Here on the front line against Boko Haram, no one boasts of having "technically" won the war. More than four months after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made such a claim, the extremists still crisscross international borders, avoiding direct confrontations with U.S.-backed African forces while refocusing on soft targets like marketplaces and mosques with little to no protection. The group may be gone from major cities, but in the countryside it poses a constant threat. And for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and impoverished villagers surrounded by fighting in the isolated northern reaches of Cameroon, terror and hunger form daily challenges to their survival. "All of you who are attempting to fight this terror, the United States stands with you," said Samantha Power, America's U.N. ambassador, making a rare visit by any foreign dignitary, let alone a U.S. Cabinet member, to this parched, dusty landscape dotted by thatched-roofed huts and meandering goats and donkeys. Underscoring the insecurity, Power traveled with a large contingent of U.S. and Cameroonian special forces. A Cameroonian helicopter monitored overhead.
But in a tragic accident, an armored jeep in Power's motorcade stuck a 7-year-old boy who darted onto the road, killing him instantly. She traveled back to the scene of the incident several hours later to offer her condolences to his parents and "our grief and heartbreak." Power's larger goal of pairing military efforts with greater development of West Africa's impoverished, Boko Haram-ravaged regions is daunting. They've suffered generations of neglect. In Maroua, an enclave some 800 miles from the Cameroonian capital sandwiched between Chad and Nigeria, shortages of water, schools and investment are chronic. Activists, opposition politicians and Muslim clerics say the extremists will draw Maroua's disaffected youth to their ranks as long as economic opportunities are limited and security forces continue committing indiscriminate atrocities while trying to stamp out the insurgency. Military force must be part of the counter-terror effort, Power told reporters. "They have guns. The have suicide vests. They have armored vehicles," she said.
But Power said that targeting civilians is self-defeating because doing so only creates more potential recruits, echoing counterinsurgency lessons the United States learned the hard way in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Excessive military force is a problem that appears ubiquitous in the region.
The war against Boko Haram has killed perhaps 20,000 people in this decade, and possibly far more. Some 2.4 million are displaced throughout the region. More than 60 percent of these are children. Millions more face dire food shortages. Boko Haram, also has kidnapped and raped hundreds of girls. These include more than 200 they still hold two years after seizing them from their school in the town of Chibok, drawing worldwide condemnation.