Why you should care
Because while most of us would agree that American tax dollars shouldn’t be given to foreign regimes who turn around and torture or murder their opponents, the Leahy Law that prevents this from happening may also be delaying the recovery of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls.
How do you fight evil with a lesser evil?
That’s the conundrum the United States has been facing as it tries to figure out how to help Nigeria track down nearly 300 schoolgirls, kidnapped by Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
The audacious act is the latest in a long-running battle between Nigerian security forces and the group, which has waged a low-level insurgency in the country’s Muslim North for the last decade. But if you ask most civilians which is worse, Boko Haram or the Nigerian military, they may be hard-pressed to pick.
That’s because the military has chalked up a shoddy human rights record over the years — everything from looting, rape and torture to extrajudicial killing.
Which presents a problem for the United States as it tries to step up military assistance to the Nigerian military in the face of Boko Haram attacks. Under U.S. law, the American government is barred from training or aiding foreign security forces implicated in human rights abuses.
But Nigeria is far from the only foreign military with divisions that have been blacklisted from American support. By the most recent count (done in 2011), the United States had to withold at least some security assistance from 46 countries around the world, out of more than 150 that receive U.S. military training each year, according to data compiled by the Open Society Foundation.
So even as American security strategy increasingly focuses on training and equipping local forces to police their own regions rather than sending in American troops — to the tune of some $25 billion a year in spending, according to one State Department panel — there are thousands of units within international partners’ security forces that the United States can’t touch. That includes segments of the militaries in Central and South America, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as in numerous countries across North and sub-Saharan Africa.
That’s precisely as it should be, human rights advocates say. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who wrote the law, argues that American tax dollars shouldn’t be given to people who turn around and torture their opponents, period. After a dark history in which the U.S. helped murderous regimes in Central America and Asia, the law works to keep funding of U.S. aid in line with American values.
But others in government are pushing back against the law’s limitations.
Military leaders — including Special Operations Cmdr. Adm. William McRaven — have complained that the vetting process to ensure foreign military units are clean, so to speak, has delayed important counterterrorist cooperation. And the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has attracted a whole new level of political scrutiny to the Leahy Law.
”U.S. forces — expertly trained to deal with hostage situations and in jungle environments — could help Nigerians with intelligence, planning and logistics. And if some U.S. laws would hinder such assistance, the administration should use its waiver authority under these extraordinary circumstances,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, declared this week.
President Obama, meanwhile, has moved to moot the debate, sending 80 American troops to Nigeria. They will conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance around northern Nigeria using surveillance drones, the White House notified Congress on May 21.
All of which goes to show that when it comes to keeping American forces out of messy foreign conflicts, it’s much easier said than done.