MAROUA, Cameroon (AP) — 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.
In its flagship Human Rights Report released last week, the State Department chided Nigerian forces for killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, prisoner abuse and destruction of property while countering Boko Haram.
One Nigerian state government recently acknowledged burying hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims in a mass grave after they were killed in army raids.
Pushed from population centers by Nigeria’s military since Buhari’s election last year, Boko Haram is changing its tactics.
It launched 159 suicide bombings last year, more than half in Nigeria, increasingly using girls to set off the explosives. The consequence has increased suspicion even on children
And buoyed by its alliance with the Islamic State, Boko Haram is employing increasingly slick messaging — as evidenced in some recent videos. As of now, however, U.S. officials aren’t sure about how deep the operational links between the two groups run.
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, which espouses an extreme form of conservative Islam, 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.
Power met with one such child at the Minawao refugee camp, which currently houses almost 60,000 people. It was designed to host 20,000. Less than 50 miles away, Boko Haram’s fighters hide in the wilderness.
“She has nothing to be ashamed of. She is brave and strong and beautiful,” Power said of the 14-year-old girl, who painfully recounted the terrible choice she was given between death and forced marriage. Her name was withheld because she is a child victim.
In the small city of Mokolo, Haulatu Usman, a 28-year-old widow, recounted to Power how she was able to flee with her five children from Nigeria when Boko Haram fighters entered her village, guns ablazing. She doesn’t imagine ever returning.
“They’re around but we don’t see them,” she said of Boko Haram.
Some security gains are evident, even if no one cited anything like Buhari’s assessment from December that “technically we have won the war” because Boko Haram can no longer launch conventional attacks or confront African military forces directly.
With the help of some 200 U.S. special forces in Cameroon, West African nations are at long last enhancing their intelligence sharing, military coordination and counterterrorism planning. But Boko Haram has been on the run before and regained strength.
Midjiwaya Bakari, Maroua’s governor, said security gains in his region have led to a dramatic decrease in suicide bombings over the last three months. The drop, he said, has been replaced by an uptick in another deadly threat posed by Boko Haram: roadside bombs.
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