small deployments and moderate firepower to take the bull by the horns, accept some risk and make a difference.
Britain acted back in 2000 when Sierra Leone was rent by insurgents who were chopping off people's arms and legs to sow terror. So the British sent in 1,200 soldiers -- properly equipped, armed and trained. The civil war ended in weeks.
France today has troops in Mali and Central African Republic, sent to help weak governments tamp down ethnic and religious violence. When Islamic militants loyal to Al Qaeda threatened to destroy Mali's ancient cultural treasures in Timbuktu in 2003 and seize the capital Bamako, the French threw down the gauntlet and said "c'est assez."
France sent 5,000 well-trained and equipped troops, backed by helicopters and jet fighters. In days the Islamists abandoned the towns they captured and fled into the mountains of the Sahara.
Personally I am disgusted when U.S. comedians and radio talk show hosts called the French "surrender monkeys" and congressmen renamed french fries as freedom fries in 2003 when France balked at joining George W. Bush's crusade: the Iraq War.
I recently visited Wethersfield, Connecticut, where I found the house where in 1781 Gen. George Washington met with French Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, to plan the 400 mile march south to Yorktown where the French-American forces defeated the British and achieved U.S. independence.
In 1938, my father and mother fled Czechoslovakia after Nazi Germany invaded. They found shelter in France and joined the Free Czechs, a government and army in exile. The Czechs fought alongside the French but Germany's carefully prepared blitzkrieg overwhelmed them. The Free Czechs were evacuated to Britain to fight again in 1944, attached to the U.S. army.
In fact, while some of us ridicule the French for surrendering, we have burnt our fingers by overreaching in Iraq and Afghanistan and today are more reluctant than the French to stand and fight when evil challenges the civilized world.
We have become what we accuse the French of being: risk averse. We fear to lose soldiers and have public opinion turn against those who ordered them into battle.
Yet we cannot stand by and allow inhumane acts to threaten hundred of millions of people. We cannot be the global sheriff. But we do have unique resources to deal with famine, flood and tsunami; as well as the bloodthirsty fringe groups from Pakistan to Somalia who would take power if they could.
Nigeria may well be one of these places. Whether we send international troops with blue helmets, or U.S., French or British troops with fighting gear -- not advisors -- requires a conversation President Obama should have with the American people. This should not be a decision made behind closed doors by political pollsters or DOD generals fearing to engage the enemy of civilization itself.
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