US soldiers tour potential training sites in Nigeria in preparation for a new combat training mission, which U.S. Africa Command says is the first non-peacekeeping training U.S. forces have conducted on the continent. (US Army Africa)
WASHINGTON — In a quiet escalation of its mission, US Army’s Africa is preparing to send soldiers and special operations forces to Nigeria to train that nation’s forces for combat operations, a first for the command that traditionally has trained local forces for only peacekeeping missions.
A story posted on the US Army’s official website on Friday said the team will arrive in Nigeria to train a newly formed 650-man Ranger battalion by the end of the month with an eye toward fighting the Boko Haram militant group.
“It is not peacekeeping — it is every bit of what we call decisive action, meaning those soldiers will go in harm’s way to conduct counterinsurgency operations in their country to defeat a known threat,” said Col. John Ruffing, chief of US Army Africa’s Security Cooperation Division.
The small American team, made up of 12 active duty, National Guard and special operators, will deploy for 35 days.
The Nigerians requested the training after witnessing training at the US Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and will spend $400,000 on the US deployment.
The Army release came on the same day that a small group of eight US military personnel arrived in the Nigerian capital of Abuja to assess what additional help or resources the government may need in tracking down the almost 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last month.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that “their principal job is to advise and assist” Nigerian authorities while “providing gap analysis” for any additional help or resources they may need to conduct the mission.
There is no timeline on when the team will return to the US, but it will brief American officials on its recommendations for further assistance upon return.
Asked about the use of US drones or intelligence assets, Kirby said “we’re not going to do anything additional that isn’t acceptable to the Nigerian government,” and stressed that “this is not a military-led operation, we’re part of interdisciplinary team” working the issue.
In a statement released on Friday, Amnesty International charged that the Nigerian military knew of the Boko Haram attack on the girls’ school in the town of Chibok on April 15 but was unable to respond in time.
That Nigerian security failed to act “amounts to a gross dereliction of Nigeria’s duty to protect civilians, who remain sitting ducks for such attacks,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Africa director for research and advocacy.
A small group of 17 soldiers and police officers in Chibok tried to fight off the Boko Haram fighters but were outgunned and overpowered, according to Amnesty’s reporting.
At least 2,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Nigeria this year.
The American-led combat training mission will focus on “patrolling, small-unit tactics, ambush/raid attack, movements of contact, night operations as opposed to the more traditional UN-focused peacekeeping tasks like patrolling, cordon and search, and establish checkpoints,” Lt. Col. Vinnie Garbarino, US Army Africa’s international military engagements officer, said in the Army release.
American forces will also begin training a small group of Nigerian soldiers to train local forces in advanced combat operations, with an eye toward rotating about 7,000 Nigerian soldiers though the program by this fall.
“We want these soldiers to take the fight to Boko Haram in the restricted terrain and really eliminate the threat within their borders,” Garbarino added.
Part of that training will also be focused on helping the Nigerians develop a better intelligence apparatus “so they’re not just chasing threats out of Cameroon and creating a worse situation in Chad or Nigeria,” Garbarino said. ■