LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - Special Forces troops from the California Army National Guard are in Nigeria training a newly formed infantry battalion designed specifically to counter the threat from Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group believed to have killed thousands of Nigerian people and recently kidnapped hundreds of girls.
"The Nigerian army's 143rd Infantry Battalion was formed from the ground up within the past few months," said one CNG Special Forces soldier, whose name has been withheld for security reasons. "This is a classic Special Forces mission — training an indigenous force in a remote area in an austere environment to face a very real threat. We know that within a short time after leaving here, it's more than likely the 143rd Infantry Battalion will be in a fight."
Not only is this deployment a first-of-its-kind mission for the California Army National Guard, it is a first for the U.S. Army. U.S. troops have previously trained Nigerian battalions for United Nations peacekeeping missions, but this time the Nigerian government requested full-spectrum operational training for its new 650-man battalion.
A total of 12 Cal Guard soldiers from two Los Alamitos-based Special Forces units — Special Operations Detachment–U.S. Northern Command and Company A, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) — deployed for a two-month mission, the first in a three-phase plan to assist in the establishment of the 143rd.
"It is not peacekeeping," Col. John D. Ruffing, chief of U.S. Army Africa's Security Cooperation Division, said about the 143rd's mission. "It is every bit of what we call ‘decisive action,' meaning those soldiers will go in harm's way to conduct counterinsurgency operation in their country to defeat a known threat, and it's all purely funded by the Nigerians."
Among the skills being taught by the Cal Guard's Special Forces units are fundamentals of patrolling, small-unit tactics, movement to contact, night operations and ambush tactics. The Nigerian soldiers will also receive instruction on human rights, basic soldiering skills, advanced infantry skills, land navigation, marksmanship and troop-leading procedures.
"We want these soldiers to be able to take the fight to the enemy in restricted terrain and really impact the threat within their borders so that they can then provide more resources to peacekeeping operations, which Nigeria has extensive experience with," the CNG's team leader said.
In addition to training the 143rd soldiers, the Special Forces troops are continuously developing Nigerian cadre as primary instructors, so they can train other Nigerian forces after the CNG troops depart.
"This is a huge benefit — that we're able to [improve] the Nigerian capacity to help with training themselves," said Lt. Col. Vinnie Garbarino, U.S. Army Africa's (USARAF) international military engagements officer. "I think this is going to be the first of a couple of battalion training efforts that the Nigerians are going to undertake, so training their own trainers is huge because it offsets the student-to-instructor ratio. Our 12 guys don't go very far; when you add 40 Nigerian cadre members to the equation, they are doing some heavy lifting."
The information exchange, however, is not a one-way street, one Cal Guard soldier said.
"We're trying to help them, but also to learn from them," he said. "The U.S. answer may not work perfectly in Africa, and maybe the Nigerian techniques wouldn't be applicable in Afghanistan or Iraq. We're sharing capabilities, and hopefully the Rangers of the 143rd Infantry Battalion will be in a position to share these skills with other units in the Nigerian army."
Maj. Liam Connor, U.S. Army Africa's West Africa Desk officer, said the U.S. Army worked for several months to come up with a program of instruction that stayed within a limited budget. The training was specifically requested by Nigerian forces to take them out of a peacekeeping mission-set and counter Boko Haram, he said.
"We hope to … instill a controlled, aggressive spirit necessary to increase their training level and capability to close with and eliminate Boko Haram," a Cal Guard Soldier said. "The current threats from Boko Haram warrant an increased capability that currently does not fully exist within Nigerian forces."
The Cal Guard training mission is only one piece of a greater effort to achieve a shared vision in the region.
"We're helping Nigeria and its neighbors to develop a Boko Haram strategy," said Maj. Albert Conley III, a USARAF spokesman. "The key is [Nigeria and its neighbors] have to create the strategy. It can't be a U.S.-directed strategy, so we are helping them facilitate the creation of strategy, development of a strategy, and then once they do that, helping modify that strategy to make sure it's hitting the end states everyone wants."