In this instalment we will examine the progress of Boko Haram’s Offensive thus far and their potential future actions.
Boko Haram’s offensives have 5 distinct stages.
|Preparation of the Battlespace||The Attack|
|Shaping the Battlespace||The Defence|
|Isolating the Battlespace|
The Attack: it was this commentators view that the enemy sought to strategically isolate the Area of operations and protect its gains by pushing out to the west at the Northern Borno border and in the centre around Bauchi and Gombe as well as south east, and securing its rear in Cameroun’s Mayo Sava, Mayo Tsanaga and Logone et Chari Departments.
This gave the campaign two basic objectives –Defence (of captured territory) and Expansion (to the North, to the South east and to the centre). Assuming that the capture of Baga, constituted the final objective of the attack phase of Boko Harams offensive, then territory under enemy control can be broken down into 45 zones:
North-Lake Chad Zone: the area bordering Chad and Niger Republics has Makari in Cameroun as the eastern boundary and the Borno/ Yobe border as the western boundary linked by the Niger Republic border and the southern shore of Lake Chad.
South East-Mandara Zone: the area of Adamawa encompassing Gombi, Song, Mubi North and Mubi South, Hong and Maiha LGAs and Mayo Sava and Mayo Tsanaga Department, Cameroun
Centre- Southern Yobe: the enemy occupies all or parts of Gujba, Gulani, Damaturu, Fika, Fune, Geidam LGA’s
West-Bauchi and Gombe Zone: the enemy reportedly has a strong presence in Balmo Forest of Bauchi State with bases along the Gongola River basin.
It can be assumed that the first two zones constitute Vital Ground to the enemy latter two Key Terrain.
Based on these assumptions the enemy should be entering the final Defensive phase of this campaign.
The virtually unbroken chain of ungoverned space along Borno States Northern and Eastern borders, along Adamawa States Eastern border and the strip of land stretching through Adamawa, Yobe, Gombe and Bauchi states gives the enemy substantial territory to operate from with economic value from smuggling and agriculture (if they stopped murdering farmers and fishermen) as well as difficult terrain to hide in and operate from.
Defending this territory presents Boko Haram with similar problems to the Nigerian forces; covering a large area with limited forces, except that Boko Haram does not need to worry about defending the populace or providing basic services thus their considerations can be purely military and economic.
Enemy considerations for Defence
Using a fairly simple analytical tool we can review some of the factors the enemy had to consider in preparing their defence against Nigerian and Camerounian forces.
|Nigeria and Cameroun have limited off road capability||They need roads and/ or motorable tracks to advance in mass and sustain operations||Friendly forces will advance along predictable routes that can be ambushed or denied with IEDs|
|Nigeria and Cameroun have limited logistic capability||Stores must be brought as close to the battlefront as possible to sustain current and future ops||Certain bases near the front will generally have sufficient ammunition, fuel and supplies not just for the garrison but for other units. Boko Haram can resupply by attacking those bases.|
|Isolated garrisons cannot depend on rapid resupply, reinforcement or medevac||Aggressive and constant attacks will deplete friendly resources, fear of encirclement and capture will lead to withdrawal|
|Nigeria and Cameroun have artillery and air superiority||Large concentrations can be destroyed if discovered||Maintain the initiative, concentrate just before an attack disperse afterwards|
|Friendly forces need to defend the populace||Informers can be concealed amongst the resident population||Utilise supporters to identify friendly movements, positions and routines|
|Friendly forces must react to every attack||Attack villages in order to disperse and exhaust friendly forces|
|Friendly forces are fixed to bases around population centres||They are easy to find, fix, isolate and attack|
|Friendly forces are accountable to the public||Attack public places indiscriminately, use IEDs in friendly rear areas (i.e. roads and cities) in order to distract and disperse friendly forces|
|Vigilantes/ militias||Provide local knowledge and early warning||Attack villages, displace the populace|
|Attack villages, massacre the populace to discourage people joining the CJTF|
|Nigerian forces have numerical, aerial, artillery and economic superiority||If these forces are properly concentrated and coordinated they will defeat enemy forces||Attack in many places at once and prevent Friendly forces from concentrating their forces|
|Camerounian forces have limited numbers||Cannot sustain operations at current tempo or finance long campaign||Maintain pressure on Cameroun through raids, IEDs and deliberate attacks|
|Nigerian Elections||Friendly forces will be committed to securing the election as well as policing other conflicts in the Middle Belt, South south etc||Friendly forces will not be able to generate the forces needed to achieve local superiority until at least early March at best|
|Poor coordination between friendly forces||Exploit gaps and international boundaries||Enemy flanks and rear are protected by international borders, giving them freedom of action|
The process could go on but a clear operational tasks already present themselves to the enemy:
Mount deliberate attacks on key jumping off points to defeat friendly forces, use up their ammunition and resources, deny them the opportunity to go on the offensive
Use local informants to gather information about vigilantes, villages and the military.
Keep limited forces in captured towns to reduce the risk of air and artillery strikes
Actively patrol in and around captured areas to maintain an operational presence
Mount ambushes and illegal VCPs along lines of communications to gather supplies, vehicles and forced conscripts.
IED attacks in urban areas to divert friendly forces into manpower intensive counter IED tasks
IEDs in and around base areas to channel friendly forces and deny them freedom of movement
IEDs on lines of communications to deny friendly forces freedom of movement
Raids in villages around the captured areas to gather food, loot, forced conscripts and vehicles, terrorise the populace cause a humanitarian crisis and distract and divert friendly forces.
These actions would have the effect of inflicting casualties, gathering supplies, demoralising civilians and soldiers, distracting friendly forces and preventing them from counter attacking.
All of which could be achieved by laying siege to Maiduguri.
Whilst Boko Haram does not have the men to capture or hold Maiduguri; by raiding it, threatening it, attacking the villages around it and cutting the roads leading to it they force friendly forces to dedicate large numbers to its defence and away from offensive actions.
All things being equal this is a sound defensive plan that should have allowed Boko Haram to consolidate for several months at least.
The situation however has changed significantly with renewed political will in Nigeria and the entry of Chadian forces.
The entry of Chadian forces into the fray has completely changed the dynamic and tempo of the conflict, giving them a new set of factors to consider and creating a strategic and operational disaster for Boko Haram.
|Have strong off road capability||Boko Haram must disperse forces to defend all flanks equally||More fighters and vehicles needed|
|Multiple potential axis of advance gives the element of surprise||Must maintain a 360 defensive profile|
|Have logistic support form Frances Op Barkhane||Is not fixed to own bases or lines of communications||Can sustain operations longer and independent of lines of communication|
|Have integrated Artillery and air support||Local fire superiority can be achieved||Disperse forces to protect from concentrated fires|
|Operating on foreign soil||No areas are particularly important to them||Can pick and chose when and where to engage the enemy|
|Have no base areas to defend||Chadians have freedom of movement|
|Have ISR support from Frances Op Barkhane||Can spot enemy positions, call in fires accurately and watch their flanks and rear||Increases the risk of detection to the enemyIncreases element of surprise to Chadians|
|Battle tested experience of mobile, desert warfare||Organised to fight a mobile aggressive war||Their battle skills outmatch Boko Harams|
|Strong links to Boko Haram commanders and sponsors||Vulnerable to pressure or coercion on themselves and families or tribal groups||Limited in the type of counter attacks that can be launched|
As can be seen these factors change the game for Boko Haram, as the Chadian forces bring a capability that can take the fight to them, without fear of repercussions on the home front.
This presents Boko Haram Commanders with a series of options
Go on the defensive and absorb the coming attacks? This is contrary to their style and would give forced conscripts the chance to escape and nervous junior commanders the chance to rebel. It also plays into the strengths of the Chadian and Nigerian forces.
Go on the defensive and withdraw into the Mandara Mountains, Waza and Sambisa Forests etc? This course of action would sap the strength of attacking forces utilise Boko Harams mobility to draw their opponents into a difficult fight in difficult terrain. However it would also cost them the freedom of movement they have exploited so successfully and separate them from supply lines and safe areas.
Attack into Cameroun? The bulk of Boko Harams forces are in Nigeria, to shift operations into Cameroun would require a huge movement which would be picked up by ISR assests and lose their territories in Nigeria
Attack into Chad? The same issue as above in Cameroun and this would bring them in range of French assets. A fight against the infidel west might give them kudos in jihadi circles but it will almost certainly end badly. At the same time the links between Chadian and Boko Haram leaderships much like the links between Camerounian and Boko Haram leadership will make such an action difficult, even at this stage.
Attack deeper into Nigeria? This leaves them open to attack at the periphery of their territory but plays to their strengths as the bulk of their forces are in Nigeria, however spreading to the Middle Belt or further south takes them further from their safe areas and supply lines.
Attack into Niger? This gives them better prospects for success but brings them to the attention US/ French forces who can detect them with their ISR assets.
Again this is not an exhaustive list of options but serves to illustrate the complexity of the options on offer.
There are myriad potential courses of actions ranging from best to worst to most likely.
If I was a Boko Haram commander I would identify my 3 key objectives as preserving my mobility, preserving the bulk of my experienced fighters, sustaining my main supply routes into Niger, Chad and Cameroun.
To achieve the first task, prestige weapons such as APCs and artillery pieces which are heavy and difficult to maintain and sustain would be discarded, excess food and ammunition hidden in caches. Mobility would be achieved with all terrain vehicles and motorcycles.
To achieve the second task the enemy’s main forces would have to withdraw to inhospitable terrain such as the Mandaras, Sambisa, Waza, Balmo, Ewa etc where they are less vulnerable to attack, this means however they cannot concentrate as before and also means that come the rainy season their mobility will be further restricted.
In order to achieve the final task, the enemy would need to draw as many friendly troops as possible away from the Vital Ground areas (Borno and Adamawa international borders). The cheapest and easiest way to achieve this is a sustained IED campaign, not just against traditional targets like Maiduguri, Potiskum, Damaturu or Kano but further afield in Sokoto, Kaduna, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Abuja etc and internationally; targets such as Kousseri, Maroua or Kolofata etc in Cameroun or N’Djamena in Chad. The important thing about the latter attacks is that they do not need to succeed or cause much casualties to be effective. Infantry, artillery and armour can be tied down by increasing the number of raids and attacks in Bauchi, Gombe, Nasarawa and Benue States.
Renewed political will in Nigeria due to the elections, domestic criticism and international disquiet has seen new weapon systems and fresh units committed to the fight, achieving successes particularly in Adamawa State.
Under normal circumstances Boko Haram tends to fight, then retreat, wait until forces and equipment have been withdrawn for another operation, and then strike the weakened garrison. This leads to the ‘whack a mole’ scenario, where every time Boko Haram is whacked they pop up elsewhere.
The present situation presents them with a completely different set of problems, Chadian and Nigerian forces on the offensive restrict the enemies freedom of movement and action and having aroused the Camerounians they can no longer comfortably fall back into Cameroun.
Properly handled and coordinated the days of Boko Haram holding ground and fighting like a conventional army will end. This will not end the insurgency in fact it might make it harder as Boko Haram breaks into smaller groups surviving by attacks and raids
Boko Haram commanders have a rapidly diminishing number of choices and rapidly diminishing resources, to carry them out.
Operationally this gives Nigeria a chance to clear captured areas. The strategic implication of the most powerful sub Saharan African country needing the assistance of two of the poorest is yet to be computed.