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U.S. Sends Troops and Drones to Cameroon as Boko Haram Fight Intensifies

The United States' increase in military support to Cameroon comes as Boko Haram intensifies its suicide bombing campaign there.

People stand by the wreckage of a car that has been blown up by suspected Boko Haram militants in Nigeria's troubled northeastern city of Maiduguri on March 25, 2014, killing five police officers, while a separate blast killed three. The attacks were the latest to hit the Borno state capital, which is the epicentre of Boko Haram's brutal insurgency which has killed thousands since 2009, including more than 700 this year.  AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
People stand by the wreckage of a car that has been blown up by suspected Boko Haram militants in Nigeria's troubled northeastern city of Maiduguri on March 25, 2014, killing five police officers, while a separate blast killed three. The attacks were the latest to hit the Borno state capital, which is the epicentre of Boko Haram's brutal insurgency which has killed thousands since 2009, including more than 700 this year. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Deepening its involvement in a bloody and intensifying regional conflict, the United States is sending 300 troops and a fleet of surveillance drones to Cameroon to provide intelligence they hope will help beat back Boko Haram extremists operating there and in several neighboring nations.

President Barack Obama formally notified Congress Wednesday about the move, which he said began on Oct. 12 with the deployment of an initial 90 troops to Cameroon. It was not immediately clear when the remainder of the troops are set to arrive. They’ll be armed, but only to defend themselves, and won’t participate in ground combat operations. The drones, meanwhile, won’t carry the missiles that have made the unmanned aircraft Washington’s weapon of choice in the global terror war

Lt. Col. Michelle L. Baldanza, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, said the move came after an invitation from the Cameroonian government, which has been headed by strongman Paul Biya since 1982. Washington and Yaoundé haven’t historically needed to work together on a consistent basis, but have been brought closer by U.S. involvement in the fight against Boko Haram.

The reconnaissance flights “will better enable African partners to secure their borders against violent/illegal activities disrupting our common desire for stability in the region,” she said. The troops will reportedly be based in the port city of Garoua, the capital of Cameroon’s northern region. At least one unarmed Predator drone is reportedly part of their fleet.

The move comes as Washington looks for ways of shoring up Nigeria’s neighbors, including Cameroon, which has faced an unprecedented onslaught of attacks — including village raids and suicide bombings — by the Boko Haram extremists who operate in the country’s Far North region in recent months.

Although Boko Haram militants were once largely confined to Nigeria, they have in the past year gained momentum and increased their cross-border raids into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. A multi-regional task force, which is also supported by nearby Bénin, has failed to dismantle the group, which grew in strength and influence during former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s rocky five years in office.

Despite the task force’s efforts, Boko Haram’s skill at asymmetric warfare, including the use of children as suicide bombers, continues to threaten the entire Lake Chad region. On Sunday alone, at least nine people were killed in a suicide attack in the Cameroonian town of Mora. Alarmed by the violence, the U.S. is stepping up its relatively modest efforts to help. Last month, Obama pledged $45 million in security assistance to countries in the Lake Chad region.  

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in May, initially promised to prioritize security across the region, but has thus far fallen short. In August, he gave his top military chiefs a three-month deadline to completely dismantle Boko Haram. Two months later, there’s little progress to be seen.

Much like the northeast of Nigeria, Cameroon’s northern regions are majority Muslim and far enough away from the country’s central government that their troubles, including poor educational opportunities and lack of infrastructure, are often ignored by officials in the capital. The university town of Maroua, for example, which has fallen victim to a number of suicide attacks this year, is nearly a 24-hour trip, including an overnight train ride, from Yaoundé.

The disenfranchisement and lack of government oversight has not only inspired youth in Cameroon’s far north to join the Boko Haram militancy but has also made it easier for the group to operate there. Boko Haram, which wants to carve out a caliphate in the Lake Chad region. In March, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, although experts are wary to believe there is any real flow of money or weaponry between the two groups.

This will not be the first time reconnaissance flights and surveillance drones from Western nations are used to try to track Boko Haram’s movements. France, which has roughly 3,000 troops deployed across the Sahel region, has been operating surveillance flights out of Niger since earlier this year.

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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