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U.S. sending troops to Cameroon to monitor Boko Haram

A series of suicide bombings rocked Nigeria today. They come as the Obama administration announced 300 U.S. soldiers would be sent to neighboring Cameroon. For more on the situation, Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The deadly attacks in Nigeria this week come as the Obama administration announced 300 U.S. soldiers would be sent to neighboring Cameroon.

    For more on all this, I'm joined now by Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.

    What does the U.S. hope to accomplish here? What kind of skills are we bringing?

  • PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council:

    Well, two things, Hari, first to provide better intelligence on the increase in cross-border activity of Boko Haram.

    It's no longer just a threat in Nigeria, but the group is reaching into Niger, into Chad and into Cameroon, so to monitor those movements. And then, secondly, to — once the full complement of the 300 U.S. personnel are there, to engage in some further training of Cameroon's military.

    Cameroon's military has a unit, the so-called rapid reaction force, known by its French acronym BIR. The BIR has been U.S.-trained, has had U.S. cooperation and equipment since 2009. It's one of the best military units in the region, and so bringing them up to speed, up to the level necessary to fight this new type of challenge that they're facing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And compare that to the rest of the neighborhood, so to speak, or their military capacity.

  • PETER PHAM:

    Well, Nigeria has the largest military in terms of personnel in the region, but, since 1999, when the military ceded power back to civilian rule, in an effort to avoid future military coups, the Nigerian military was starved of resources.

    And where the resources were allocated, it was primarily to build up peacekeeping capability. And Nigeria has contributed very well to peacekeeping activities in Africa and places like Darfur, as well as elsewhere in the world. But the skill sets in peacekeeping are entirely different from war fighting, much less the type of specialized warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism that Boko Haram calls for.

    Chad has a battle-seasoned army, but it again faces a new type of challenge in Boko Haram. Niger is one of America's best partners in Africa, but it's a desperately poor country. It's been a good cooperation in security cooperation, but it needs our help.

    So, really, we're struggling to find the units that can be trained up to the standards we need.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And so what's the threat to the U.S. here or threat to U.S. interests?

  • PETER PHAM:

    Well, there's — Boko Haram is an evolving threat. It's been evolving for the last several years.

    And its alliance and allegiance to the so-called Islamic State presents a new dimension to the challenge. That being said, however, one has to be frank. Boko Haram doesn't present a direct threat to the United States, but as a growing dynamic, an evolving part of the Islamic State and one that ties down the resources of a number of countries that are critical partners of the United States in West Africa, it does pose a challenge to U.S. interests.

    And so I think the best way to approach it is the way the administration has already taken, which is building up partner capability to nip the challenge at the bud.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, given how long we have been working with trainers on the ground there, will the addition of this 300 make a difference?

  • PETER PHAM:

    I think it will make a difference marginally in Cameroon. We have got a very well-trained unit, but it's not trained for the desert warfare, the counterinsurgency, the anti-terrorism operations it needs.

    And so this will help take them to that level. The intelligence information being gathered will also be helpful. but let's be realistic. It's going to take a lot of time to build up that multinational force, to train up all the elements.

    So we're really in for the long haul, not only the United States, but the other partners of West Africa, France and other countries.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And I'm assuming that we're supplying drones for intelligence gathering as well?

  • PETER PHAM:

    Yes, the drones, our Predators are going to be deployed in Cameroon together with manned aircraft that are already in the region operating in other countries, and this will build a better, broader picture of what's going on.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Peter Pham, the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, thanks so much.

  • PETER PHAM:

    Thank you.

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