Marines could play an important role in containing — if not defeating — Boko Haram, according to a new study published just days after the radical organization announced its allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The study was commissioned by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, and was conducted by the CNA Corporation. It "Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Boko Haram: The Case for a Regional Strategy," which was commissioned by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, proposes ways to defeat Boko Haram within the confines of what its authors describe as a complicated relationship between Washington and Nigeria.
Boko Haram has carried out a number of atrocities across Nigeria, including kidnapping hundreds of school-aged girls and forcing them into marriage. Its recent allegiance to the Islamic State group has troubled world leaders.
The strategy proposed by CNA to combat the group includes the short-term goal of working with Nigeria's neighbors to contain Boko Haram, all the while advocating for a "whole of governance" or counter insurgency approach to eventually dismantle it. the group.
With Marines possessing more than a decade of experience with COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan, and units with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force- Crisis Response-Africa regularly conducing military exchanges in the region, experts agree that the service Marines could prove an important tool in working towards containment and eventual defeat of Boko Haram.
"If there was the opportunity to work with the Nigerian government, those types of skills Marines learned in Iraq and Afghanistan are transferable," said Julia McQuaid, a senior research scientist with CNA Corporation's Strategic Studies Division and one of the study's paper's authors. "How do you patrol in a civilian area — protect civilian populations? The Nigerian military hasn't been trained or equipped in those types of activities."
Military training and exchanges
The ideas presented by set forth in the paper by the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research organization that conducts analysis to inform national decisions makers, go beyond raw military force and focus on the corruption, poverty and ethnic tensions that gave rise to the group.
For now, Nigerian President because of internal political turmoil leading up to national elections in Nigeria, there is hesitation on the part of the current president Goodluck Jonathan has been hesitant to accept external assistance or human rights conditions placed on the country due to internal political turmoil leading up to a national election. Since those conditions are a Nigeria as a prerequisite for more direct military aid, Marines and other U.S. forces are unable to directly train Nigerian forces in combat skills.
In December, for example, the Nigerian government and U.S. Army canceled a training program led by U.S. soldiers — likely Special Forces — to hone a 650-man Nigerian battalion to hunt and destroy Boko Haram.
That did not affect Marine Corps training of the Nigerian Nnavy in small boat maintenance, however, since that is not a skill tieds directly to combat. It is an ongoing gesture of good will that helps keep a bilateral-national relationship — that is in fact strong in many other areas — open should the conditions for direct combat training ever be met, experts say.
In fact, tThe Nigerian government has taken a wholly military approach that has left civilians caught between radical insurgents and a military that has inflicted civilian casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and further exacerbating the poverty and disenfranchisement that fomented Boko Haram.
Carl LeVan, an associate professor at American University's School of International Service who has closely studied the intricacies of Nigeria's internal politics and security, pointed to a February incident in which civilians in a village on the banks of Lake Chad had nowhere to flee when the military swooped in to attack Boko Haram. Civilians were caught between a military with no training in preventing collateral damage and a brutal insurgent group were left with nowhere to run. Many drowned as they waded into the lake in an attempt to escape as the town was hammered.
McQuaid said the Nigerian military hasn't been trained or equipped to patrol in a civilian area while protecting the local population. If conditions were set for direct training, the Marine Corps could share its robust expertise working around vulnerable civilians while minimizing collateral casualties, LeVan said, They are skills the Nigerian military badly needs.
In the shorter term, the Marine Corps would be well equipped to aid the hundreds of thousands of Nigerian refugees. They have proven strong relief skills during disaster response operations everywhere from Haiti in the aftermath of a 2010 earthquake to Operation Damayan in 2013 to provide relief to the Philippines after the island nation was slammed by a typhoon.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people in northeast Nigeria who are hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance," LeVan said. "Those camps are potential breeding grounds for radicalization." LeVan said. "There are [internally displaced person] camps all over the place and it is hard to get blankets and medicine there. In April I began calling for a humanitarian corridor," LeVan said.
Contingent on concessions from the Nigerian government, Marines could also help secure roads to camps as part of humanitarian operations to deliver supplies.
A case for COIN
Like the CNA study, 's latest paper, LeVan who authored "Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria," said the solution must go beyond treating the symptoms surrounding Boko Haram's stronghold and get at the root causes.
McQuaid said COIN does that. CNA Corporation's decision to pursue that strategy was the product of their characterization of the conflict as a grassroots insurgency, born of local grievances. She and her co-authors say the Nigerian government falsely calls Boko Haram an al-Qaida-linked threat from abroad to avoid addressing the underlying causes.
"The starting point was taking a look at the conflict," she said. "We diagnosed it as an insurgency that requires a population-centric approach focusing on economic, political and social grievances within the population. Any effective approach would have to deal with these issues."
That bucks the Nigerian government's assertion that Boko Haram is an external threat. And while it's It is too early to tell whether the group's recent allegiance with the Islamic State group is symbolic or will yield actual material support in terms of arms and fighters, but it could perpetuate the Nigerian government's claims, making will likely support the Nigerian government's faulty narrative and make it difficult to institute the change necessary to set the conditions for direct military training and assistance from the U.S.
"That is something the Nigerian government can now build into their narrative — they can now make the link to ISIS and it sets them up to sound the alarm bells within the international community, saying they require more assistance, more weapons, better weapons," McQuaid said.
A regional approach
Because of current limits on direct assistance to Nigeria, CNA proposes what amounts to a policy of containment, focusing on a regional partnership with Nigeria's neighbors. That includes multiple countries like Chad and Cameroon, where Marines already regularly train alongside local forces.
In Chad, for example, Marines have trained personnel in small-unit tactics to counter poaching, which is a lucrative source of income for radical groups. About 15 members of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa SPMAGTF-CR-AF 14.1 out of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, spent a month there in April training 100 members of the Chadian Ministry of Environment's Mobile Brigade. Theyare game rangers, but often find themselves in combat with heavily armed poachers, so Marines taught them skills such as likeand so were badly in need of the patrolling, marksmanship and land navigation and site exploitation skills Marine taught them.
It was a first-time partnership with the Chadian rangers, and a Marine spokesman told Marine Corps Times at the time that the partnership training helped provide greater regional stability.
Counties like Chad have already seen attacks at the hands of Boko Haram and may be more willing to accept aid than Nigeria.
"Analysts agree that the Cameroonians, for example, have a greater political will to take on Boko Haram," McQuaid said. "We should tailor future assistance in a way that addresses the potential increasing spread of the conflict across borders into their territory because the government of Nigeria is failing to deal with it themselves in Nigeria."
That is where the sorts of operations already conducted by the Marines of SPMAGTF-CR-AF could play a tangible and immediate role in combating Boko Haram.