The US Army Needs to Study the Fight against Boko Haram

The US Army Needs to Study the Fight against Boko Haram
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The collective security response to Boko Haram’s emergence as a regional existential threat reveals a growing appreciation and desire for effective countermeasures to the terrorist group, now potentially allied with ISIS.  Eric Schmitt’s recent New York Times article, “African Training Exercise Turns Urgent as Threats Grow” reflects proven foreign internal defense approaches, but absent a broader, enduring landpower network—a network of established relationships with partnered land forces able to shape security environments—any progress may prove temporary.

The fact that many nations are helping to train Africa’s indigenous forces is not new or particularly interesting.  What is interesting, however, is what this activity portends for the U.S. military—and Army in particular— as it innovates to address threats in our current and future global security environment.  Also noteworthy are the broader implications for creating and maintaining a landpower network; one which must include other governmental agencies and non- and inter-governmental organizations’ approaches, led by diplomatic initiatives, in order to truly achieve strategic effect.

The creation of an African “8,700-member regional [counterterrorism] force to combat Boko Haram” is truly remarkable and is a positive evolution of previous coalition-building experiences on the continent.  But consider the significant challenges captured in Schmitt’s reporting:  “Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin must overcome years of distrust, rivalries and disparate military abilities.” Further, a leaked internal assessment by the European Union that, “future cooperation may be hindered by the countries’ little tradition of working together and sharing a long history of local disputes, different languages” should sober statesmen and soldiers alike.

The degree to which this new counterterrorism force and its contributing nations are able to coalesce around shared strategic outcomes depends in part on the ability of the U.S. military to work with the State Department to integrate its efforts with multiple partners. Initial first steps by the State and Defense Departments, like appointing retired Ambassador Dan Mozena to coordinate the effort against Boko Haram and deployment of special operations forces, suggest the seriousness with which the United States and others perceive the threat. They are working to develop appropriate twenty-first century security models to counter it.

What is clear from the fast-moving situation in northern Nigeria is the need for a network of nations willing and able to counter regional threats through the coordinated application of landpower. Whether Boko Haram and ISIS endure or are replaced by other emerging threats, nations’ interests in stability—stable, functioning governments and benign ungoverned areas—will be predicated on an established network able to identify and mitigate transnational risks before they achieve critical mass or, once metastasized, be capable of stopping or slowing down growth long enough for a governmental body to do something about the problem.

What this portends for the U.S. military, its land forces in particular, is the need to establish and maintain an enduring (rather than ad hoc) global landpower network. Moving forward, the U.S. military must continue to support State Department and the security cooperation efforts of U.S. Africa Command to achieve both near and longer-term desired outcomes.  Although the current threat posed by Boko Haram is fostering creative problem-solving and quick relationship-building, building enduring trust and effective cooperation will take years.  The Army’s regionally aligned force construct, integration of partners and special and conventional forces, and support to whole-of-government solutions will help build and sustain enduring networks that might be leveraged where needed across the globe.

Although the Army Operating Concept, “Win in a Complex World, 2020-2040,” is a conceptual document designed to provide an intellectual foundation and framework to guide future force development, its concepts are being load-tested now.  The Army’s desire to adapt in the near term, evolve in the mid-term, and innovate for the far term require deliberate activities like experimentation, evaluation, study and analysis.  Regionally aligning forces; integrating special and conventional forces; developing leader agility, adaptability, and innovation; building coalitions through security force assistance in support of diplomatic objectives—this is an experiment in real time and a real environment.  The stress applied and lessons derived from its experience to its codified concepts and associated warfighting challenges require great scrutiny.  Collectively, this comprehensive effort to change the Army and improve the joint force’s land power capabilities will support the attainment of U.S. policy objectives.

As the Army continues its “Force 2025 Maneuvers,” activities ranging from experimentation to study of warfighting challenges, it must look to Africa now to broaden both its understanding of “the network” and the non-military instruments of power so essential to enabling good governance.  Studying the fight against Boko Haram provides the Army an opportunity to better understand the implications of creating and maintaining a global landpower network; a necessary, first order capability which will further enable the United States and its partners to achieve global security objectives consistent with their respective interests.

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