Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc has served as Commander, Special Operations Command Africa, since April 2015. His command assignments include Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command, Afghanistan; Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force – Afghanistan; 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, Afghanistan; C Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne); and HHC, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Prior to his current assignment, BG Bolduc served as the Deputy Director of Operations at U.S. Africa Command.
CTC: How important are Special Operations Forces (SOF) going to be in fight against the Islamic State? What can SOF achieve and what can’t they achieve? What do Americans need to understand about this?
BG Bolduc: The SOCAFRICA team is integral to the overall fight against ISIS in Africa. As ISIS is a transnational terrorist organization, our contribution is part of a larger, worldwide effort to defeat this type of violent extremist organization (VEO) and their affiliates. But a SOF response cannot defeat ISIS without enablers, robust logistics, intelligence and airlift, host-nation forces, and international partners. So while SOCAFRICA’s SOF capabilities might be what people think of first when combating ISIS or any other emerging threat group, there’s an entire network of resources required to complete the mission.
Our SOF teams are only one part of a comprehensive approach to countering the threat of VEOs. We’ve got to work with State Department colleagues, USAID, non-governmental organizations, and other nations to put programs in place to stop the spread of violent extremism and devise ways to assist those in areas affected by ISIS after the threat is removed. The military is only part of the solution. Effective civil administration, protecting the populace, and improving development is the key to stability and defeating the violent extremist organizations.
It’s important to note the role our Civil Military Support Elements (CMSE) and Military Information Support Operations (MISO) have in this fight. These SOF capabilities can disrupt enemy operations while buying space and time for partner forces and supported governments to make progress against ISIS. By focusing on local populations, CMSE and MISO teams are able to address the underlying conditions enabling terrorism, counter the VEO narrative, and build lasting bonds between citizens and legitimate governments.
SOF are a specialized but limited resource. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of other resources needed to apply SOCAFRICA’s SOF solutions. While SOF are capable of responding quickly to a crisis, long-term success can only be achieved through a persistent presence, a presence requiring dozens of organizations to achieve results. Short-term gains against this enemy will be unsustainable without all of these elements working in concert.
CTC: What tools does the United States need to develop, or what capabilities do we need to improve to use SOF even more effectively as a tool to defeat terrorists?
BG Bolduc: Our military operates in the most complex environment in recent memory. Threats are global, mobile, and deadly. We’re facing challenges on every front, so leaders have to make tough decisions on where to prioritize the finite number of people, equipment, and other resources our nation has to combat terrorist threats.
When operating in a fiscally constrained environment, as we are currently, getting all the resources and manpower you would like in order to accomplish your mission is often very difficult, if not impossible. As Special Operations Forces, we are a force multiplier, able to “fight above our weight class” by working through, with, and by our African partners to accomplish multi-national, counterterrorism objectives. However, many of our military’s resources are currently in use outside of Africa. Understandably, SOF in Africa must compete for ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and airlift capabilities to support our operations. Without ISR, the ability to find and fix enemy positions is degraded. Given the size of the African continent, without robust airlift support, it can be extremely difficult to move forces to quickly respond to crises. That’s not a complaint; it’s simply the reality of working with a finite amount of resources to take on a problem set that’s global in nature. Developing solutions to expand SOF ISR and airlift capacity with inexpensive, scalable systems will be vital to operations not just in Africa but worldwide.
We also need to develop predictive analysis tools to assist us in understanding and countering terrorist usage of the internet. Terrorists employ social media and web-based applications better and faster every day. These groups continue to adapt and change their tactics, reducing our ability to counter their messaging, recruitment, and communications. The development of predictive analysis tools would enhance our ability to proactively engage the enemy in the information environment. In other words, the ability to counter the enemy before they even speak (or post) would make SOF even more effective.
Lastly, power generation equipment and water purification systems able to operate on solar power or low power are always in demand. These types of solutions enable SOF teams to operate in remote areas for longer periods and are vital to sustaining partner nation forces who can’t afford to install large, expensive systems. Inexpensive, easy-to-maintain items like these will always be in demand in Africa.
Brigadier General Bolduc inspects troops with his Senegalese counterpart, Brigadier General Amadou Kane, in Thies, Senegal, in Februrary 2016. (U.S. ARMY SPC. ZAYIS BALLESTEROS)
CTC: How effective have security assistance and advise-and-assist efforts been in Africa? What challenges have you encountered working with local forces?
BG Bolduc: Our security assistance and advise-and-assist efforts in Africa have been effective as we continue to see gradual improvements in the overall security capabilities of African partner nations across the continent. Clearly, there’s been more progress in certain areas versus others, but the trends I see with these forces are positive. In the Lake Chad Basin, nations are coming together to fight Boko Haram; Mauritania recently stood up its own organic Civil Affairs element; in Central Africa, the African Union Regional Task Force has decimated the Lord’s Resistance Army’s ranks and ability to harass the population; police and first responders in West Africa are better able to work with governments to assist citizens during crisis—these are all positive developments our SOF cooperation with these countries has enabled.
Unfortunately, the enemy trend line is also going in the wrong direction. We’ve seen increasing interconnectedness between VEOs, greater use of social media, and alarming trends in recruitment. For every positive development one might cite, there’s also a lot of work still to be done. That’s what keeps my team of 1,700 SOCAFRICA personnel busy year-round in 22 partner nations. It’s a challenge for us, but you’ve got to remember, our African counterparts are also committed to stopping these trends in their home countries. I often tell our team, “We’re not at war in Africa, but our African partners are.” That gives a sense of urgency to all we do. There’s no time to waste.
One of the challenges we’ve had to overcome is a hesitation by some African partners, a sort of question about U.S. intentions. Everything we do is intended to build support, trust, and interoperability of Special Operations Forces from around the world to support regional solutions to the problems faced by our African partners. Unfortunately, given the United States’ and Europe’s track record of providing enduring support in Africa, combined with the history of colonial exploitation, some governments may have an inherent distrust of international efforts to support them. As a result, it often takes a considerable amount of time to cement these relationships, forge trust, and create interoperability in order to build effective teams and long-lasting partnerships. In countries where we have had the longest persistent presence, we’ve also seen the greatest improvements in trust and cooperation. Once we’re working together as a cohesive team, we’ve seen rapid improvements in the capabilities of our partners.
Another challenge is that we often see a lack of commitment on the part of the civil governments in the countries where we operate. This is a significant challenge because we certainly do not wish to replace our partners’ “will” with our own capability and capacity. We can assist these nations with the “how,” but the will to tackle these wicked problems has to be their own. Once a local government owns the problem, the solutions we can enable, the capabilities we can enhance, and the capacity we help build will be properly implemented and endure long after our team departs.
Overall, I’m hopeful for the future. As I said before, I see a lot of progress in a lot of areas. Every day we work with talented, committed military and civilian leaders in African states who are serious about solving these problems. They see the threat of VEOs and are determined to work across borders and forge new partnerships to stop the spread of these threats. Together with USAFRICOM, SOCAFRICA, and international and interagency partners, we can enable responsible leaders to have a powerful, positive impact on the region.
CTC: France has a long history of involvement in Africa. How are the United States and France working together on the continent?
BG Bolduc: The U.S. and France are partners in the counter-extremism fight in the Sahel, working together to disrupt and ultimately defeat AQIM [al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb]. Obviously our French colleagues have been working in the region much longer than anyone in our command, so we can look to them for cultural and language expertise as well as conducting training and advise-and-assist missions in a complementary fashion, ultimately boosting African partner nation capabilities. The French share information with the U.S. and African units to assist in the counter-VEO fight. They’ve got an incredible logistics, medical, and intelligence network that we can leverage across North and West Africa.
France also cooperates with U.S. and African partners in the Lake Chad Basin as part of the multi-national effort to counter Boko Haram. For that mission in particular, intelligence-sharing and medical support provided by the French have really helped to bolster the African-led Multi-National Joint Task Force’s ongoing mission.
But it’s key to note that it’s not only the French who are active in Africa. For example, during the annual Flintlock exercise, more than 20 African, European, and North American nations participated in the massive capacity-building event. These partners are working across the continent as part of a network of professional militaries committed to building a stronger, more stable, and prosperous Africa. We’re proud to work alongside a number of these SOF teams from Europe and North America. But most importantly, I see African nations working across borders to implement regional solutions to counter the spread of VEOs and disrupt illicit networks. This sort of regional cooperation is essential to combat the transnational threats facing our African partners.
CTC: How do you assess the recent targeting of hotels in Mali/Burkino Faso/Ivory Coast by al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb? Is the operational tempo of the adversary increasing? How do you counter this?
BG Bolduc: AQIM’s targeting of hotels is not complex, but it is high-profile. This is a direct response to ISIS efforts to expand across Africa and stealing members and smaller groups from AQ influence, such as members in Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, and with Boko Haram in Nigeria. In order to stay relevant to their potential recruits, AQIM has launched high-profile attacks to keep their brand in the headlines. It’s a disturbing trend—VEOs competing in the city, using violence to keep their brand relevant. I wouldn’t say the ops tempo of these groups is increasing—they’ve been active for a long time—but their tactics and targets are changing in response to the situation they find themselves in at the moment. To be clear, AQIM is a pressing threat to our African partners in the region and our cooperation with them seeks to provide information and expertise to enhance their capability to predict, disrupt, and respond to VEO activities.
One of the measures I’d highlight is the inclusion of civil authorities, police, and first responders in our exercise and engagement events. We understand that military won’t be the first people on scene during most crisis events such as a hotel attack; it will most likely be police and local authorities. We’re working on processes to link these groups to the military structure so information can flow from military sources to local governments to disrupt terror activities before they happen. Also, the process of getting military to the scene and coordinating with local authorities is hugely important to unity-of-effort during a crisis response or hostage rescue.
SOF is only one aspect of a comprehensive approach to countering the AQIM threat. That’s why it’s important to include interagency partners, law enforcement, and civil administration in our engagements. For our African partners, preventing and properly responding to the next hotel attack takes more than just a military effort; it’s a huge coordination challenge we’ve got to practice before it’s needed.
CTC: In Nigeria, how has the United States helped in the fight against Boko Haram? What is the degree to which Nigerian military are improving in operational capability and also in dealing with corruption? Can you see progress? What is the right role for U.S. SOF in Nigeria?
BG Bolduc: As I’ve said before, cooperation with Nigeria and the surrounding Lake Chad Basin nations is critical to ensuring the success of the counter-Boko Haram mission. The government of Nigeria leads the counter-Boko Haram fight within their country; U.S. efforts focus on assisting affected states to increase their ability to cooperate across borders, share information, and carry out effective counter-VEO ops. This also includes human rights training, messaging, and civil affairs training—again, a comprehensive approach to the problem set.
In recent years, and at the Nigerian government’s request, we have worked with the Nigerian military on their counter-force, conducting recurring training events. This training has included basic soldiering skills; basic, small-unit infantry tactics; and leadership training. It’s this sort of professionalization-type training that will have the most impact on the problem of corruption. By building a professional, ethical officer and NCO corps, the Nigerian military will become increasingly able to gain the trust and confidence of the people. A fully trained military acting in the best interest of the local population is one of the most powerful legacies our engagement can lead to. Countering Boko Haram is not only about soldiering; it’s also important to build a force able to address the grievances of the people in an honest and professional manner.
We have also worked with the Nigeria’s Special Boat Service, a unit similar to the Navy SEALs, during the annual Flintlock exercise and other engagements. In addition, we’ve worked to increase the coordination between Lake Chad Basin countries as part of the Multi-National Joint Task Force and provide intelligence and imagery via ISR flights based in Cameroon. Everything we’re doing in the Lake Chad Basin region is intended to build the right capability and capacity, trust and interoperability of SOF, linked to legitimate civil administration postured to defeat Boko Haram or any other VEOs threatening the stability of the state. That’s the bottom line of what our teams are doing across the region.
CTC: There’s been a lot of talk about “the Gray Zone.” What does this concept mean to you and your operations in Africa?
BG Bolduc: The SOCAFRICA operational environment is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The threats facing our African partners are typically non-state actors operating in a transregional and transnational, decentralized, and dispersed construct, surviving in ungoverned and under-governed safe havens created by a populace that has lost hope due to ineffective governance. It’s a wickedly complex environment tailor-made for the type of nuanced and professional cooperation SOF is able to provide. Our operating environment is the very definition of “the Gray Zone.” We may not be at war in Africa, but our African partners certainly are.
That’s where the challenge for our team starts. We operate in a politically sensitive and challenging area of responsibility that simultaneously crosses multiple instruments of power. Diplomacy is key to attaining U.S. policy objectives, and we have to ensure we’re working in a supporting role to each Country Team in order to achieve the synchronized, comprehensive approach to countering the threat of violent extremism in Africa. But there’s also development and capacity-building needed to ensure African countries are able to provide the services and security to extend the legitimacy of the state into un- and under-governed areas. Operating in the Gray Zone requires SOCAFRICA to act in a supporting role to a host of other organizations. One must understand, in Africa we are not the kinetic solution. If required, partner nations should do those sorts of operations. We do, however, build this capability, share information, provide advice and assistance, and accompany and support with enablers. That takes a change of mindset for staffs and the flexibility to try new approaches to complement other U.S. government stability efforts. We’re part of the solution but not the solution.
It sounds like a monumental task—and it is a huge challenge for all involved—but I’m energized by the dedication and commitment of our African partners and the SOF teams supporting them. The men and women I speak to on the continent understand the only way to get at this problem is to do their part and keep moving forward with the incremental improvements their activities enable. I often remind our “One SOF Team” working in Africa that they’re literally changing the course of history with their partners. There’s no time to waste.