The Chinese proverb, ‘He who rides the Tiger is afraid to get off’ is the clearest illustration of how regional actors have responded to Boko Haram, the beginning of 2015 has brought yet another twist in the tigers tail.
04 January: Boko Haram overran Baga completing what this commentator believes is their main effort for this campaign; control of the western and southern shore of Lake Chad and the Nigeria/Cameroun border down to the Adamawa Plateau.
05 January: Boko Haram released a video specifically threatening Cameroun and Paul Biya
07 January 2 gunmen attacked a French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo
09 January: the 2 gunmen and a fellow cell member were killed by French Security forces
12 January: Boko Haram launched a sustained attack on Kolofata via Lake Chad
15 January: the Camerounian Minister of Defence visited Chad
16 January: Chadian troops entered Cameroun in support of Camerounian forces in Extreme Nord Region.
This final action adds yet another dimension of complexity into an already complex, regional, political, social and ethnic with different effects on different actors.
Cameroun: has been key to Boko Harams resurgence, resilience and expansion due to its location at the junction of the Sahel and West and Central Africa, where it serves as a key transit point for illicit cargoes, weapons and roaming bandits and mercenaries.
Cameroun ‘rode the tiger’ of Boko Haram, with local officials initially supporting, co-opting or turning a blind eye to Boko Haram as long as they did not operate overtly against Cameroun. Some politicians and businessmen allegedly made a tidy profit from it. This changed in May 2014 when under French pressure, Cameroun declared war on Boko Haram. Using her best troops Cameroun fought a limited but gallant campaign, unfortunately these elite troops are a diminishing resource that Cameroun cannot rapidly regenerate and after 6 months of combat they are exhausted and Boko Haram still maintains the initiative. Having lost the southern shore of Lake Chad sometime between May and December, Camerounian forces recaptured some villages, only to face a massive attack on Kolofata. Combined with a sustained IED campaign on their lines of communication, Camerounian forces have begun to face the dilemma that Nigeria eventually faced; insufficient combat power to defend territory, people or even themselves. To prevent further losses and possibly go on the offensive, Cameroun needed a reserve of well trained, well equipped and well motivated troops, which the regular Camerounian Army or Gendarmes cannot provide.
This is exactly what the Chadians give Cameroun. An uncommitted reserve, that can take the fight to the enemy using mobility, local concentration of forces and firepower, whilst BIR, GP and BTAP supported by line units like 41eme Bn hold ground.
For Cameroun their economic relationship with Chad combined with the genuine threat of their forces collapsing, means that the Chadians are welcomed in a way Nigerians never would have been. Also more crucially the entire deal is underwritten by France, who can control and coordinate relations between the two Francophone nations in a way it could not have done with Nigeria.
This intervention is Cameroun’s best case scenario as it gives them a chance to rest and regenerate their elite forces, train up and equip their regular forces (as donations from Germany and purchases from Russia come in) whilst the Chadians push Boko Haram back into Nigeria or even better into Chad.
Chad: under Idriss Deby has reinvented itself from a poor, drought ridden state constantly mired in internal conflict to a poor, drought ridden state constantly mired in external conflicts.
The main strategic purpose of President Deby like many African leaders is regime perpetuation. After defeating his former boss Husseine Habre, he won the 1996 elections under the protection of Frances Op Epervier, who also retrained Chads 45,000 man conscript Army to a 25,000 (or 19,000 in reality) man professional force.
Despite this Chad is still riven by internal conflicts and still has rebels in the north, east and south biding their time. The 2008 Battle of N’Djamena demonstrated how vulnerable Deby was to these groups when a coalition of Sudanese based and supported rebel groups attacked N’djamena, almost taking the Presidential Palace until France at the last minute provided medical, logistic and intelligence support to Deby allowing him to defeat the rebels.
That battle is interesting for various reasons, firstly it shows that the much vaunted Chadian military whilst well trained, well equipped and much vaunted is just as susceptible to defeat as any other force and was only able to secure victory with French logistics and intelligence help as well as the Darfur JEM rebels holding off rebel reinforcements. It also shows the quixotic relationship France has with its African allies and how France ensures that its support always comes at a price, in this case the destruction of downtown N’Djamena and 1,000 casualties.
Deby’s response to this has been a closer relationship with France, sending over 2,000 troops including his son General Mahamat Idriss Deby to take part in Op Serval in Mali.
This was obviously effective and France’s gratitude was reflected by putting 1,500 troops, the permanent HQ for Op Barkhane and its entire air component of 6 ground attack aircraft, 10 heavy lift aircraft, 20 helicopters and 3 UAVs in Chad, ensuring that an attack on N’Djamena is now an attack on French forces. Deby has used this security bubble to turn Chad into a regional dealmaker in the Sahel and Central Africa, elevating himself to the Western powers Sahelian go to guy (willing as they are to turn a blind eye to the use of child soldiers, human rights abuses, diversion of funds from oil to the military and away from development, persecution of opposition and other niceties) and intervene or support factions in Centrafrique and Sudan, broker the Boko Haram ‘ceasefire’ of 2014 and intervene physically in Centrafrique and now Cameroun.
The paradox is that although the French and the ANT protect Deby from threats with fairly orthodox ambitions such as overthrowing his government, they cannot stop a nihilistic threat like Boko Haram who will willingly slaughter people with no higher strategic intent than terror.
To forestall this Deby apparently also ‘rode the tiger’ (and this is the most charitable interpretation of events I can present), allowing or ignoring hundreds of fighters streaming to join Boko Haram (better them fighting in Nigeria than joining one of the many Chadian rebel groups), ignoring Boko Harams supply and smuggling routes and brokering the so called ceasefire.
With the double impact of the attack on metropolitan France and the direct overt appeal of Cameroun, Deby has apparently come off the fence and joined in.
This is logical. By fighting in Cameroun, Chad can hope to avoid the devastation and human tragedy that has entailed in Cameroun and Nigeria. They can also hope to try and avoid meaningful retaliation against the homeland, a reasonable expectation as despite all out fighting for 7 months Boko Haram has only recently started attacking civilian villages in Cameroun and is yet to deliberately use IEDs against civilians. Just as importantly it gives France an opportunity to open a new front against Sahelian terrorists, without committing her own troops and again reinforces Chads reputation as having a fearsome and competent military, burnishing Chads credentials regionally and internationally.
Operationally the ANT is exactly the type of force needed to take the fight to the enemy. With their integral Attack helicopters, combined with French/ US ISR and logistics support, targeted strike ops against Boko Harams columns and base areas should have a fairly devastating effect.
For Deby the positive outcomes should outweigh the negative, however it should be noted that Chad withdrew their troops from Mali precisely because they claimed they were not disposed to deal with the type of insurgent tactics Boko Haram specialises in. The ANT is as small as Cameroun’s, and they have many enemies, the insurgency in the North has not gone away and Darfur is still slowly bubbling away as is CAR. A prolonged campaign saps their strength and makes them just as vulnerable as Cameroun.
The final negative for Deby is that all the French bases in Burkina Faso and regional wheeling and dealing didn’t save Blaise Camporare.
Niger: Niger has stayed out of this fight as long as it can, which is logical for a poor country. However with Chad, Cameroun and northern Nigeria as contested zones, the enemy will shift bases and supply line to Chad. There is evidence this was already the plan as the capture of the Borno/ Niger Republic border area shows.
Niger may ride the tiger for a bit longer but the war is coming their way. The question is whether they will get involved sooner or later.
France: There are 1,200 French troops from Op Barkhane, with the commander Maj Gen Palassett headquarters in N’djamena with FOBs in Faya Largeau and Abeche.
France is the most proactive European power and the West’s ‘representative’ in the Sahel despite the costs and casualties of Op Serval and Op Barkhane, the kidnapping and murder of French citizens and attacks on the French mainland, none of these acts are devastating to the French state, economy or way of life.
However Boko Haram presents an infinitely more complex threat to France than AQIM, MUJAO or the MNLA. Nigeria is not a former French colony or subject to the normal influences of a Francophone head of state. France has substantial investments in Nigeria and Niger as well as in Cameroun. A Boko Haram enclave in Borno State puts terrorists Islamists a sanctuary in striking distance of French bases in Niamey and N’Djamena as well as the Uranium mines in Arlit. This presents France with an ungoverned space within a sovereign country over which France has negligible controls.
A direct French intervention is problematic as it elevates Boko Haram to jihadi world power status, commits France to yet another operation and more importantly has limited chance of success.
Thus for France the next best option is the deployment of the ANT who they can discreetly support them with intelligence and logistics and crucially push the conflict back into NE Nigeria and away from their assets and clients
Nigeria: Strategically this is a disaster for Nigeria, the intervention of Chad in support of Cameroun brings strong Francophone forces adjacent to territory Nigeria does not control and has shown a rather poor ability to defend. Nigeria’s much battered image takes another dent and her position as a regional hegemon and African power can no longer be taken for granted. Without concrete positive military action, the impression (which is generally worth almost as much as the reality) that Nigeria is incapable of defending itself much less projecting power grows and persists. Combined with seemingly unchecked corruption, the dropping oil prices depletion of foreign reserves, communal crises, oil theft, bunkering and piracy in the Delta and the Gulf of Guinea, there is a general failed state narrative that seems to be acting itself out.
On the other hand this action could also present significant operational opportunities for the Nigerian security forces. Boko Haram for reasons of prestige must respond to the challenge presented by Chad and make good its threats to Cameroun. The resources dedicated to operations in Cameroun and possibly Chad reduces Boko Harams operational freedom in Nigeria, giving Nigerian forces the opportunity to go on the offensive, retake territory and push Boko Haram into the forests and mountains. If properly coordinated with Cameroun and Chad these operations could stretch Boko Haram to defeat or disintegration.
Boko Haram: The intervention of the Chadians is a strategic nightmare for the sect. They have to respond to the Chadian intervention with the same resources with which they already face Camerounian and Nigerian forces. They also lose or at the least need to better protect their supply lines through Chad. A large scale attack within Chad would bring a fairly devastating response from the French forces who have just the right mix of assets to destroy Boko haram columns and base camps, whilst the Chadians themselves are fairly skilled at the type of mobile warfare Boko Haram has used to its advantage.
The most favourable course of action for Boko Haram would be to go on the defensive, sucking the Camerounian and Chadian forces into long, difficult to sustain search and destroy missions, wearing them down with ambushes and small scale attacks and then dispersing into small mobile groups. At the same time a concentrated IED campaign against population centres, roads and economic targets would cause terror and put pressure on home governments.
By these means they can wear down friendly and allied forces resources and resolve through a long campaign.
The worst course of action for Boko Haram would be to rise to the challenge and engage in all out attacks against all forces in the hope of taking advantage of the mutual distrust and lack of coordination to inflict significant defeats against each actor in turn until demoralised and defeated they withdraw from battle.
The most likely course of action is a mix of both. Boko Haram will have no choice but to use IEDs as a way of shaping the Chadian and Camerounian response and forcing them to dedicate their scarce resources to a counter IED task. In Chad they are likely to begin attacks on lines of communication and possibly threatening the Chad-Cameroun pipeline.
Boko Haram whilst still retaining the operational freedom to act across 4 countries now faces 3 different armies, one of which pioneered the rezzou type tactics which they have used successfully. Boko Haram will either be forced to concentrate forces in Nigeria and focus on Nigerian targets giving the Camerounians and Chadians freedom to clear Boko Haram’s camps and secure their supply routes through Chad and Niger. Or else it can rebalance its force so as to offer combat to all forces.
For all the actors the game has definitely changed and they are off the tiger. The question is who will get the first bite?