Many Nigerians believe that victory over Boko Haram should be swift and decisive given that the Nigerian military is obviously stronger than any insurgent organisation. This point of view is widely held by the Nigerian public, the media, and even some politicians. However, the experiences of advanced Western nations with significant military resources tell a different story. The United Kingdom eventually needed a political solution to end the menace of the IRA, the USA were unable to stop the incessant bombings in Iraq, and the Israelis have battled against the Palestinian uprising for decades.
As observed by Major General Giora Eiland, a former Israeli National Security Adviser, when fighting against an insurgency “there is a large discrepancy between expectations among public opinion, politicians, and the media and the capability of the security forces to realize those expectations”. The Israelis and other nations are beginning to understand that an unconventional, low intensity conflict between a nation state and a terrorist organisation is very different from conventional warfare between two nation states.
One of the biggest differences is in the costs to each side. The cost of an explosives belt and the time it takes to train a suicide bomber is inconsequential compared with how much it costs government to prevent the attack.
Meanwhile, as the nation state has to spend more and more money on its defence, the terrorist organisation can simply change its tactics when the government disrupts their current method of operation. For example, when government forces successfully drove the insurgents out of Maiduguri, their stronghold in the North Eastern part of the country, they did not respond by spending more money on men and machinery in order to maintain their presence in the city. Instead, they simply moved to the countryside and started attacking schools, villages, and travellers on the highways.
Another big difference between asymmetric and symmetric warfare is that the enemy is well defined when fighting a symmetric war. But in an asymmetric, unconventional battle the enemy is difficult to identify because they don’t wear uniforms, their vehicles are unmarked, and they often live amongst the civilian population. While the terrorists kill indiscriminately, the government forces must minimise the deaths of innocent civilians otherwise they will lose the support of the general public, the political leadership, and the international community.
A third difference between these two types of warfare lies in the definition of what constitutes a valid military target. Targets are obvious in conventional warfare (e.g. an airport or a bridge) but in unconventional war, if the terrorists are having a meeting in a house then that house becomes a target; whereas the moment they leave the house (when the meeting finishes) it ceases to be a target.
These challenges are set against the background of a simple historical reality; the Nigerian military, security, and intelligence apparatus was designed to deal with one of two situations: complete peace or all-out war. It was not designed for low intensity, unconventional, asymmetric conflicts.
This means that in addition to tackling the ongoing insurgency, government has the difficult task of changing the culture, orientation, and operational procedures of military, security and intelligence organisations, so that they are better able to meet the new challenges posed by unconventional warfare. For example, it is clear from the foregoing discussion that accurately defining a target in an unconventional war requires high quality intelligence. What is less clear is that the intelligence has to travel quickly from the agency that collects it to the military unit that will attack the target. This requires a high degree of cooperation between organisations that were previously independent and autonomous.
Interestingly, there is a recent, positive, example which demonstrates that government is beginning to grasp the implications of these new and unusual set of circumstances. A few weeks ago, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd), the National Security Adviser, organised a war game to test the intelligence sharing and joint operational planning capabilities of various agencies responsible for the defence and security of the nation. Dubbed “Exercise Quick Thinker”, this joint military exercise involved the Office of the National Security Adviser, the Armed Forces, Nigeria Police Force, Defence Intelligence Agency, Department of State Services, National Intelligence Agency, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, Nigerian Customs Service, Nigerian Immigration Service, and Federal Ministry of Information.
Clearly, Colonel Dasuki realises that in an asymmetrical battle the difference between success and failure lies in the hours, minutes, or seconds it takes for critical intelligence to travel from the agency that discovers it to the commander of the area division or the fighter pilot. Because, if (using our previous example) the terrorists have left the building by the time government forces arrive then the mission has failed.
One of the most important things the Nigerian public can learn from the experience of nations like Israel is that it is possible to achieve significant objectives in confrontations with insurgent organizations. In 2002, Israel suffered 135 terror attacks leading to the death of 451 people. Over the years these numbers have been significantly reduced with only 10 attacks and 12 deaths recorded in 2012. A number of steps were taken to achieve this. But principal amongst them was the understanding that success in asymmetric warfare is not just dependent on high quality, real time, intelligence, but also on a nation’s ability to react to intelligence swiftly through synergy of effort.
The author, Timi Agama, is the Managing Director and CEO of Kovidal, a defence procurement company.