National Security & Defense

The U.S. Must Remain in Africa’s Fight against Boko Haram

U.S. Army soldiers share tactics and training with Nigerian Army soldiers at in Nigeria, February 2018. (Captain James Sheehan/US Army)
As tempting as it might be to disengage, doing so would be a grave mistake.

On Thursday, August 15, the international terrorist group Boko Haram attacked a military base and community in Nigeria, killing three soldiers. This comes on the heels of an even deadlier attack three weeks ago, when armed members of the group rode motorcycles into a funeral in northern Nigeria and opened fire on the procession, killing 65 mourners.

For many, these are just forgettable attacks by Boko Haram. But for me, this story hit close to home. A few years ago, I was an investigative journalist reporting from where the carnage occurred. And years before that, I served as a Navy SEAL in Africa trying to prevent such carnage from taking place at all.

In today’s era of trade war with China and potential hot wars with Iran and North Korea, it’s easy to overlook the threat posed by Boko Haram, and conflicts in Africa more broadly. But I believe we ignore the continent and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram at our peril — and we’d better pay attention now before events force us to pay attention later.

Boko Haram is most famous, of course, for its 2014 kidnapping of roughly 300 young girls, an event that shocked the world and even led First Lady Michelle Obama to post a photo with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. I deployed to Africa two years after these kidnappings, and I encountered a Boko Haram emboldened by the success of the kidnapping and the attention it garnered. It was a powerful insurgency, driven by an ideology hostile to all things Western and modern.

Today, Boko Haram remains as potent a threat as ever. Though the original group has splintered, the offshoots continue to wreak havoc in Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, and the broader region. Kidnappings are on the rise, and in Chad, Boko Haram is attempting to build its own alternative Islamic state. In spite of a multinational effort to fight the group, it continues to kidnap officials, organize suicide bombings, and terrorize locals.

The U.S.’s approach to this conflict — and to the region in general — has been, to paraphrase the famous quip about democracy, the worst policy except for all the others available to us. We are deployed on the ground in almost 50 African countries, taking action against Boko Haram and other terrorist affiliates. In outposts such as Geroua in northern Cameroon, for example, U.S. troops operate drones and train local soldiers. Our strategy is broadly known as “foreign internal defense,” or “FID,” and our soldiers work “through, by, and with” our African partners.

Americans would prefer, of course, that no U.S. soldiers be deployed to hostile, faraway places. And as someone who has buried too many of my friends who served, that would be my preference as well. But our limited troop presence in Africa is a check against the need to deploy in much larger numbers — our current African posture is, I would argue, preferable to the expensive, exhausting slogs we’ve endured in Afghanistan and Iraq. If we are able to train, equip, and marshal local governments and resources to the fight, fewer young American men and women will be forced into harm’s way.

This isn’t a universal view, and it has its critics. Some argue that we need to pull up the drawbridge, bring our troops home, and stop any kind of engagement with certain African countries. Policymakers have also drawn attention to human-rights abuses by the governments fighting Boko Haram, and rightly criticized African leaders who have been in power far longer than seems appropriate. These are fair concerns, but I believe they are outweighed by our broader strategic interests in Africa. There are three reasons for the U.S. to continue to keep robust ties with leaders in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad. and to keep our military presence there strong.

First, our military-to-military ties are some of the strongest diplomatic channels we have in places such as Cameroon and Nigeria — and they can help shape what happens on the ground in ways that advance our humanitarian impulses. I saw this firsthand: In addition to tactics and warfighting, some might be surprised to learn that part of my mission as a Navy SEAL was training Liberian, Chadian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian soldiers in what’s known as the LOAC, or “law of armed conflict.” I taught modules about the use of force and about what was and wasn’t justified in warfare.

This was the first exposure many of the soldiers I taught had to laws such as the Geneva Conventions and doctrines such as “proportional response.” While we couldn’t always control what took place once these soldiers were in the field, I look back on this work with pride, and I knew that everyone was better off because Americans led the instruction. More military-to-military engagement of this kind is one of the best tools we have for dealing with humanitarian crises around the world.

The second reason to keep ties in Africa strong is simple: China. Today, China is the elephant in the room in every conversation about Africa’s future. China’s public and private sectors have poured billions into the continent, the Chinese government has an incredible intelligence apparatus in the region, and the country now maintains a vise-like grip on mining interests, roads, and countless infrastructure projects continent-wide. If the U.S. takes itself out of Africa, the Chinese will fill the vacuum — and they will do so in ways that are harmful to both U.S. strategic interests and Africa’s long-term interests.

The final argument in favor of strengthening bonds with African leaders and nations is the obvious one: We simply have no other choice. Take, for example, Nigeria and Cameroon. There are vast, ungovernable stretches of land in those two countries where terrorist cells and violent insurgencies fester. Without active engagement from the U.S., problems that seem small and distant today can create urgent, bold-faced headlines tomorrow. Let’s not forget: Many of the deadliest attacks against U.S. interests worldwide, including the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, were either planned from or staged in Africa.

It is tempting to believe that our problems at home are big enough that we ought to put issues abroad to the side for the moment. But America isolates itself at its peril, and we run long-term risks if we disengage from Africa. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen ties to governments on the continent, work with their militaries to keep people safe, and pay close attention to the terrorist threats they face. At a minimum, we need to support the U.S. servicemen and servicewomen already on the ground there, all of whom are doing unglamorous, hard work to help support the global War on Terror. Above all, our citizens and our policymakers cannot forget that the African fight is an American fight as well — and that it’s as important now as it’s ever been.

Kaj Larsen is a former a U.S. Navy SEAL officer who served multiple deployments in Africa. In 2015, he reported for Vice News from Nigeria, becoming the first journalist to embed with Nigerian forces and producing several documentaries about Boko Haram for the Emmy Award-winning HBO show VICE.

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