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Same old, same old?: Does Boko Haram fit into Trans-Sahelian global terrorism concerns or is it just an internal problem for the Nigerian state?

In David Meyer on December 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

Following coordinated Christmas Day attacks that struck Christian churchs in a suburb of Abuja and the central city of Jos, as well as state security forces in the northern city of Damaturu, it seems that everyone is talking about Boko Haram. The Nigeria-based insurgent group, which has yet to ascend to the official U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, has gained increased media attention this year following a suicide attack on the United Nations building in Abuja last August, which killed 24 people, and major attacks in November and throughout December. While more ink has been spilled on their behalf over the past year than since their founding in 2002, or even since their initiation to violent struggle against the Nigerian state in 2009, the general consensus seems to be that no one knows much about the organization or what exactly should be done to combat or appease them. The latest wave of violence has led to fears of renewed sectarian violence across the ethnically and religiously divided Nigerian state, finger pointing exchanged between government and opposition political forces, and an international community, especially the “terrorist”-phobic West, weighing their options.

The church bombings, which killed at least 27 people, parallel similar attacks that took place last year on Christmas Day in Jos, which led to stop-and-go Christian-Muslim violence throughout the following months. This threat of inter-religious violence is what’s on everyone’s mind right now. While the Nigerian state has had recent relative success quelling diverse insurgent forces in the Niger Delta, there is also a bloody history of the repression of the Biafra self-determination movement to deal with, which is often referred to as the Nigerian Civil War. While there are parallels to be drawn with both of these previous challenges to the Nigerian state, the question is whether Boko Haram can be confronted with old tactics or if a new strategy is needed.

The general descriptions of Boko Haram include several key attributes of the movement: 1) They are based out of the northeastern Nigerian states, including Borno, Yobe, Kano, and Bauchi 2) They advocate for the application of Shariah law across all of Nigerian (currently Shariah criminal courts have been implemented in twelve northern states; Boko Haram claims an Islamic state would allow for a more complete and consistent application of Shariah in the country) 3) They may or may not have connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or Al Shabab. It is this third point that has Western governments, including the United States, most concerned. In fact, in August U.S. General Carter Ham, currently the head of AFRICOM, stated “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts…I’m not so sure they’re able to do that just yet, but it’s clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that.”

Boko Haram’s home base lies at the edge of the Sahel belt, the flat, semi-arid grasslands that separate the Sahara Desert from the rest of the continent. Following the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, fears of increased arms trafficking in the region stoked interest in regional anti-terrorist cooperation. Algeria organized a regional conference last September to promote this cooperation originally envisioned in the creation of the Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint (Cémoc, Committee of Joint Chiefs of Staff) in April 2010, but recent kidnappings and killings of foreigners in Mali have only added to the anxieties of Sahel state governments and the West (link in French). Indeed, on December 20 the Algerian government announced it had sent troops across the border into Northern Mali to “assist” in the fight against terrorism. This follows the Pentagon offering the Malian government 4.5 million CFA francs (which, though only around $10,000 US, is more of a symbol of support within the larger assistance budget) in equipment for its state security forces to combat terrorism (link in French). Of course, critics contend that pinning the upsurge in Sahelian “terrorism” to AQMI glosses over questions of whether AQMI is truly a centralized threat or a convenient attention-grabber for smaller militant groups. In addition, fears of a Tuareg uprising may obscure groups actually linked to AQMI or, at the other end of the spectrum, entrench AQMI elements within Tuareg circles. The complexity seems endless, but are the alleged linkages between Boko Haram and AQMI enough to bring this conflict under the same scrutiny as the alleged linkages between Sahelian “terrorism” and AQMI?

The U.S. government may be leaning in that direction. In November, the Nigerian military revealed that the U.S. Army has been providing counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops. Of course, past U.S. military assistance has largely been based on the threat that Niger Delta rebels posed to oil extraction and Western oil companies based in Southern Nigeria, so there is likely some residue left over from these policies. Following the Christmas Day attacks, the White House announced that it would assist the Nigerian government in “bringing those responsible to justice.” This diplo-speak really tells us nothing, but past military cooperation shows that further security or anti-terrorism assistance shouldn’t be ruled out of U.S. security policy towards the country. If the U.S. government perceives Boko Haram to be tied to AQMI, even more money could be flowing into the West African state. However, this securitization of the conflict has some commentators worried.

Indeed, Africa Confidential frets about President Jonathan’s apparent lack of strategy to battle Boko Haram and that he seems to be content to throw money at the issue. They worry that this confused policy is weakening the Nigerian state and opening the country up to long-term instability. Drawing on the lessons of the Niger Delta amnesty programs and keeping in mind the major missteps made during the Biafra revolt are going to be extremely important for the Nigerian government going forward, especially as the exact organization and makeup of Boko Haram remains clouded. The last thing they need is the inflammation of a new self-determination movement or the fostering of more Christian-Muslim violence, rumors of which are floating throughout the country following a home-made bomb attack on an Arabic school in the southern Delta state during the night of December 27. There are even unsubstantiated concerns that Northern politicians have been directly or indirectly supporting Boko Haram’s ambitions.

It is widely believed that Boko Haram has split into several factions, with an extremist wing behind the continued violence, led by Abubakar Shekau. It is thought that he leads the group from outside the country, operating out of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. While Boko Haram clearly remains active only in Nigeria, the porous borders of the Sahel region mean the intermixing of insurgent groups and possible contact with Al Qaeda or more “global” terrorist operations. However, at this time, according to Comfort Ero of the International Crisis Group, “Supposed links to al Qaeda doesn’t cover up the fact that Boko Haram is very much a Nigerian problem…It should be understood within Nigeria’s own endemic problems.” This is clearly the best way to approach this issue, but will the West be content to fix it within this framework? It seems unlikely, and with the recent overt deployments of U.S. military advisors into Uganda, drones over Somalia (not to forget the Kenyan invasion of Southern Somalia), and renewed fears of terrorism across the Sahel and in Nigeria, the Western anti-terrorism political-military complex may indeed be coming to town, again. It’s looking increasingly likely that 2012 might be the year that African “terrorism” begins to take a larger role in Western security policy.

-David Meyer


Oh No, Not Another Blog Post on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

In Ben Kurland on December 27, 2011 at 11:53 pm

The other day I attended a discussion with the Palestinian General Delegate (Ambassador) to the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian hosted by the International Affairs society at my University. The most disappointing part of the entire two hour rhetorical lecture was the tone of utter hopelessness buried deep in every point Prof. Hassassian made.

To my best attempt at a summation of his point, he claimed the Palestinian side of the conflict has engaged the UN to ask for recognition because of the Israeli side’s complete lack of compromise. He asserted that the US is biased and therefore worth disgracing at the UN. Then he readily admitted the need to re-approach both the actors he sought to embarrass in order to come to a final agreement.

It is my opinion that the failures of the current peace process are not the negotiating points currently on the table. These points are able to be overcome and outlines for agreements exist. In my opinion the failures are threefold and lie with the elite political actors on both sides: 1. neither side is willing to admit their own failures in the peace process, 2. both sides engage in demonization of the other side and blames the other side for the failure to come to an agreement, and 3. neither side is actually ready to actually compromise on any of the necessary issues.

Just take a look at the speeches made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN when Mr. Abbas formally requested Palestinian statehood on September 23, 2011. I’ve put some quotes from each representative into the table below relating to the three failures I mentioned before. Both speeches are full of examples; I have only pulled out a few. Keep in mind, however, that both politicians are savvy enough to know their audience and change their rhetoric accordingly. You can still see a trend though.

Mahmoud Abbas Benjamin Netanyahu
1. neither side is willing to admit their own failures in the peace process “Over the past year we did not leave a door to be knocked or channel to be tested or path to be taken and we did not ignore any formal or informal party of influence and stature to be addressed. We positively considered the various ideas and proposals and initiatives presented from many countries and parties.” “…people say to me constantly: Just make a sweeping offer, and everything will work out. You know, there’s only one problem with that theory. We’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked.”
2. both sides engage in demonization of the other side and blames the other side for the failure to come to an agreement “But all of these sincere efforts and endeavors undertaken by international parties were repeatedly wrecked by the positions of the Israeli government, which quickly dashed the hopes raised by the launch of negotiations last September.” “The core issue here is that the Israeli government refuses to commit to terms of reference for the negotiations…” “The truth is that so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate. The truth is that Israel wants peace with a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians want a state without peace. And the truth is you shouldn’t let that happen.”
3. Neither side is actually ready to actually compromise on any of the issues necessary. For the sake of this section, however, you have to remember that both sides are in front of the international community, they would never admit to not being ready to make concessions. You can see the hesitation, however, in the preconditions they put on returning to the negotiating table. Abbas only briefly mentions returning to negotiations once and even so with qualifications, saying, “Here, I declare that the Palestine Liberation Organization is ready to return immediately to the negotiating table on the basis of the adopted terms of reference based on international legitimacy and a complete cessation of settlement activities.” “It is neither possible, nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual…. It is futile to go into negotiations without clear parameters and in the absence of credibility and a specific timetable. Negotiations will be meaningless as long as the occupation army on the ground continues to entrench its occupation. “All these potential cracks in Israel’s security have to be sealed in a peace agreement before a Palestinian state is declared, not afterwards, because if you leave it afterwards, they won’t be sealed. And these problems will explode in our face and explode the peace.”

So what is my point? Merely that neither side is willing to establish a peace building process. Both are happy developing their own narratives which drive each side farther and farther apart. I mean to demonize neither side and, if the history of replies to blog posts about this conflict are any indication, I could very well be attacked as being both anti-Israel and anti-Palestinian. I am neither. I am merely recognizing an impasse when I see one.

The NDN in the Context of the Modern Silk Road Strategy

In Joe Raimondi on December 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Ongoing military operations in Afghanistan necessitate viable supply routes of non-lethal goods in the short-term, and long-term stabilization efforts there and in Eurasia, more broadly, may require significant resources from a number of countries. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan coupled with the souring U.S-Pakistan relationship have been integral to the development of a new supply route that traverses Latvia, Russia, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, bypassing and acting as a hedge to the traditional Pakistan one, which begins in Karachi and moves northward into Afghanistan. This new route – the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – is comprised of three distinct spurs, and has been operating for almost three years. Thus far, it has been an increasingly significant but relatively inefficient conduit for resupply operations to NATO-ISAF personnel in Afghanistan.

As the War in Afghanistan has (d)evolved over the past ten years, there has been a strategic shift towards stabilization, and counterinsurgency as a consequence of increasing violence and instability. The NDN is a component to these efforts as well as the U.S.’s Modern Silk Road Strategy (MSR), aimed at developing a transcontinental commercial network in Eurasia, with revenues being generated from the transit trade (commerce as well as energy). This would function as an economic stimulus to the region, facilitate trade between Europe and East/Southeast Asia, and most importantly, contribute to long-term regional stabilization. Theoretically, such a network would have a “transformative effect on Eurasia.”

The NDN was originally designed as a “tactical response to concerns over pilferage, attacks, and dependency on supply lines in an increasingly unstable Pakistan,” essentially acting as a hedge against sole reliance on the Pakistan route. In the last year, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the death of two dozen Pakistani soldiers due to a NATO attack on Pakistani soil have strained the U.S.-Pakistan relationship even more, the latter being integral to the recent closing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at various critical resupply points. It has evolved from a “tactical response” to one piece within the more ambitious Modern Silk Road Strategy. According to Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Sanderson, and David Gordon, who have written extensively about the NDN’s scope and the MSR, the perceived benefits of the NDN are tripartite. It “provides the U.S. with significant additional throughput capacity to Afghanistan, ends Washington’s complete logistical reliance on Pakistan, and presents new opportunities for U.S. engagement in Latvia, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.”

The NDN’s operational importance has grown in the past two years as the volume of cargo transported along it has increased, totaling approximately 75 percent of “all Afghan-bound, non-military cargo” by the end of 2011. Yet the operational costs are tremendous relative to the Pakistan route – not that there is a viable alternative at the moment. In late 2009, it cost 250 percent more per TEU (20-foot equivalent unit, a standard unit for measuring cargo) than the Karachi-Peshawar route, and represented a “fraction of the overall commercial traffic in the region.” Between February and November of 2009, 4,500 TEUs were transported via the NDN, but this “represents just 12.5 percent of the total number of TEUs shipped through Pakistan in 2008.” In the larger context of Eurasian commercial transit, in 2007 there were 34,300 TEUs shipped between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

More recent figures show that over the past two years the transit costs have come down, though still enormous compared to the Pakistan route. Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, puts the average cost per TEU delivered via the NDN at $12,367, compared to $6,700 on the Pakistan route. Due to recent Afghanistan-Pakistan border closings, the volume of cargo on the NDN will have to grow, but its share of Afghan-bound cargo has increased significantly over the past two years, currently standing at approximately 40% of total U.S. cargo in Afghanistan and 52% of total NATO-ISAF (Coalition) Cargo.

Nonetheless, the NDN is hampered by entrenched and multilayered corruption, an unsurprising fact given its geographic reliance through some of the most corrupt states in the world. The NDN’s viability is contingent on efficiently moving material through these states and across international borders (of which there are several). As of yet, this efficiency does not exist due to a number of factors. One is the system of informal payments that exists along the NDN, affecting both nominal and time costs, which prohibits fluid movement of cargo through the Central Asian states.Unfortunately, this example is one among many in the larger context of political issues that undermine the NDN’s long-term viability.

Increasingly significant Central Asian supply routes also provide the authoritarian governments of these states with more leverage to effect in various ways.Not-too-distant events in Uzbekistan can illustrate the NDN’s political costs on a broader level. Andrew Kuchins relates “two misunderstandings in the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship that came to the surface following the 2005 Andijan uprising and subsequent eviction of the U.S. from its base at Karshi-Khanabad. The first “concerned priorities and expectations.” Islam Karimov did not expect U.S. criticism of his regime’s human rights record nor appreciate U.S. fostering of the “colored” revolutions through the two years prior. The U.S. probably did not expect this pattern of behavior to evoke such a strong reaction by Karimov. The second misunderstanding speaks even more directly to the NDN’s political costs, and one that is a “cause for caution.” Kuchins states that “Even in relations with small and comparatively obscure countries, Washington does not automatically have the upper hand. Central Asian nations have leverage, and will use it.”

Evaluations of the NDN and the MSR should account for several issues, since increasing reliance on the NDN may create a misguided justification for the more ambitious MSR strategy. In this sense, the NDN is not just a tactical but also a transitional component to this strategy. First, what kind of criteria and timeframe should be used to evaluate the relative success or failure of the Modern Silk Road? Additionally, if a transcontinental Eurasian commercial network is feasible, albeit costly and dependent on long-term sustained commitments, to what extent is it contingent upon U.S. leadership coupled with investments from other states with vested interests? Namely, those states are India, China, Russia, and Iran – whose projected role has been confounding for U.S. policymakers. Finally, to what degree has the “potential for transcontinental trade linking East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East,” which according to S. Frederick Starr is “staggering,” romanticized visions for the future based on an untenable but convenient historical analogy? More to the point is John Heathershaw, who remarks that, “the New Silk Road is a cliché which gives the impression that various economic- and security- based initiatives are combined into a single strategic framework. This is not the case. Outside Washington, it has little meaning or purchase.”

– Joe Raimondi

Source: STRATFOR (cited in David Trilling, “The Northern Distribution Network Nightmare,” Foreign Policy, December 6, 2011)

Little Trouble in Big Congo?: Searching for meaning behind U.S. responses to the DRC elections

In David Meyer on December 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm

As news outlets constantly remind us of the “tense” and “explosive” situation on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) following the contested Presidential poll of November 28 (and a few days after…and allegedly before), critics have appeared, not just of the clearly deficient election process itself, but also of the international response to the flawed results. In Foreign Policy magazine, Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a visiting scholar at Stanford and a member of the Carter Center observation mission in the country, decries what he sees as a lack of Western response to the manipulated election. But what explains this muted and rather tepid response by the Obama administration, which recently stood up for the democratic process in Russia, upsetting Vladimir Putin and calling into question the longevity of the “reset” strategy. In fact, the nature of the U.S. response should not be surprising, and reflects several key factors, both in the corridors of power in Washington and in the situation on the ground in the DRC.

In a Winter 2009 article for African Affairs, Nicolas Van De Waal argued that U.S. State Department institutional capacity in sub-Saharan Africa was declining and, while hopeful for the future, struck a tone of skepticism towards the Obama administration turning this situation around. Despite the fact that the U.S. government (USG) deployed election observers in every DRC region, under the auspices of the Carter Center mission, it is likely that travel inside the country by U.S. Embassy staff is extremely limited outside of Kinshasa, especially in the East of the country, where numerous rebel groups still operate in low-level insurgency. Security considerations and travel restrictions thus prevent an extension of diplomatic presence throughout the country, which is so vast it could host an economic-focused consulate in the East if the region was more secure.

The USG seconding its election monitoring out to the Carter Center’s mission gave the possibility of having it both ways, allowing the Carter Center to come down hard on the elections while freeing the USG to take a more tempered approach that ruffles fewer feathers. This despite the fact that the USG does not shy away from its complete association with, and funding of, the Carter Center’s mission. It’s a rather strange position to be in, and more than anything reinforces De Waal’s contention that USG institutional capacity in many African states is severely lacking.

What follows is a review of USG statements on the elections in the aftermath of the vote and a brief expansion on De Waal’s thesis:

December 1st, U.S. Ambassador James Entwistle delivered remarks on the elections, broadly praising Congolese citizens for voting and participating in local observation of the process. While he noted “irregularities” and regretted several violent incidents, it was mainly a positive speech that attempted to link in with the Congolese people and salute their efforts.

December 6th, nearly a week later, State Department spokesman Mark Toner gave a vague statement on “supporting the democratic development” of the DRC while noting “[v]iolence has no place in the democratic process.”

On December 10th, the Carter Center reported that the election results “lack credibility.” A few days after digesting this report, on December 14th State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland doubled down, calling the results “seriously flawed.”

However, has their been any real response behind this rhetorical posturing?

De Waal would argue that the State Department and Ambassador’s statements reflect that the USG lacks leverage inside the country to affect any serious change and thus is relegated to light scolding while rallying against possible outbreaks of violence.

On another level, the American response reveals a deep cynicism that has long dominated U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa. The USG knew before the elections that this was the likely result: a technically flawed poll that would comfortably return Kabila to power. For the U.S., whether a completely clean poll would have brought Tshisekedi to power is irrelevant. Kabila still controls state security forces and, though his popularity in the East of the country has fallen, this is mostly to the benefit of other candidates (besides Tshisekedi) and rebel groups. It’s clear that the State Department views Tshisekedi, along with the other presidential candidates, as a potentially destabilizing factor in the delicate balance of the DRC non-state. Whether economic interests are at play as well remains half-truth, half-conspiracy theory, but the point remains that stability and security are likely the primary objectives of the State Department and Obama administration.

On December 15th, Assistant Secretary of State Jonnie Carson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling for a “rapid technical review of the electoral process” but little more. DRC expert Jason Stearns argues on his blog Congo Siasa that this represents a “logical fallacy” on the part of the USG, which he holds is implying that irregularities should not be investigated because we do not know whether they had an effect on the actual ranking of candidates. Stearns pushes back hard on this thinking, noting that we should follow the Carter Center report in concluding: “We don’t know who won these elections. And we should.”

While I broadly agree with Stearns’ critique, it’s clear that the U.S. government is less concerned with substantial democratic progress in the country and more concerned with maintaining stability while slowly building democratic norms. Of course, how well these norms can develop through consistently flawed elections remains a point of contention. For James Talbott, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, even flawed elections can have benefits for society if they get people to react against perceived injustices. Is the U.S. government endorsing this approach? I don’t know, but without a doubt right now the Obama administration is praying for stability in the country, not necessarily democracy.

-David Meyer