Options to Build Local Capabilities to Stabilise the Lake Chad Region

Fulan Nasrullah is a national security policy adviser based in Nigeria.  He currently works for an international research and policy advisory firm.  Fulan tweets at @fulannasrullah and blogs here.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government.


National Security Situation:  Counterinsurgency and stabilisation campaigns in the Lake Chad region.

Date Originally Written:  December 11, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point Of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a Nigerian National Security Advisor, offering options on the building of key local capabilities in the Lake Chad region to further degrade destabilising non-state armed groups in the region, while fostering stability in the area.

Background:  With the launch of conventional offensives by the Nigerian and Chadian armies in 2015, non-state armed groups in the Lake Chad region and Northeast Nigeria have lost much of the territory which they had earlier captured.  The successes of the regional governments’ conventional offensives have forced the non-state armed groups to return to a heavy emphasis on revolutionary and asymmetric warfare, which the local armies and governments are ill prepared to confront.

The conventional offensive resulted in a situation where local security capabilities, already inadequate, are  increasingly overstretched and worn down, by having to manage multiple security problems over such a wide area.

The Nigerian Army has an estimated 40,000-45,000 combat and support personnel (out of a total 130,000+ personnel) deployed in Northeast Nigeria, in over forty combat battalions.  These include the battalions that make up the in theatre 7 and 8 Divisions, plus those backfilling from 3, 1 and 2 Divisions.  These forces represent the majority of the Nigerian Army’s combat deployable strength, most of whom have been serving a minimum of 2 years of continuous deployment in the Northeast theatre.

However, unlike the much larger Nigerian military, other regional armies involved in this conflict have fewer manpower and material resources to expend.  These less capable forces struggle to combat an insurgency that has proven itself adaptable, and which despite losing conventionally, has sustained itself and progressively gained momentum on the asymmetric front.  The insurgency specifically uses armed groups to offset the disadvantage they suffer in conventional strength, through guerrilla operations, terror, and a heavy focus on information operations and ideological education and propagation targeted at local populations in rural areas.

Weak institutional capabilities, in addition to lack of intelligence and analysis-based understanding of these armed groups, have contributed to multiple conflicting and unrealistic strategies from the regional states, plus enhanced insurgent momentum.

Significance:  United States investment in building local capabilities is a necessity for both the U.S. and Lake Chad regional states, both to degrade active non-state armed groups in the region, and to build, foster, and maintain stability.  Without this investment by the United States, regional states will  be unable to stop the conflict which, though currently at a  strategic stalemate, could turn into a strategic victory for the insurgent groups.

While Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad poses a serious threat to local stability, the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP) is a greater worry for United States’ interests globally and in the long-term.  The power vacuum created by regional states failing to degrade insurgent capabilities[1], thus ceding territory, will create a huge opening for ISWAP and its local affiliates in the Lake Chad, Sahel, and Libyan regions to exploit.  Power vacuums have already been created in the Lake Chad Islands[2], and will be further created as the Nigerian government plans to abandon the rural Borno State[1].

Option #1:  The U.S. invests solely in a kinetic buildup, by establishing a regional infantry and counterinsurgency training centre in Nigeria, in the mold of the Fort Irwin National Training Centre, drawing on lessons the U.S. military learnt in Iraq and Afghanistan, to train local militaries.  A kinetic build up would also involve providing training and funding for more troops and units for the Nigerian and Chadian armies.  These troops would be dedicated to the clearing out of the Lake Chad Islands and areas around the Lake, in addition to training and funding more special operations units with the firepower and mobility necessary to engage in relentless pursuit of insurgents.  Finally, this option would invest in training, funding, and arming already existing local volunteer militia and paramilitary organisations such as the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria, while embedding U.S. advisors with both militia, paramilitary, and regular armed forces units down to the platoon level.

Risk:  Option #1 results in the U.S. de facto owning the war against non-state armed groups in the Lake Chad region.  In the U.S. this owning would lead to deeper engagement in yet another foreign war in an era of President Donald Trump’s “America First,” and increase the risks of more American combat deaths in this region with the accompanying political blowback.  Within the region, Option #1 would increase resistance from local political and military elements who do not want to admit they are incapable of dealing with the crisis themselves, or who may simply be war profiteers not interested in this conflict ending.

Gain:  Option #1 results in the degrading of the military, logistic, and organisational capabilities of ISWAP and Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad and the rolling back of ISWAP’s growing structure in the region.  This degrading and rolling back would place destabilising actors under constant crushing military pressure, increase the tactical performance of local military forces, and use existing volunteer militias to stabilize the government-controlled areas when the conventional military forces depart.  All of the preceding will enable military units to concentrate on offensive operations thus eliminating the ability of global-level actors, e.g. the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, to use bases and ungoverned spaces in the region to attack U.S. interests.

Option #2:  The U.S. invests in a non-kinetic build-up, by helping to establish and expand regional states’ information operations capabilities particularly in electronic warfare, psychological operations, and targeted information dissemination via “Radio-In-A-Box” and other mediums.  Option #2 also includes the U.S. providing training and funding for comprehensive reformations of local intelligence services to create lacking signals intelligence, human intelligence, and intelligence analysis capabilities.  Option #2 will enhance the U.S. Security Governance Initiative programme[3] which seeks to enhance local civil administration capabilities in law enforcement, anti-corruption, and criminal justice, and enhance local capabilities to deliver humanitarian support and government services to communities in the conflict zone.

Risk:  Option #2 reduces emphasis on degrading insurgent capabilities so soft-power efforts are properly funded.  This option would leave the insurgents alone and lead to indirect validation of regional government falsehoods that the insurgents have been defeated and the war is over.  This indirect validation will foster nonchalance and complacency from states of the region, to the strategic advantage of the insurgents. Option #2 will ensure de facto reduction of pressure on the insurgents, which gives room for the insurgents and their external allies to exploit the resultant power vacuum.

Gain:  Option #2 strengthens local governance capabilities, increases civil stability in government controlled areas, and is less expensive, less visible, and shorter term in an era of “America First.”  Option #2 would greatly reduce the risk of American combat deaths.

Other Comments:  None

Recommendations:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Carsteen, Paul and Lanre, Ola. (December 1, 2017) “Nigeria Puts Fortress Towns At Heart Of New Boko Haram Strategy”, Reuters, retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-borno/nigeria-puts-fortress-towns-at-heart-of-new-boko-haram-strategy-idUSKBN1DV4GU

[2] Taub, Ben (December 4, 2017), “Lake Chad: World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster”, New Yorker Magazine, retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/lake-chad-the-worlds-most-complex-humanitarian-disaster

[3] Chalfin, Julie E. and Thomas-Greenfield, Linda. (May 16, 2017), “The Security Governance Intiative” PRISM Vol 6. No.4, Center For Complex Operations, National Defense University (US) retrieved from: http://cco.ndu.edu/News/Article/1171855/the-security-governance-initiative/

Africa Fulan Nasrullah Insurgency & Counteinsurgency Irregular Forces Lake Chad Option Papers United States