Lawmakers show little interest in sending US troops to Nigeria

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Lawmakers desperately want to help hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by a terrorist group, but not if it means sending U.S. troops to the country.

Boko Haram’s promise of selling the abducted girls into slavery shocked much of the world, triggering a social media firestorm.

First lady Michelle Obama highlighted the story on Saturday in the weekly address. “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” she said. “We see their hopes, their dreams – and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”

The situation also sparked a rare moment of bipartisanship in the House, where members promised to move legislation against human trafficking.

Still, lawmakers are mostly urging indirect steps such as sanctions, intelligence sharing and assistance to the Nigerian military, rather than the deployment of U.S. troops to get the girls back themselves.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who joined other representatives outside the Nigerian embassy on Wednesday to denounce the kidnappings, does not want U.S. troops involved. She said Nigerian forces and the African Union should take the lead.

“We need to get the boots that are on the ground moving at the sole purpose of finding those girls, and no I don’t think our boots on the ground should be there,” she said.

Concern for the girls stretches across the ideological spectrum, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leader of a wing of the Republican Party often against U.S. interventions, says the U.S. should provide help, at least in a limited way.

“I think, you know, in a very limited way, if there's a way we can help find those girls, it's probably a good idea,” he told The Hill.

The main exception to the preference against using U.S. troops has come from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “More can be done by this administration,” she told CNN on Tuesday. “I would like to see Special Forces deployed to help rescue these young girls.” 

U.S. involvement is complicated by the knotty conflict between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, a fight in which the U.S has previously resisted getting too involved.

In fact, a major roadblock to further U.S. action is the Nigerian security forces’ own human rights abuses. U.S. law restricts assistance to militaries that are guilty of violating human rights.

“To the extent that we are seen to be working with people who have carried out bad activities, we are associated with a part of the problem,” Johnnie Carson, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs until last year, said in a call with reporters.

The ghosts of past U.S. conflicts in Africa are also at the front of the mind. The 1993 military action in Somalia that ended with the deaths of 18 marines began as a humanitarian mission.

The new prominence for Boko Haram in the national consciousness has raised scrutiny of the Obama administration’s decision not to designate the group as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” until last year.

Carson said part of the reason for the delay was that being targeted by the U.S. could actually help the group.

“There was a concern that putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would in fact raise its profile, give it greater publicity, give it greater credibility, help in its recruitment and also probably drive more assistance in its direction,” he said.

Asked if the U.S. joining the fight against the group could have similar unintended consequences, Carson said “it remains a concern.”

The White House repeated throughout the week that it is not considering direct U.S. military action, though it has sent military advisers as part of a team to aid the Nigerian government with tasks such as intelligence and hostage negotiation.

Though President Obama tends to express reluctance to use military force, looking to avoid quagmires across the world, U.S. troops are playing a role in hunting the warlord Joseph Kony across Central Africa.

In March, the Obama administration sent military aircraft to join the approximately 300 U.S. troops in the search. They are only in an advisory role, though, and are forbidden from engaging Kony’s forces themselves.

Expanding the search beyond a single country’s borders has been key in that fight, said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. The U.S. could play a role in encouraging Cameroon and Niger, which border Nigeria, to increase their efforts against Boko Haram. Bruton indicated U.S. military involvement would be less helpful.

“I would never underestimate the U.S. capacity to make a situation worse,” she said.