Walking a Fine Line in the War Against Boko Haram

The United States will have to balance the need to deal with regional threat and limited resources, says Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham

As it steps into the war against Boko Haram, the Obama administration will have to balance the need to deal with the regional threat posed by the Islamist militants and the very real limitation of resources, said J. Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Making the case that Boko Haram, while a regional danger, does not pose a direct threat to US interests, Pham said it is nevertheless important for the United States to help contain the militants because the regional militaries lack the capacity to do so.

“Helping African militaries bring themselves up to the level where they can deal with this challenge is going to require not just US military assistance, but also help from our French allies and other countries,” he said. “This is going to have to be a multilateral approach.”

Under pressure from the Nigerian military and its allies, Boko Haram has steadily spilled over from its strongholds in northeastern Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.

US President Barack Obama this week authorized 300 US troops to participate in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations against Boko Haram in Cameroon.

The new US role should be seen in the context of efforts to help regional militaries take on the threat posed by Boko Haram, said Pham.

J. Peter Pham spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Q: What is the scope of the US military role in the war against Boko Haram?

Pham: The President announced that the United States was deploying a limited number of personnel. The initial group of approximately ninety arrived in Cameroon [on Oct. 14] and up to 300 may be deployed.

The primary mission will be to operate a series of unmanned aerial vehicles—Predators, specifically—as part of intelligence gathering about Boko Haram’s cross-border movements. Secondarily, once the deployment is at full strength there will be some training of Cameroonian forces, which will eventually contribute to the multinational force being stood up to fight Boko Haram.

Q: How has the African Union-backed Multinational Joint Task Force fared in the fight against Boko Haram? Are the limitations of this force the reason the US has been asked to step in?

Pham: One has to take a step back and look at the military forces in the region and their state of readiness in the fight against Boko Haram.

Nigeria is the most populous country in all of Africa. It is also the biggest economy in Africa, but it does not have a military to match its economic and population base. Nigeria’s military is approximately 100,000 strong. That may sound like a large number, but when you look at a country with about 190 million people, that is really nothing. Moreover, it is not just a question of numbers, it is also a question of military doctrine.

After the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, the Nigerian political elite, taking its cue, in part, from the international community, was preoccupied at the time with reining in a military that had staged coups for years. So they intentionally starved the Nigerian military of resources. What was left of the military was redirected in terms of its doctrine and training towards peacekeeping operations. In fact, Nigeria has over the last few years contributed significantly to peacekeeping, not just in Africa where it has taken on tough assignments like Darfur, but also even in the Balkans and elsewhere in the world.

As this peacekeeping capacity was built up, the training of Nigerian forces, including its officers, shifted toward a peacekeeping mentality. That doesn’t train you for war fighting, much less the specific type of war fighting—counterinsurgency—that defeating Boko Haram requires. There are a host of other problems that the Nigerian military faces, including questions of corruption, morale, resources, and other issues, but there is no getting around the reality that for more than a decade and a half the size of Nigeria’s armed forces has been reduced significantly and the training focus of that remnant has been on skills that are of very limited utility in fighting a group like Boko Haram.

When you look at the neighbors, likewise the capacity for fighting counterinsurgency is very limited. Niger is one of the United States’ top partners in Africa on security—but this is a desperately poor, landlocked country.

Chad probably has the most battle-seasoned military in the region, but the type of challenge it is facing in Boko Haram is a new kind of warfare.

Cameroon’s military is largely a garrison outfit with the exception of its so-called rapid-reaction force (known by its French acronym, the BIR), but that is a unit that was trained primarily to deal with the security challenges that Cameroon faced about a decade ago on its coast. So it’s an amphibious force, which has less relevance in the semi-desert and forest regions in which Boko Haram operates.

Q: Given this background, will the United States have to take on more than just an intelligence-gathering role in the fight against Boko Haram?

Pham: I have long argued that Boko Haram is not only a problem for Nigeria, but is actually a threat to the region. That being said, Boko Haram is not a direct threat to the United States, even if it presents a growing and evolving challenge because of its linkage to the Islamic State and its spread in Africa. So it is in US interests to see that it is contained, even if it is not a direct threat to the United States at this time.

Any US participation in the efforts to counter Boko Haram will have to balance the growing nature of the threat as a regional security challenge with the reality that we also have limited resources and global challenges. Helping African militaries bring themselves up to the level where they can deal with this challenge is going to require not just US military assistance, but also help from our French allies and other countries. This is going to have to be a multilateral approach.

Q: Boko Haram appears to be driven out of much of its Nigerian strongholds as a result of the Nigerian military operation. Where does the group stand today in terms of strength and areas of operation?

Pham: They were pushed out of towns they had seized control of. The Nigerian military was capable of pushing Boko Haram out of towns, but it does not have sufficient personnel or capacity to occupy and secure all of the hinterland.

Q: US surveillance planes were deployed last year in the search for the abducted Chibok girls and US Special Forces were deployed in the hunt for LRA leader Joseph Kony. How did those missions turn out? And given that history what can realistically be achieved by the current US operation against Boko Haram?

Pham: The deployment of air resources to gather intelligence in the search for the Chibok schoolgirls was a temporary deployment that happened weeks after the actual kidnapping of the girls by Boko Haram. One got what one reasonably expected out of that operation: some interesting data, bot certainly nothing actionable.

The hunt for Joseph Kony has been successful insofar as in the time since that deployment began the Lord’s Resistance Army has been whittled down slowly but surely to the point where most estimates are that Joseph Kony is isolated with a couple dozen followers remaining in a very remote area. Kony has not been brought in, but between defections from and neutralization of forces supporting him the threat he once represented has really been minimized. The bogeyman persists, but in reality the threat he poses is virtually nil, except to the wildlife that he and his remaining followers are slaughtering to make money. One can say that both deployments achieved what could be reasonably expected.

The deployment in Cameroon has to be taken in the context of ongoing US efforts to build the capacities of the regional militaries. That is going to take time.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and J. Peter Pham

Image: A Chadian soldier fixes his headscarf while driving at the front line during battle against Boko Haram militants in Gambaru, Nigeria, on February 26. Niger, Cameroon, and Chad have launched a regional military campaign to help Nigeria defeat the Boko Haram insurgency, which aims to carve an Islamic emirate out of northeastern Nigeria. (REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun)