Dispatch Section: On Four Underreported Conflicts Abroad

Map showing region of Boko Haram operations.
Graphic by Tajin Rogers

Nigeria

by: Jason Seavey

Background

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group that operates in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Northern Cameroon[1]. According to the US State Department, “[Boko Haram] receives the bulk of its funding from bank robberies and related criminal activities, including extortion and kidnapping for ransoms. The group has also received funding from [Al Qaeda].” The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria briefly drew the attention of Western press when schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok, a town in the Nigerian Borno State in April, 2014. This sparked the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls trending on Twitter and even drew comment from then-First Lady Michelle Obama. Besides this brief cameo, the conflict has largely flown under the radar of  the international press cycle.

Recent Developments

In 2009, Boko Haram declared a rebellion against the Nigerian state. Soon after, the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed while in Nigerian police custody. He was succeeded by Abubakar Shekau. In 2015, Shekau affiliated Boko Haram with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) with a pledge of allegiance[2]. Since, the group split into factions over its direction. The most dramatic split occurred in August 2016 when ISIL attempted to appoint a governor of Boko Haram, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, to replace Shekau’s leadership. Shekau rejected the ISIL appointment, leading to a fracture between pro-Barnawi and pro-Shekau forces[3].

Boko Haram seems to have been weakened by the split, but continues to carry out regular suicide bombings and attacks[4]. As of January 2018, US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations estimates a conservative 54,277 cumulative deaths as a result of the conflict[5]. Civilians are often caught in the middle of clashes between Boko Haram and government forces, and can become targets for both sides[6]. In the region of the Lake Chad Basin, ground zero for the conflict, 2.4 million of 17 million people are displaced, and the United Nations classifies 11 million as “in need.”[7]

US Involvement

The Nigerian military has emphasized killing Boko Haram soldiers, but frequently detains and executes civilians without due process[8]. This heavy-handed approach is one of the reasons  former President Obama often opted to work with neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger in the conflict instead of Nigeria[9]. The US government has provided millions of dollars in support to the aforementioned countries ever since adding Boko Haram to its list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2013[10]. In January 2017, Nigerian government forces bombed a refugee camp in Rann, killing more than 100 refugees and volunteers. At the time, Nigerian President Buhari called the bombing “a regrettable operational mistake,”[11] but this incident prompted Obama to delay the highly anticipated sale of 12 Super Tucano A-29 planes to Nigeria’s air force. In August, President Trump decided to go ahead with the deal despite ongoing human rights concerns[12]. The particulars of Trump’s approach to the conflict remain to be seen.

Alex Thurston, professor of African Studies at Georgetown, summarizes the current state of the crisis in an article for World Politics Review:

Trends may point to Boko Haram’s decline, but Nigeria and its neighbors will continue to face more violence unless they shift their strategy. Abuses by the security services and other brutal military measures will stoke more backlashes, playing into Boko Haram’s hands. At the same time, the lack of long-term political, economic and humanitarian planning suggests that even if Boko Haram is completely defeated, the crisis will persist in a different form.

Map showing Amazonas region of Peru
Graphic by Tajin Rogers

Peru

by: Nora Schultz

Background

Sustaining a tradition of presence in Latin America, the US military is building a base in the Amazonas region of Peru. Representatives from the Amazonas government revealed plans for the center in December of 2016, and according to the schedule projected at the time of announcement, it will be complete by summer of this year.

The site is an initiative of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), a military branch dedicated to covering Latin America and the surrounding waters south of Mexico. The facility will be one of several Regional Emergency Operation Centers (REOCs)—bases where military personnel are stationed reportedly for rapid response to natural and human-made disasters. However, numerous factors have caused Peruvians to come out in the last year as skeptical about the Center’s premise of humanitarian aid, and express concern about the greater access and control over the region that this site will grant the US and its military.

Recent Developments

The US has a mutual defense pact with Peru since the mid twentieth century, but SOUTHCOM has been noticeably building presence across Peru within the last decade.

Former Peruvian President Ollanta Humala made opposing foreign intrusion—particularly by the United States—into a campaign platform that helped him win his seat in 2011. His line appeared to soften during his term, however, and in September of 2015 he seemed to welcome the US when it sent planes, ships, and over 3,000 armed troops through the country, some visiting, and others to stay for undefined lengths of time. Less than a year later in spring of 2016, USSOUTHCOM inaugurated a disaster response center (like the one being built in the Amazonas now) in La Libertad, a region midway up the Peruvian coast. Beyond building facilities and sending physical representations of power, the countries’ military forces regularly conduct joint drills. In 2016, the Peruvian government authorized a US-sponsored program that involves US officers training Peru’s special operations units.

These events mark an increase in US presence in the country, and the construction of an Amazonas REOC comes on that backdrop.

US Involvement

Responding to this array of events, analysts have written that any buildup of presence in Peru is likely an effort by the two governments to crack down on drug trafficking and related violence. However citizen protests broke out when US troops entered Peru in 2015, and reports by Peruvian journalists from the time quote demonstrators and objectors describing the event as a signal that the US is committed to protecting its political access to Peru’s natural resources, to the point of asserting military presence.

Commentators have looked at the REOC established in La Libertad together with the joint military exercises as a process of integrating the United States into Peru’s systems of security and defense. Many have written that US-sponsored disaster relief is a pretense in Latin America, and that a SOUTHCOM Center is merely a paramilitary maneuver to the same aforementioned ends.

During the 2015 protests, Oscar Vidarte, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Peru, expressed in an interview with Telesur that North American interventionism and maintaining sovereignty are the base concerns among those opposed to US military presence. Vidarte grounds those concerns in the Latin American experience: “In light of its tumultuous historical record throughout the twentieth century, the truth is that the presence of North America in our country and the continent can generate a series of doubts,” he said.

As the US strengthens its military presence in the region, a new facility could reinforce Peruvians’ suspicions, and suggest that questioning the US’ intentions in the country be more pressing yet.

Map of the Philippines
Graphic by Tajin Rogers

Philippines

by: Seyitcan Ucin

Background

Insurgency is nothing new in the Philippine archipelago. The Muslim population has occupied the southernmost islands — Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago — since the 12th century. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Muslims resisted subjugation by waging jihad; the Muslims also picked up the label Moro, Spanish for “Moor.” Moros continued their rebellion into American colonization following the Spanish-American War. Between 1913 and 1969, the insurgency had lulled with the exception of Moros fending off the Japanese that had occupied the islands during World War II. However, in 1968, dozens of Moro soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were killed during a clandestine military operation, called the Jabidah Massacre. Additionally, by 1970, Christians had outnumbered Moros in Mindanao — the result of a deliberate resettlement program began by the Spanish in the 1870s and continued by the American administration of the islands and the Philippine government following independence. These fueled the beginning of the modern-day Islamic insurgency, led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the splinter group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Anti-imperialist frustrations also manifest in the activities of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), which subscribes to  Maoism under the leadership of Jose Maria Sison. Since 1971, using a combination of the mass legal movement of its political wing, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NFDP), and the paramilitary operations of the NPA against Philippine military and police forces, the Maoists are combatting a Philippine government they see as serving US imperial interests over the interests of the working class and indigenous populations. From 1972 to 1981, the communists forced then-President Ferdinand Marcos to impose martial law, causing widespread human rights abuses throughout the archipelago. Following the lifting of martial law, sporadic clashes between the Philippine government and communist rebels and failed peace talks have characterized the current status of the insurgency.

Recent Developments

In 1989, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was established, and by 1996, the MNLF became a legal political organization in the region. Back from fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, some members of MNLF were alienated by the legal organization and concessions given to the Philippine government. They formed Abu Sayyaf, former Al Qaeda-affiliate and current Islamic State-affiliate, seeking to take back their ancestral lands. Maute Group and Jemaah Islamiyah, among other Salafi jihadist groups also formed in this period along similar lines. MNLF and MILF allied with the Philippine government against the Salafists.

Hardliner Rodrigo Duterte became president in June 2016, vowing to end crime by any means necessary (including extrajudicial killing). In May 2017, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, culminating in the Battle of Marawi, a protracted siege in which AFP battled to take back the city of Marawi following capture by the Salafi jihadists from May to October — the siege leaving 1.1 million people displaced.[2] In December 2017, the Philippine Congress granted a one-year extension of martial law following request by Duterte, and military operations continue against an unknown number of jihadists on the island.[3]

During his campaign for the presidency, Duterte offered the CPP four positions in his cabinet and was praised by Sison for his willingness to find a solution to the conflict. Upon taking office, CPP and Duterte began negotiating peace in a series of shakey on-off talks. However, in November 2017, Duterte unilaterally terminated the peace talks and resumed military operations against the Maoists. According to the CPP, “Duterte terminated peace talks amid the rising protest movement against rampant killings in his so-called war against drugs, political killings against activists, widespread death and destruction in the Marawi Siege, aerial bombings, shelling, militarization and all-out war in the countryside.”[4] The conflict, which has taken over 30,000 lives, continues with both AFP and NPA mounting offensive operations.[5]

US Involvement

The United States has had a continuing interest in the Philippines for well over a century. The purchase of the Philippines from Spain in 1898 was motivated by interest in Asian markets, as multiple naval facilities were built on the archipelago to project American power into the Pacific. By 1991, public opinion in the Philippines had swayed against US military presence. The Senate voted against the renewal of a treaty that sanctioned US military bases on the archipelago, permanently closing them. Following 9/11, the Philippine government vowed to help the US in its fight against terrorism. US Special Operations Command-Pacific began operations with the AFP in 2002 under Operation Enduring Freedom against various jihadist groups, including Abu Sayyaf, Maute, and Jemaah Islamiyah. In the 2014, the ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement gave the US authority to build and maintain military facilities on Philippine military bases as well as deploy personnel. By early-2015, special operations forces withdrew from the Philippines, deeming the counter-insurgency operations successful. However, in June 2017, an unknown size of special operations forces were deployed again to the Philippines to assist AFP in combat operations against Abu Sayyaf and allies, most notably in the Battle of Marawi.[6] Currently, US military facilities and personnel are present on five Philippine military bases.

Map of showing control of Yemeni regions
Graphic by Tajin Rogers

Yemen

by: Tajin Rogers

Background

In 2011, at the height of the “Arab Spring,” protests and violence in Yemen forced then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime strongman, to resign and transfer power to his Vice-President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The following year, Hadi won a presidential election in which he ran unopposed. Though he made some moves toward reconciliation and democracy during his presidency, many actors remained discontent.

Among these was an insurgent group from Yemen’s mountainous north, where the capital, Sana’a, is located: the Houthi movement, named for a leader who was killed by government forces in 2004, had long waged an insurgent campaign against the previous Saleh government.

After Hadi was elected, Houthi forces launched protests and attacks to expand their territorial control. By August of 2014, continued unhappiness with Hadi’s government prompted mass demonstrations that intensified after clashes with security forces. In early September, after a number of protesters were killed, Houthi forces launched a sudden takeover of Sana’a itself, and took Houthi fighters just five days to gain control of the entire city. This shifted the political situation dramatically—the Houthis were now in control of much of the north and west of the country, including major cities and ports.

A UN-backed ceasefire between the Hadi and the Houthis led to the formation of a new government. This didn’t entirely appease the Houthis, who continued to fight until they seized control of the presidential palace and parliament in early 2015, dissolving the legislature and placing Hadi under house arrest. A few weeks later, Hadi managed to flee Sana’a and travelled to Aden, on the south coast of the country. As the Houthis advanced south, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia; within the month, the Gulf Cooperation Council (an organization of the Arab states on the Persian Gulf) announced its intervention into the conflict by request of the Hadi government.

Primarily led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this coalition has supported anti-Houthi forces with arms, training, mercenaries, and air support. While the frontlines have remained frustratingly static, the Saudis have also brought their air force to bear in a deadly bombing campaign. Though recently (and temporarily) suspended, they have even enforced a naval blockade of Yemeni shores since 2015. These actions have been widely criticized for their effects on civilians. The air campaign has not only been marked by a lack of military progress, but by allegations of indiscriminate targeting and reports of widespread civilian casualties. In 2015, Doctors Without Borders reported the complete destruction of one of their hospitals; a year later, some 140 people were killed in a strike on a funeral in Sana’a.

Recent Developments

Since 2016, shifting political alliances have seen former enemies Saleh and the Houthis make common cause against the Saudi-led alliance, only for Saleh to be killed in December of 2017 after trying to switch his allegiance back to the coalition. In late January 2018, the separatist Southern Transitional Council took control of Aden, overpowering Hadi-aligned forces in the de facto capital. However this development plays out, it represents another setback to the beleaguered Saudi intervention.

In the background, two large specters loom. The US has carried out airstrikes in Yemen against Sunni fundamentalists for years now, targeting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and affiliates of ISIS in the mountainous, dry, and sparsely populated east of the country, where the chaos has allowed them to take control of wide swathes of land. In 2017, the US launched 131 such strikes, up from 21 in 2016, along with intermittent Special Forces raids. Yet AQAP remains a major force in the east, as it has for years.

Already the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen now faces a deadly humanitarian crisis, brought on by war and exacerbated by drought and famine, in part due to the blockade. The Red Cross announced a million cases of cholera in December 2017, the largest outbreak in recent history. Diphtheria and other vaccinable diseases have also seen a resurgence. Further, eight million Yemenis are completely dependent on food assistance, and at risk of starvation. The UN says the 16.4 out of twenty-seven million Yemenis lack adequate health care, and 15.7 million lack safe water and sanitation. The numbers go on, as does the conflict, with no end in sight.

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