Thoughts on the 2019 AFRICOM Posture Statement

Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:

I have a few points to add:

  1. I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
  2. I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
  3. The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
  4. The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:

 

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Notes on the Outcome Statement of the Lake Chad Conference in Berlin

On 3-4 September, the governments of Germany, Nigeria, and Norway, together with the United Nations, hosted a “High-Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region.” The primary aim of the conference was to close the funding shortfall for humanitarian operations in the region affected by Boko Haram – namely, northeastern Nigeria, southeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, the islands of Lake Chad, as well as some parts of western Chad. The conference generated some $2.17 billion in pledges, more than the organizers had hoped.

This post offers a few notes on the outcome statement, but first, here is the program, which is also worth a glance. The panel I would have most liked to see was on the afternoon of 3 September, and entitled “Regional cross-border cooperation: Interventions of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and Governors from the region.” The speakers were Mamman Nuhu, Executive Secretary, Lake Chad Basin Commission; Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, Nigeria; Abali Salah Mahamat, Governor of Lac Chad Province, Chad; Midjiyawa Bakary, Governor of the Extreme North Region, Cameroon; and Mahamadou Bakabe, Governor of Diffa, Niger.

Turning to the outcome statement, a lot of the language is pretty banal and predictable. So here I’m only highlighting points that struck me as unusually substantive or noteworthy:

  • It is worth reading the statement in conjunction with UN Security Council Resolution 2349 (2017), which is referenced on p. 1. That resolution, among other matters, “Calls upon relevant United Nations entities, including UNOCA, UNOWAS, and the United Nations Office to the African Union (UNOAU) to redouble their support for Governments in the Region, as well as sub-regional and regional organizations, to address the impact of Boko Haram and ISIL violence on the peace and stability of the Region, including by addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, and violent extremism that can be conducive to terrorism, in line with the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, and to conduct and gather gender-sensitive research and data collection on the drivers of radicalization for women, and the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on women’s human rights and women’s organizations, in order to develop targeted and evidence-based policy and programming responses” (p. 4).
  • Laudably, the statement repeatedly emphasizes the need for programming that specifically addresses the needs of women and girls.
  • In the three main pages of the Outcome Statement’s text, the word “resilience” appears eight times and seems to me to have been the buzzword of the conference (as it is in various other development and humanitarian settings these days). Here is some sample language: “Strengthening resilience for sustainable development is essential for reducing vulnerabilities in the long term and efforts are already under way. We highlighted the leadership of governments in the region and the centrality of resilience-building measures at all levels.” Honestly, I have troubling telling what this means concretely. There is a section on p. 3 that clarifies things a bit: “Resilience means going beyond simply restoring the status quo ante, which contributed to giving rise to the crisis: it means building a better standard of living than before. There is an urgent need for governments and partners to continue to scale up efforts for transformational change.” But the language is so vague, even here, that I don’t quite know what the authors meant. I understand “resilience” as the capacity to withstand and even thrive amid setbacks; I suppose the real subtext here is that the donors are worried about either a real worsening of the conflict, or a future conflict, and so “resilience” becomes a code word for saying that governments need to prevent something like this from happening again.
  • Here is some more language that I found odd, from p. 2: “The conference highlighted that stabilization in the Lake Chad region is understood as supporting political processes on the ground and supporting security efforts in order to reduce violence. Stabilization seeks to enable first steps towards reconciliation between parties to the conflict and to establish social and political consensus as a foundation for legitimate political structures and long-term development. The conference underlined the importance of joint efforts to prevent further outbreaks of violent conflict and an escalation of conflicts into crises. The conference further underscored that supporting political processes to develop a common regional approach on stabilization is pivotal. The conference welcomed the establishment of the Governors’ Forum in Maiduguri in May 2018 as an important tool for cross-border cooperation. In this regard, we welcomed enhanced cooperation by the Governors of the riparian provinces and states and the consultation processes which increased civil society participation at the local level, especially of traditional and religious leaders, youth and women movements, and community health workers.” One could read “political processes” here as referring to the possibility of negotiations with Boko Haram (“reconciliation between parties to the conflict”), but one could also read it as coordination between different governments and different levels of government (“a common regional approach on stabilization”). Perhaps both senses are meant or implied.
  • The notes of criticism toward the Lake Chad governments are subtle, but they are there. From p. 3: “The conference stressed that reforms are needed to pursue more effective decentralization, and reach greater geographical equity in the allocation of public resources based on national realities. This would help building the capacity of public institutions to deliver key public services and serve their citizens to build resilience.” And from p. 2: “The conference called upon all parties to uphold their obligation to allow and facilitate timely and unhindered passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need. We expressed concern about the dangers faced by aid workers and reminded all parties that humanitarian personnel and assets must be respected and protected.” I’m sure the text of the statement was carefully negotiated, but reading between the lines suggests – to me, at least – that donors are concerned about how hierarchy, corruption, and authoritarianism are impeding humanitarian responses.
  • p. 4 of the statement breaks down the pledges made.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.

Thoughts on Chad in Nigeria

Bloomberg published an article yesterday on dynamics surrounding Chad’s involvement in fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. I am quoted in the article, and I thought I’d expand on my comments here.

First, some context: in 2014 and into this year, Boko Haram has sought to hold territory in the northeastern part of Nigeria, even as the sect continues to perpetrate urban terrorism and extreme violence against rural populations. Nigeria’s neighbors to the north and east – Niger, Cameroon, and Chad – are directly affected by the violence. Boko Haram has disrupted trade and sent thousands of refugees fleeing across borders. Increasingly, Boko Haram has affected the security of its neighbors, with attacks in northern Cameroon and more recently in southeastern Niger.

Nigeria’s neighbors have become more and more frustrated with Nigeria. Boko Haram’s current campaign of violence began in 2010, and as the violence has dragged on, nearby African countries have pressured Nigeria to cooperate with them, including at major multilateral meetings last year in Paris and London.

Cameroonian soldiers began to clash regularly with Boko Haram last year, but it is only this year that Chad (and now Niger, as part of an African Union-backed regional force that will also include Nigeria’s western neighbor Benin) has become heavily involved in the fighting. In the past few weeks, Chad has reportedly pushed Boko Haram out of several towns and villages on the border and inside Nigeria.

Chad’s role in the fight against Boko Haram deserves special attention for a few reasons, including the Chadian military’s reputation for toughness and the Chadian government’s multifaceted incentives for participating in the fight. Another reason is the juxtaposition of Nigeria’s wealth and Chad’s poverty. As Bloomberg points out, Chad is one of the poorest countries on the planet (while Niger is, by the same measure, the poorest). Hence Bloomberg’s headline, “African Giant Relies on Poorer Chad to Fight Boko Haram.”

In terms of toughness, Chadian soldiers most recently distinguished themselves in northern Mali in 2013 as participants in the French-led intervention against a coalition of jihadists. Although Chad ultimately partially withdrew its troops, during the initial fighting they joined in some of the toughest combat. Chad’s strong performance in Mali partly reflected Chadian soldiers’ experience fighting in desert conditions, but Chad has also projected military power into non-desert areas like the Central African Republic (where they were, however, accused of taking sides in the civil conflict). Despite some complications, Chad has become a valued partner for the United States and particularly France, with the latter basing its Sahel-wide security mission Operation Barkhane in Chad – for both logistical and political reasons.

Chad’s incentives for fighting in Nigeria are simple. First, Chad has genuine security concerns. An escalation in Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding areas spells trouble for Chad.

Second, there is a political dimension. Chad can hope to continue to distinguish itself as a partner for the West by asserting a role as a guarantor of regional security. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who took power in 1990, needs France’s support – when he faced severe rebellions in 2006 and 2008, France’s help was reportedly critical to his ability to weather those storms. Deby may have partly re-consolidated his grip on power since 2008, but he remains vulnerable. Protests last year in Chad did not rock the regime, but the fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore last year can only make Deby nervous – and armed rebellion still looms as a possibility.

Chad’s involvement in the fight against Boko Haram, it should also be added, parallels France’s increasing engagement with Nigeria – France’s President Francois Hollande, on a visit in February 2014, told Nigerians that “your fight against Boko Haram is also ours.” So Chad’s involvement in Nigeria helps to support French policy as well – and the French are supporting Nigeria’s neighbors logistically.

Where is all this headed? So far, Nigerian authorities have presented Chad’s presence on their soil as part of a larger, well-coordinated plan. But Nigeria, like many other countries, is keen to protect and assert its sovereignty. Nigeria and its neighbors – for example Cameroon – have disagreed in the recent past about just how it should work when one country pursues Boko Haram fighters into another’s territory. We will see how the African Union-backed regional force shapes up; the idea of a multinational force is not new, but the level of urgency the players feel is. In the short term much of the spotlight might be on Chad.

On the Prison Attack in Niger

On June 1, violence occurred at a prison in Niamey, Niger. Initial, and partly conflicting, reports suggested that the violence came either from inmates or from external attackers, but the consensus now seems to be that inmates were responsible. Perhaps three or four inmates held on terrorism charges attacked guards at the prison, some reports say. AP has reported that 22 prisoners escaped during the incident.

While some news outlets initially blamed the Mali-centric Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) for the attack, suspicion now centers on the Nigeria-centric Boko Haram sect. Some accounts implicate both Boko Haram and the Islamist coalition that controlled parts of northern Mali in 2012-early 2013; one of the escapees, AP reported, was a member of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

If we assume that Boko Haram was involved, there are three basic points I would make:

  1. Reports of Boko Haram operating in Niger are not unprecedented. News outlets have in the past reported suspicions of Boko Haram activity in Niger, such as the arrest of suspected Boko Haram members in Diffa, Niger in early 2012. Some analysts have posited an increasing presence of Boko Haram in Niger.
  2. As always, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully. A moment like the present, when conflicting theories and reported information are swirling, reminds us that the story that gels later – “Boko Haram attacked a prison in Niger to free AQIM members” – can mask ambiguities and uncertainties about what really happened in a given incident. 
  3. Prison breaks have been an important part of Boko Haram’s approach inside Nigeria. The attacks serve to free imprisoned sect members, but also possibly as an opportunity to recruit other convicts. A prison break near Cameroon in March of this year underscored the possibility that Boko Haram might employ this tactic in Nigeria’s neighbors. As we strive to discern what really happened in Niamey, the past pattern of prison breaks in Nigeria casts its shadow over this incident – and highlights the cycles of violence that may take hold when Boko Haram perceives itself as a victim of state authorities, be they Nigerian or non-Nigerian.