Staying Small to Stay Feasible: SOF Support in Countering Boko Haram
American special operations support efforts aimed at building West African military capability over the last five years have been largely successful. Using a transnational approach, Special Operations Forces (SOF) have deployed to Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad to address the violent, border-spanning Islamist organization, Boko Haram. While tactical progress has been made, Boko Haram as an organization has not been totally defeated. As the United States continues to support regional efforts against Boko Haram, and plans are made to send military advisors closer to insurgent-controlled territory, it is worth reflecting on the approaches that have contributed to recent successes. To remain feasible, acceptable and suitable, SOF missions in West Africa should maintain a small footprint, and continue to emphasize Foreign Internal Defense (FID). An increased number of personnel and the closer proximity to Boko Haram may be a temptation to become directly involved in direct combat, but to do so would run contrary to the techniques that have been successful thus far.
Foreign Internal Defense
Unlike the flashpoints in North and East Africa, which have been characterized by surgical strikes and counterterrorism initiatives, the SOF personnel in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon have primarily been working as advisors. A core SOF mission, FID provides both short-term and long-term benefits. By training local police and military units, SOF contribute directly to the defeat of Boko Haram as the trained organizations become more effective. A long-term benefit of FID is the enduring relationship built between the United States, and the trained force. As SOF personnel train local forces, they sow the seeds for lasting, regional partnerships.
Feasibility, Acceptability, and Suitability
Under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria has pushed Boko Haram out of many of the population centers once controlled by the terror group. President Buhari has claimed that Boko Haram is incapable of mounting large-scale conventional attacks, and now has to rely solely on terrorist tactics. The tactical successes of regional forces have been accomplished in part due to the support of American SOF working as enablers. The expertise and technical support provided by American SOF serves to bridge the resource and capability gaps existing in some of the regional militaries. American forces have operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) out of neighboring Niger and Cameroon, providing imagery intelligence (IMINT) to local forces. With American resources, technical support, and advice, Nigerian and other regional forces have reduced Boko Haram’s territory, and continue to erode the group’s influence.
Special Operations support to counter Boko Haram efforts in West Africa continues to be acceptable to both local populations, and the American public, due to both the small footprint occupied by SOF in the region, and the lack of American casualties. The American presence in Cameroon has been one of the larger contingents, with drone operators and support personnel reportedly totaling approximately 300 personnel. The SOF contingent in Niger has been even smaller, with Special Forces elements of elements of less than 20 soldiers often serving as the only American forces in a state or territory. If the American SOF footprint grows too large in Nigeria or in surrounding countries, the local perception of Americans may shift from one of ally and supporter, to that of an occupier. The small footprint approach is a key element of operations in West Africa, and is in part necessitated by Boko Haram’s narrative of the corrupting influence of Western culture on local governments. To allow a large, overt U.S. presence, local governments would be feeding into the insurgent narrative and risk issues with public perception, regardless of any tactical successes resulting from the outside support.
The lack of American casualties thus far also contributes to the acceptability of special operations in West Africa by the American public. While combat casualties in Iraq have been few over the course of the last year, each has generated significant media attention. The dearth of casualties amongst SOF in West Africa is a positive element of the campaign at the tactical level, and also helps maintain the nation’s tacit support for ongoing operations in the region. If any advisors involved in countering Boko Haram become casualties, operations against Boko Haram may be subject to increased scrutiny from both the American public, and policymakers.
American support to West African nations countering Boko Haram has been successful because it is suitably aligned with greater American strategic guidance. The SOF mission in Nigeria and neighboring states meets the goals set by the President, as well as recent guidance from the Department of Defense. President Obama’s intent for supporting Nigeria and its neighbors was outlined as assistance with the strengthening of security institutions, advancing regional cooperation, and improving the rule of law. The ongoing SOF mission in West Africa to counter Boko Haram is also clearly in keeping with the 2015 National Military Strategy which states that the United States military will be used to “disrupt, degrade and defeat violent extremist organizations (VEOs).” Operations in Niger specifically exemplify the spirit of the Defense Strategic Guidance of 2012, relying on a “small footprint” approach and “advisory capabilities” to achieve security objectives.
Keeping both a small footprint on the ground and a “local face” on operations builds the confidence and legitimacy of regional forces, and counters the enemy narrative of western influence. An increase in additional forces may prove counterproductive if the perception of SOF changes from “enabler” to “occupier” in the region. The United States must resist the temptation to leverage its technological advantage and its wealth of combat-experienced SOF personnel and slide into an overt, confrontational role with regards to combatting Boko Haram. A more overt and aggressive strategy would likely generate more gratifying short term results in insurgents detained or killed, but this approach would be shortsighted. The current application of SOF across West Africa has proven to be feasible, and acceptable, and is suitably aligned with national strategy. With SOF quietly providing material and technical support to the regional coalition fighting Boko Haram, small but steady progress is being made. For this progress to take hold and have a lasting effect, and to maintain the legitimacy of local forces, American influence in counter Boko Haram operations needs to be opaque. Maintaining a small footprint, with an emphasis on FID, is key to continued success in West Africa.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.