WASHINGTON -- Nigerian soldiers charged with countering the "exceptionally brutal" Boko Haram insurgency are outgunned and fearful, and the Pentagon has been reluctant to share intelligence with the Nigerian military because of its own record of brutality, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday.
The Obama administration has asked for assurances from Nigeria that information shared in the widening search for more than 250 abducted schoolgirls will not be misused, said Alice Friend, the Pentagon's senior policy official for Africa.
She accused the military of "atrocities" in its campaign against the insurgency and said the Pentagon has difficulty finding "clean" units to offer needed help and training. U.S. law bars Pentagon aid to units suspected of human rights abuses.
The search for the girls has become "one of the highest priorities" for Washington, Robert Jackson, a State Department Africa policy specialist, told Senate Foreign Relations Committee members. Boko Haram "has no regard for human life," he said. But he and other government officials were clear that until now, one of the main obstacles to countering Boko Haram and finding the missing girls has been the Nigerian government itself.
The Nigerian army's 7th Division, deployed against the insurgency in the country's north, "has recently shown signs of real fear," Ms. Friend said. "They do not have the capabilities, the training or the equipping that Boko Haram does."
The Islamic insurgency is increasingly taking on the military in direct fighting, she added, and "is exceptionally brutal and indiscriminate in their attacks."
As a result, "we are now looking at a military force that is, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage," Ms. Friend said.
U.S. defense officials provided new details Thursday about the daunting nature of the search for the schoolgirls, as well as the nature of the Nigerian military mobilization to find them. The officials said Nigeria has surged forces to the northern region where the girls were taken hostage, including as many as four army battalions plus 1,000 special operations forces and 10 army search teams. Those forces have joined the army's 7th Division.
Still, the officials said the search involves locating more than 250 girls -- who appear to have been divided into smaller groups -- in a country with a population of 170 million spread across a region the size of West Virginia.
"This is really difficult for the Nigerian government," said a U.S. defense official who participated in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon.
The officials spoke on condition that they not be identified.
The Obama administration this week sent more than two dozen experts and security personnel to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and is conducting reconnaissance flights over the densely forested area where the militants are believed to have taken the missing girls.
The level of U.S. engagement is a departure after years in which the Nigerian government, a frequent U.S. diplomatic and security partner, had refused U.S. advice about how best to counter the rebels. U.S. help was mostly at arm's length.