Recently there have been media reports that Boko Haram is interested in a deal to release the GSS Chibok abductees in return for 16 prisoners.
If true this is interesting on several levels
It indicates a willingness by Boko Haram to engage in negotiations in which there is a reasonable expectation of a mutually acceptable outcome. This could be the Daesh West Africa Province (DWAP)-Boko Haram’s factions attempt to legitimise their presence and achieve a propaganda win by releasing the girls
It also reinforces their consistent negotiating stance of requesting only money/ compensation and personnel with no ideological or political requests, in other words the enemy still believes that they can achieve their objectives through military means.
The question for decision makers is that if this is a genuine offer, should the negotiation take place?
Obviously there is a YES/ NO response to this and the more nuanced MAYBE.
We will examine these 3 options and compare them with recent happenings in Vienna in relation to Iran.
- The GSS Chibok abductees represent possibly 10% of the estimated Boko Haram abductees. Any negotiation that is not tied to the release of all other abductees is a betrayal of these Nigerian citizens and a sop to an international media feeding frenzy.
- Those negotiating might not have the power or authority to effect a release
- A negotiation even through independent interlocutors requires the government to reciprocate and release prisoners, this is not just a violation of due process (as these people are civilian prisoners in the context of a non international armed conflict) but elevates Boko Haram to the level of lawful combatants.
- Militarily these girls have no value, Boko Haram has access to hundreds of abductees to use as sex slaves, fighters, workers and suicide bombers.
- A negotiated exchange or ransom encourages further spectacular kidnappings.
- The enemy prisoners are most likely high value targets, possibly respected Amirs, logisticians, bomb makers, weapons experts, commanders etc. releasing them simply strengthens the enemy
- Whilst the enemy has the girls in captivity it needs to feed, guard, hide and move them, tying up some resource. Once released they can release these resources for other operations.
- The girls having been in captivity so long could have been brainwashed or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Upon release they could act as spies or supporters or commit acts of terror providing further propaganda victories for the enemy.
- This could be an enemy ruse to cause distress to the families and populace and humiliation for the authorities.
- The enemy has already achieved a strategic propaganda victory with this abduction and it has given them global name recognition, the longer they stay in custody the more the enemy can milk the issue.
- For the cost of a few commanders however valuable to the enemy returning these girls to their families is a statement of will and humanity by the Federal Government and Nigerian people.
- The girls will be a valuable source of intelligence about the enemies’ locations, tactics, numbers and procedures.
- The released girls could be valuable publicity assets that can present a positive narrative of a free, democratic, multi faith Nigeria if harnessed properly.
- The negotiations and handover will be an ideal opportunity to gather human, signal, electronic and photographic intelligence on the enemy.
- The process of negotiations presents the opportunity to explore what else would incentivise the enemy to surrender or refocus or reduce their violence or at least open guaranteed back channels of negotiations.
- The negotiations could be extended to all abductees
There is a strong argument to accept the military reality that these girls have no operational value and are most likely damaged, dead or brainwashed thus the onus should be on hunting and destroying the enemy and using the girls as either bait to lure the enemy into a trap or an incentive to surrender. However such a brutal and ruthless policy can only work if there is an aggressive and efficient military option to hand. The Israelis ensure that even if they are forced into a negotiation for an abductee or prisoner, they first wreak a terrible military vengeance on not just their opponents but their civilian and support network. The Russians on the other hand who have followed a similarly ruthless track, tend to have bungled all these types of operations not just causing the deaths of the hostages, hostage takers and rescue forces such as in Beslan, Budyonnovsk hospital and the Moscow Theatre Siege.
Thus such a policy can only work when the government can legitimately demonstrate they have the capability to alleviate or counter the threat and that any sacrifice of the victims will be balanced by the cost to the enemy.
There is no country or military on earth that could successfully rescue over 200 people dispersed in small groups in unknown locations in inhospitable terrain. The Israeli example is unfair as they have specific discrete enemies in specific discrete locations over which the Israelis have complete military control. Even then they have been unable to find singe hostages hidden in the occupied territory. The few successful hostage rescues have secured comparatively few hostages, mass hostage rescues such as the Israelis in Entebbe in Uganda again focussed on a specific known geographical location.
The only military solution will be the slow, attritional destruction of enemy forces and bases combined with efficient intelligence work which would be able to gather, collate, analyse and utilise the information necessary to track down and liberate the surviving girls. This method accepts that many girls will die in captivity, during rescue and some will never be found.
It is an imperfect, ruthless, resource intensive solution that will likely kill more girls than it saves but possibly the only solution that does not reward the abductors.
But negotiations even through third parties are a valuable method of intelligence gathering. If successful it might release 16 or so terrorists back to the enemy but also over 200 innocent young Nigerians. It’s not perfect but it’s better than nothing.
Lessons from Iran
The P5+1 (Permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) 19 month negotiation with Iran to limit that country’s nuclear programme in exchange for a releases of funds, access to global markets and sanctions relief just concluded. It was a remarkable diplomatic achievement by the US President, for it not only brought normally adversarial powers such as the US and its allies and Russia and China together on the same side of the negotiating table but it also succeeded despite fairly vociferous opposition from Israel, the Gulf states and the US Republican party.
The example for Nigeria is that the utility of these negotiations extended far beyond nuclear weapons as it is unclear if Iran could develop a nuclear weapon, deliver one or if they even wanted to.
Iran’s national narrative from the days of the great Persian Empires. And unchanged from those days are its adversaries, the Arab and Turkic tribes on its borders and western expeditionary or Imperial armies allying with them (Macedonians etc). This Shia/ Sunni confessional split only exacerbates this. The latest manifestation of this scenario was the Iran/ Iraq war in which Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, bombarded their cities and gassed their soldiers supported funds from the Sunni Arab states and technology, weapons and other support from their Western allies.
Although Saddams removal removed Iran’s primary existential threat it does not remove the western supported Sunni Arab alliance that seeks to destroy the Islamic Revolution and subjugate the Persians (according to the Iranian narrative). Despite Iran’s large, innovative and fanatical armed forces, they are relatively weak, sanctions have prevented them from buying new equipment, maintaining their existing stock of 70s era US equipment. In order to keep their enemies off balance Iran has a network of proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and beyond and uses them to keep the Sunni states off balance. However in the event of a conflict these proxies can increase the cost to the attackers but not influence the outcome an alliance of the Sunni powers supported by the US or Turks could succeed and even if it didn’t, it would devastate Iran. Thus Iran needed a vehicle by which it could deter these powers, either with a nuclear weapon or by separating them from their primary supporter; the US.
As long as Iran is in a deal with the US there are mechanisms of engagement and compromise and the US is less likely to jeopardise a deal by supporting adventurism by one of its clients. This informs the utter horror in which the deal is viewed by Saudi Arabia and Israel as it suits both these countries interests for there to be a permanent state of conflict between Iran and the US.
Likewise the US has seen the limitations of its power through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam), whilst it is unbeatable in a conventional war and capable of deploying and fighting anywhere in the world the US cannot win or sustain open ended commitments that do not serve its interests at the end of long supply lines. The US can thus manage its interest by balancing regional powers against each other and only intervening when needed. In the Middle East this involves Iran balanced against Saudi and the Gulf States and Turkey, with Israel acting as the spoiler.
Thus it can be seen that whilst the outcome is important, the negotiations were really a vehicle by which two diametrically opposed powers who could not really be seen talking to each other were able to establish common ground and come to an agreement that suits both their interests.
It is the opinion of this commentator that from a purely operational perspective the GSS Chibok abductees are collateral damage and it is wasteful to dedicate military resources to a small percentage of abductees, which simply rewards and encourages spectacular and high profile crimes such as these.
Strategically however a well planned and executed intelligence gathering, targeting and psyops operation could turn this defeat into a victory.
Using the abductees as the vehicle, negotiations could either open the door to a negotiated end to the conflict or splits or surrenders amongst the enemy or at least provide actionable intelligence for military operations.
If that objective is maintained the authorities should ensure that;
- Negotiations are solely through intermediaries ensuring that there is plausible deniability by the authorities.
- The enemy produces a series of proof of life throughout the process such as a list of all in captivity and video messages.
- Put the enemy prisoners through an immediate deradicalisation process, which will most likely not be successful but might yield results or weaken their resolve.
- Use the negotiation process to gather intelligence on the enemy, identify their means of communications, tactics and procedures etc.
- Use the negotiations to try and establish common ground with the enemy and identify what could be used to incentivise them to surrender.
- Use the opportunity to identify and locate key leaders in the group.
- Thoroughly debrief any released abductees and have units on standby to rapidly exploit any information derived.
And so on.
By looking at this as a primarily intelligence gathering and bridge building exercise with the prisoner exchange as the basis for discussions much like the P5+1 talks with Iran were less about nuclear weapons and more about finding a way to redefine US/ Iranian relations and restore a balance of power in the Middle East, might be a terrible and heartless conclusion to reach but is the most realistic one that can be achieved in the current situation and an added incentive (if one was needed) as to why the enemy must be destroyed as soon as possible.