WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials Thursday publicly questioned whether the Nigerian military is able to rescue more than 260 schoolgirls abducted last month by the extremist group Boko Haram, even with international help, giving added impetus to a growing social-media campaign supported by some members of Congress calling for the United States to do more to free the hostages.
The wide attention the kidnappings have received and the calls to take action to locate and save the girls have made the Pentagon increasingly uneasy that it might be ordered to send in commandos to undertake a mission it regards as unacceptably risky.
Though the administration quickly offered its help to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, the United States has not sent troops and is unlikely to do so, in part because the girls are not believed to all still be together, and because of the inherent risks in attempting such a large-scale rescue over a vast expanse.
“At this point, we’re not actively considering the deployment of U.S. forces to participate in a combined rescue mission,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday.
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Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, administration officials Thursday offered an unusually candid and public assessment of the Nigerian military.
“We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” said Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs. “The Nigerian military has the same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does. Much of the funding that goes to the Nigerian military is skimmed off the top, if you will.”
The testimony also served as an opportunity for administration officials to pre-empt Republican criticism that the White House was slow to respond to the crisis. The problem, they said, rested more with Nigerian officials who ignored past U.S. warnings to soften brutal tactics that only fueled Boko Haram’s insurgency.
U.S. surveillance aircraft, both manned and unmanned, are making flights over the heavily forested region in northeastern Nigeria where the girls are believed to be held. So far, there are few if any clues about the girls’ location.
“We’re basically searching for these girls in an area that’s roughly the size of West Virginia,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “So it’s a tough challenge, to be sure.”
The administration has also sent about 30 specialists from the State Department, the FBI and the Pentagon to advise Nigerian officials. About half are military personnel with medical, intelligence, counterterrorism and communications skills.
Two officers with experience supporting a mission in Uganda to track down the Lord’s Resistance Army, another rebel force, have joined the effort.
Administration officials say they have tried to persuade the Nigerian authorities to adopt a more holistic approach to fighting Boko Haram, which the State Department branded a terrorist organization last year.
“In the face of this sophisticated threat, Nigeria’s security forces have been slow to adapt with new strategies, new doctrines and new tactics,” Friend said.
Moreover, finding Nigerian army units that have not been involved in gross violations of human rights has been a “persistent and very troubling limitation” on U.S. efforts to work with the Nigerians, she added.
“We have struggled a great deal in the past to locate units we can deal with,” Friend said.