A statement released on Monday by the UN Security Council called for the formation and deployment of a multinational task force into Nigeria to tackle Boko Haram. This is the result of a year of meetings and, it is presumed, would call on several Western and Central African nations to take lead roles in the fight against Africa’s most pressing terrorist problem.
All well and good, except African multinational task forces don’t provide quick or effective strategic solutions to even minor security problems, let alone the mammoth task that would be destroying Boko Haram. This is so for many reasons. A lack of multinational exercises and training, different equipment and standards of professionalism. Even things as simple as different radio and communications equipment all contribute to a giant problem. Combining African forces does not create a military greater than its individual parts, it simply creates layers upon layers of operational and political problems.
Even the most successful multinational task forces of recent times, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), have been fraught with problems. The former received extensive training by American and other forces in how to wage joint warfare across its borders (Kenya), and the latter, while tactically effective, has become mired in political ineptitude. Ongoing pre-election intimidation and a government communications ban in the DRC has created the unenviable perception that MONUSCO and the FIB are simply there to clean up opposition parties for President Kabila. The constant talk about tackling the FDLR now appears as if the two forces are simply doing Kabila’s dirty work, rather than acting as a stabilisation force. However untrue this perception actually is, it will be difficult to explain to an local public whose support of MONUSCO is historically capricious and prone to rumour at the best of times.
Nigeria is undergoing elections very soon, and the UNSC resolution indicates a willingness by regional actors to do something about Boko Haram. That’s a good start, but can easily result in terrible military execution. Nigerian soldiers are already facing widespread morale and equipment issues, and combining these problems with neighbouring armies with similar problems will not result in a better force for pursuing Boko Haram. Multinational task forces tackling Libya’s revolution and the initial coup in Mali worked because the NATO and allied forces operating in them were very familiar with each other’s operational capabilities and command. The use of British aircraft off French aircraft carriers is a case in point. Expecting an anti-Boko Haram force to destroy an even larger, more threatening foe is a hopeless political stab in the strategic dark.
If only this were the sole case of overextended optimism for African multinational task forces. The impending update on ACIRC, which could see even more nations fighting fires around the continent, will likely suffer from similar levels of inefficiency. First, inter-service and multinational cooperation of this kind is generally untested. Second, ACIRC forces suffer from exactly the same operationalisation challenges that the African Standby Force faces, and will be no different in terms of command and control, making it slow to deploy. Finally, ACIRC would be attempting to unravel highly complicated conflict scenarios rapidly and professionally, something which hasn’t been accomplished even by the current darling child of the African multinational force concept, the FIB.
Taken together, it appears as if the task forces proposed to fight Boko Haram are an unwise result of the optimism created by the debatable strategic successes of the FIB and AMISOM. Yet neither has yet brought about a stable political outcome for the conflicts in which they have been deployed. This misplaced optimism, if hastily forced into an ill-planned military collaboration, may well come crashing to ground in very painful ways.