Why the US Hesitates in the Fight Against Boko Haram

A multinational force of free fall parachutists board a Canadian C-130 for a jump wing exchange in Mao, Chad, Feb. 28, 2015, during Exercise Flintlock 2015.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Timothy Clegg

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A multinational force of free fall parachutists board a Canadian C-130 for a jump wing exchange in Mao, Chad, Feb. 28, 2015, during Exercise Flintlock 2015.

An effective counterinsurgency strategy hinges more on increasing the legitimacy of America's allies in Africa than it does on training the U.S. military can provide.

During the annual military exercise known as Flintlock, lead by American Special Operations, the US pledged support to improve the intelligence and communications capacities of its West African partners—including Chad, Nigeria, Mali, and Niger.

As the Trans-Sahelian Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) enters its eleventh year, it is more critical than ever that the US engage effectively with its African partners. As the exercise drew to a close, Boko Haram declared its allegiance to the Islamic State and a fresh spat of violence broke out in Mali.

Unfortunately, it appears that the name “flintlock” is also an apt metaphor for the nature of American military partnerships in the Sahel—the transcontinental strip of scrubland between sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa. The flintlock mechanism, common in weapons produced in the 17th century, is prone to misfiring, though added safety mechanisms to prevent misfire dramatically reduce the speed and efficiency of the weapon. Among its Sahelian partners, American military strategists are confronted with partners that frequently “misfire” by enacting brutal tactics against their own citizens, which galvanize insurgencies and regional terrorist threats that they are poorly suited to respond to quickly.

Leveraging these military partners into an effective counterinsurgency strategy will require a certain finesse of the American military, and a frank recognition of the stunted capabilities of regional security forces.

According to data collected by the Nigeria Social Violence Project at Johns Hopkins University, Boko Haram is responsible for roughly 19,000 deaths, making its growing insurgency one of the most lethal conflicts on the continent. The scale of the conflict, which has escalated rapidly since 2009, has prompted both regional and international initiatives. The African Union authorized a regional force of 8,700 troops from surrounding countries to respond to the threat, with Chad leading the charge. The Obama administration’s conference on countering violent extremism acknowledged the growing influence of groups like Boko Haram; however, major general James Linder, the head of Special Operations Command Africa (AFRICOM), has publicly professed his commitment to holistic counter-insurgency with a “light footprint” in the region.

In a 2014 profile in The New York Times, Linder declared, “In Africa, it’s never about seizing terrain… Tanks won’t get us there. Jet planes won’t get us there. Massive naval armadas won’t get us there.” Linder’s approach echoes AFRICOM’s overall approach to Africa, emphasizing partnerships with African countries over boots on the ground. America’s response to Boko Haram will likely be channeled through the partnerships it has developed since the 2004 founding of the Trans-Sahelian Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), an initiative that incorporates eleven African countries, including Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. American hesitancy to commit to a robust military presence in the region means that the bulk of the implementation of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism initiatives, if not their financing, will come from African militaries.

The nature of the threats in West Africa and the Sahel, including Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and Tuareg separatists in Niger and Mali, require a ‘hearts and minds’ counter-insurgency campaign that increases Africans’ trust and allegiance to their governments. The low levels of trust in government endemic to the region have allowed for insurgencies to proliferate in Mali and Nigeria; subsequent government responses have only served to further degrade domestic reputations. In Mali, for example, 48% of those polled thought that “most” or “all government officials” were involved in corruption; in Nigeria, the statistics are even more damning—with 59% of responses indicting “most” or “all government officials.”

The mistrust of government occurs throughout all levels—24% of Nigerians trust President Goodluck Jonathan “not at all” (it should be noted that this figure is a bit outdated and it is likely that trust as fallen even further), and 29% of Malians lack trust in their head of state; the numbers are similarly dire for local government officials—31% of Nigerians and 23% of Malians trust their local governments “not at all.” Not only do citizens of these countries consider their governments to be corrupt—they are also considered inept. 45% of Nigerians and 38% of Malians find that the central government is “very bad” at managing the economy. The states fare no better in terms of service provision—50% of Malians and 59% say that it is “difficult” or “very difficult” to get help from the police. The TSCTP has tried to remedy this mistrust in government by encouraging development projects, such as the distribution of malaria nets. Additionally, misconduct on the part of Nigerian military officials, including looting, extrajudicial violence, and torture, have hamstrung its reputation domestically and throughout the region. Channeling programs through these government risks reducing trust in the initiatives, rather than bolstering trust for the domestic partner.

Chad has been suggested as a potential partner in countering insurgencies in West Africa and the Sahel. The Chadian military is regarded as one of the most effective in the region and has shown a willingness to lead the charge against Islamist insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria. However, under President Idriss Déby, the country has also played a significant role in destabilizing the region; it is widely believed that Déby coordinated the most recent  in the Central African Republic and engaged in a proxy-rebel war with Sudan. Though Chad’s military is considered capable and well-armed, it has also been implicated in abuses against civilians; in one instance, Chadian peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic were accused of firing into a crowd unprovoked, killing 30 and wounding 300 more. Déby himself is a difficult figure to galvanize support behind; he has been accused of human rights abuses and has been in power since 1990.

The process of stabilizing West Africa and the Sahel requires that African governments develop trust in their governments. International support for this process will be critical, as these governments lack the financial resources and technical capacity to reform their security sectors and improve governance. However, American military partnerships in the region must recognize that a ‘light-foot print’ cannot be a euphemism for empowering ultimately counter-productive institutions through lazily provided aid.

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