Military Intervention Is Tricky—Here’s How Not to Do It
The A.U. standby force just doesn’t work
A wave of terrible conflicts ripped through the African continent in the 1990s — the Rwandan genocide, the Congo wars and many smaller civil conflicts. They caused immense human suffering, millions of deaths.
And they laid bare the complete inability of the prevailing international institutions, such as the Organisation of African Unity, to put a stop to wars and atrocities on the continent.
For that reason, in 2001 African governments decided to shut down the OAU and found a successor organization — the African Union.
But it’s an open question whether the African Union is really much better. The pan-African body’s military rapid-reaction forces have proved unable to prevent a new wave of crises from escalating into grinding, entrenched wars.
“It is really only in the beginning of the establishment of the African Union that there was a specific emphasis on peace and security,” says Cedric de Coning, the head of the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Research Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
One of the key elements of the African Union’s early formation was the African Peace and Security Architecture — APSA, for short.
One of the pillars of the APSA, de Coning tells War Is Boring, is the African Standby Force. Combined with preventive tools such as the Panel of the Wise and an early-warning mechanism, the standby force should enable the African Union to intervene in armed conflicts or developing crises with its own forces, on short notice.
The A.U. passed the APSA in 2003 with the goal to have the ASF ready for complex peacekeeping missions by 2010.
That never happened. Now, five years after the initial deadline, the A.U. is still relying on Western powers to intervene in urgent cases.
In Mali and Central African Republic, the A.U. and its subordinate regional organizations essentially dropped the ball. In both cases France, the former colonizer of the countries in question, had to step in when rapidly developing crises made a military intervention all but inevitable.
Neighboring countries and the African Union at large had neither the political will nor the military capability to assume a leadership role in these missions.
De Coning says that a key reason for the continued inability of the A.U. to effectively and consistently intervene in cases like Mali and the Central African Union can be found in the APSA and the ASF themselves. Many of the founding documents of both mechanisms, he says, “are more political than they are practical.”
Case in point — the rapid deployment capability. In theory, the ASF should have the capability to deploy a significant military force within just two weeks — an unrealistically short time.
“The consultants who wrote the documents, probably under pressure, decided it should be 14 days,” de Coning explains, “because politicians are not going to accept a document that says that people are going to die for 30 days.”
Given the political and logistical complexities of a military intervention, this model is bound to fail, de Coning says. “I don’t think that there is anyone in the world apart from maybe the USA as a country that could deploy, on such short notice, a sizable force.”
What’s more, the APSA foresees a rotation scheme between different regional sub-groups. In other words, groups of countries — say, in North Africa or West Africa, etc. — would take turns keeping troops at the ready for a possible intervention.
But this burden-sharing means that, in addition to a United Nations Security Council mandate and a decision of the heads of state of the African Union, the regional organization in question would also have to sign off on every deployment.
In addition, no government — African or otherwise — would give an international organization carte blanche to deploy its armed forces. But this is more or less the precondition for the ASF to work as its framers intended.
The irony, de Coning says, is that African states are actually already fulfilling many of the roles that the ASF is supposed to handle. “If you look at the reality of African operations, there is a huge African capacity.”
African countries currently contribute more than 75,000 soldiers to U.N. and A.U. peacekeeping missions. Countries including Uganda, Chad and South Africa have the capabilities and capacity to contribute to successful military interventions.
Chad was able to rapidly deploy soldiers to support France in Mali, as well as during the ongoing offensive against Boko Haram in Nigeria. Uganda has sent large numbers of troops into neighboring South Sudan to prop up the government against rebel forces.
And more than 20 years after the genocide, Rwanda has become a prolific contributor to U.N. missions in Central African Republic and Darfur.
“The African Union has the capacity,” de Coning says, “but not through the African Standby Force — because that particular mechanism is not realistic.”
Looking at the past, the researcher argues, it becomes clear that the success stories of African peacekeeping and peace enforcing have always included an ad hoc coalition of the willing “based on those countries that had a specific interest in resolving the conflict, and the international community that has an interest in supporting them.”
But de Coning says the ASF should not shut down. Despite its flaws, it has provided a valuable framework for training and the development of common good working relationships between the militaries on the continent.
“We shouldn’t expect the ASF to be an actual deployment capacity. We need to adapt the standby force concept to one that recognizes the political nature [of these decisions].”
The idea of a standing force, ready to deploy at the will of an international organization like the A.U. “is a pipe dream,” de Coning says. He argues that the ASF is comparable in this regard to the E.U. Battle Group, a similar concept that has had similar problems getting off the ground.
Instead of creating a predictable force, the A.U. should focus on creating predictable mechanisms for coordination in the event of a crisis. That, de Coning says, would be a more realistic — and ultimately also faster — way to intervene … and save lives.