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U.S. needs to shake up military approach to Boko Haram, new study says

Nigerian special forces run past Chadian troops in a hostage rescue exercise at the end of the Flintlock exercise in Mao, Chad, on March 7. The U.S. military and its Western partners conduct this training annually and set up plans long before Boko Haram began attacking its neighbors Niger, Chad and Cameroon. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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The United States should develop a new approach to counter the Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria, in part because Nigerian leaders continue to use heavy-handed tactics that have alienated their citizens and yielded few results, according to a new report prepared for the U.S. military.

The report, “Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Boko Haram,” was released by CNA Corp., a Washington-area think tank, on Tuesday. It was requested by U.S. Naval Forces Africa as it developed a supporting plan to U.S. Africa Command’s regional vision for the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa, CNA officials said.

Boko Haram, designated a terrorist organization by Washington in 2013, received international attention last year after it kidnapped at least 200 girls from a school in Nigeria. The Islamist group is believed to have killed about 10,000 people in 2014 and on Saturday swore allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, although the strength of any ties between the two groups has been questioned by some U.S. intelligence officials.

The United States has cultivated a relationship with Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 180 million people, because it considers it strategically important and worthy of investment, CNA analysts said. But the bloodshed in the northeastern part of the country is partly the result of failures by the Nigerian military and other government forces, they added.

“Because the government is unable to conduct surgical strikes against the insurgents, its operations often result in indiscriminate killings — which expand the pool of potential insurgent recruits and solidify a sense that the government is an equally liable party to the violence,” the report said. “Moreover, despite an increased military presence in the north, the government has been unable to protect the population from Boko Haram attacks and retaliatory raids, and, as a result, has lost a great deal of credibility.”

Boko Haram has broad freedom of movement in northeastern Nigeria and access to sanctuaries in nearby Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, CNA’s report added.

On Sunday, Chad and Niger sent troops to pursue the militants, including into Nigeria. The United States has trained both militaries in recent years, including at the recent exercise Flintlock in Chad.

The CNA report advocates collaborating more closely with Chad, Niger and Cameroon, rather than relying so heavily on Nigeria. U.S. Special Operations troops could work with Cameroon’s rapid intervention battalion. U.S. Marines also could assist by sending infantrymen to train with friendly militaries and provide air lift with KC-130 cargo planes or MV-22 Ospreys so allies can conduct operations in Boko Haram sanctuaries, the report said.

Africom, the main U.S. military organization in the region, can play a leading role, the report said.

“For the most part, any change to AFRICOM’s current approach would involve shifting existing current activities, exercises, and operations that involve Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and tailoring them — to the extent possible — so that they directly support capacity-building efforts to prevent Boko Haram from taking hold,” the report said. “At the same time, AFRICOM would have to manage its existing relationship with Nigeria in order to pressure the [Government of Nigeria] to contribute to this regional approach.”