The U.S. will likely begin training Nigerian military forces in counterinsurgency operations following discussions held in Washington, D.C. on June 6. Nigeria is seen as a logical partner to receive U.S. military assistance as it struggles to contain Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram and having soldiers in Nigeria will help U.S. intelligence monitor for increasing terrorist threats in West and North Africa.
The U.S. extended the military training offer during broad high-level talks so as to share lessons learned and best practices gained from operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Details of the U.S. military assistance offer are not yet clear. It will remain a low-visibility area of cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria, with what little public exposure it receives driven by political considerations.
But U.S. military engagement will focus on the training, command and coordination of small specialized units tasked for counterterrorism units. It will likely include an additional component of intelligence gathering and analysis of terrorist threats in Nigeria.
Monitoring for the development of ties between Nigerian terrorists and other terrorist groups will be part of the intelligence collection efforts between the U.S. and Nigeria. Objectives will include focusing on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, Tuareg rebel groups operating in the Sahel sub-region of West Africa, the Somali jihadist group al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
But the Nigerian government will want the U.S. military presence to have low visibility. Part of this will be for operational security reasons and to prevent attracting a new target set for aspiring transnational jihadists. But another reason the Nigerian government will keep military cooperation with the U.S. underemphasized will be to safeguard the perceived leadership qualities of the President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration.
The objectives of Boko Haram are multi-fold but partly driven by political calculations to force Nigerian political elite to bring patrons of the group into power. Harboring militant groups is in fact a common strategy in Nigeria to achieve political advancement. Goodluck Jonathan himself relied on this strategy when he developed a codependent relationship with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, better known as MEND. MEND waged a militancy campaign from 2005 to 2010, attacking energy infrastructure in Nigeria’s oil producing region. MEND blew up oil pipelines and kidnapped oil workers to compel the Nigerian polity to bring Jonathan's ethno-political base into power.
President Jonathan and his political network are now calculating how to retain their place in power when their existing four-year term concludes in 2015. If anti-Jonathan militancy can be held in check, the president will likely have another term.
Jonathan’s candidacy will certainly trigger backlash by his political opponents. This backlash by rivals will sustain Boko Haram-led violence, with the Islamist militants merely one part of political discontent in northern Nigeria. The threat of violence will keep the U.S. military and its trainers operating in Nigeria for at least the next few years.