Obstacles to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Africa

The war in Afghanistan was arguably an eye-opener on the complexity of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. After 15 years, the all-powerful American army is nowhere close to reversing the violence in the country, despite significant investment in studies, technology and experimentation with diverse strategies. The complexity of the situation in most African countries meets, it not exceeds, the conflict in Afghanistan. The hybrid nature of most VNSAs discussed above, the porous borders and the lack of coordination between states today make it difficult tor militaries to adapt their strategy.

Porous borders

Porous borders in Africa remain one of the principal challenges to militarily countering VSNAs. The borders, inherited from colonialism, are enormous and often without natural geographical separation between them. There is limited state security along the borders between most countries and over 100 disputed border areas in Africa, making it difficult tor states to cooperate and share resources and intelligence. On the other hand, people divided by artificial borders have no problem moving across the region and coordinating operations.

Mali is such an example. The Tuaregs, split between Mali, Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Libya, have a shared cultural background and aspiration for statehood. They have launched a number of rebellions in Mali and Niger that were defeated, until 2012 when they banded with National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and AQIM, creating a new type of hybrid threat born out of the opportunity. Part of the reason the groups were able to meet up is that they have been working together smuggling and trading across the Sahel (Smith 2014). The rough terrain and porous borders have made it nearly impossible to defeat them, although for now, the French and Malian troops seem to have pushed the rebels back into the desert.

The porous borders are exacerbated by a lack of cross-border cooperation. Nigeria has over 4,000 kilometres of shared borders with Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin, with a known 1,500 illegal border crossings (not counting the tunnels) and 84 legal entry routes into the country (Onuoha 2013: 4). This has facilitated transnational trafficking of goods, weapons and even people. The five countries, however, have been reluctant to commit financially or politically to fighting the enemy together, exacerbating the existing problem. Despite the creation of a multinational joint task force, most of the military operations take place within the borders of a given country, with terrorists and insurgents able to cross the borders unconcerned that their pursuant will follow them (Varin 2016). Yet, it is clear that none of the countries is able or willing to police their own borders, leading to the inevitable failure of government efforts to vanquish Boko Haram (Onuoha 2013).

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