U.S. Troops in Cameroon: Why Are We Expanding Support Now?

John Owen is the University’s Taylor Professor of Politics and an expert in foreign policy and political Islam.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the United States is sending 300 troops to Cameroon to help that nation and others in West Africa fight the growing violence of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

This aid comes more than a year and a half after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls and following a string of deadly suicide bombings in West Africa. The U.S. has been providing some low-profile assistance in the fight against Boko Haram, but the deployment to Cameroon represents a larger, more public increase in support.

The White House has stressed that the troops will be armed only for self-defense and will provide support primarily through improved intelligence-gathering.

John Owen, Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and an expert in security and U.S. foreign policy explains the significance of this move and what it means for the global fight against terrorism.

Q. Boko Haram has been active in West Africa since 2009. Why is the United States stepping up its visible assistance now?

A. The answer is not clear, because the White House said it was not responding to any heightened threat in the region. It may be that the Obama administration is generally concerned about the spread of Boko Haram’s operations into Cameroon and Niger and it took some time to come to an agreement with the government of Cameroon. It may be the fact that Boko Haram is now using female suicide bombers – just a few days ago, two such bombers killed nine people in the north of Cameroon – and that these bombers may be among the girls and women that Boko Haram has kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Q. Why should average Americans be paying attention to this change?

A. It signals a concrete commitment by the United States to combatting Boko Haram – a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, but in a region of the world where the United States seldom intervenes militarily (except with special forces).

Although the Obama administration has made clear that the 300 troops are merely to help with airborne surveillance and reconnaissance and will not engage in combat, they are armed for self-defense. Any time U.S. troops are deployed there is a possibility of mission creep. For example, it is conceivable that Boko Haram forces could attack the U.S. troops in great numbers, placing the United States in a difficult position: to increase troop deployments, or to withdraw? This was essentially the situation America faced in 1982 in Lebanon and in 1993 in Somalia (and we withdrew both times).

In this case, it is hard to see why Boko Haram would want to test the United States, unless its leaders (and Boko Haram’s leadership is divided into factions) think it highly likely that Obama would just withdraw. So it is important that Obama signal that he is serious about carrying out the mission.

Q. Does Boko Haram’s absorption into the Islamic State affect the threat level in the region?

A. It is not clear that this makes any material difference in the short term. It does not seem that ISIS is providing material or logistical support to Boko Haram. Affiliation with ISIS has mainly bought Boko Haram some legitimacy in the eyes of jihadists and some notoriety in the eyes of others.

Q. Why is this kind of U.S. support so important to this region?

A. The governments and peoples of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad are seriously threatened by Boko Haram, and they do not have the technical capability to monitor the location, strength and activity of the extremist group. U.S. military intelligence support can help these governments and their armed forces.

Q. Do you think assistance with “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” can give an effective boost to efforts to eradicate Boko Haram? How so?

A. In principle, yes. Boko Haram lacks such high-tech intelligence capabilities, so U.S. aid gives the regional governments an advantage. I should add that France already has been providing intelligence on Boko Haram to the Nigerian government and has played a role in organizing the multinational force (Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin, Chad) that is supposed to fight it. So the United States is not the only Western power doing this.

Ultimately, of course, the defeat of Boko Haram will depend on the effectiveness of that multinational force.

Q. The United States has been struggling with Islamist extremists in the Middle East for more than a decade. What lessons have we learned there that can help us in West Africa?

A. One lesson we have learned is that jihadism is very difficult to defeat. Counter-insurgency – and we have gotten good at it – can work locally and in the short term. But the jihadists always seem to come back. I am afraid that the lesson is not a comforting one. It must be that the Obama administration decided that, notwithstanding the lack of U.S. success in Iraq and Afghanistan, the alternative – stay out of West Africa – will likely be worse for U.S. interests.

To be successful, the multinational force needs to be effective. More generally, the appeal of jihadism needs to be reduced in the region – as it does in other parts of the world. Reducing the appeal of jihadism, however, is difficult and is the work of decades. It involves, among other things, developing sound, law-governed political institutions and economic development.

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