Recently, I have been prompted to think a bit about international efforts to grow African peace support capability, especially as the nature of peace support operations (PSO) appears to be evolving:  Alongside the traditional (UN-led), the new kids on the block (AU-led), the alternative (region-led) there is a growing sense that ad hoc coalitions of the willing are the new way to address insecurity even if they are not yet the new way to support enduring peace.  This raises the question of what donors want and expect from Africa; and what Africa wants for itself and from its partners.  With change in the air in London, now seems a good moment to reflect on what has changed since the UK declared 2005 to be the Year of Africa and made supporting Africa PSO capability a Gleneagles G8 priority.

Whose peace?  And for what purpose?

Everyone buys into the idea that a conventional PSO seeks a (better) human security outcome and that it does so by bringing to bear an integrated suite of political, socio-economic, police and military capabilities.  But the track record of success is not great.  UN, AU, NATO, ad hoc, all seem to get bogged down (or their donors get bored and restless) before the problem is really solved.  And crowding out terrorism with people-centred development is a good theory but with a long – too long – time line.

If the real problem is terrorism, the sad truth is that African-led efforts to counter it in the trans-national context have not been all that effective.  (There is however some evidence that intelligence and operational cooperation between Africa and others has managed to counter terrorist attacks as opposed to insurgencies.)

However, this failure needs to be seen in context.  Insurgency and terrorism are part of an asymmetric strategy to disconcert and destabilise – and they don’t lend themselves to being countered by formal military forces alone.  Terrorism is not the flip side of peace; and peace is not the sole answer to terrorism.  Terrorists need to be lucky sometimes; those countering them need to be lucky all the time.  So, the main effort of a terrorist group is to sow fear, doubt and uncertainty – a somewhat different metric for success to that of a PSO.

It therefore seems unreasonable to load the burden of success – either in peace support or in countering terrorism – on Africans when the rest of the world is not doing so well either (Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, etc).  And there is the complicating fear of proximate harm.  When the west/north feel that its interests are at risk – and these can be wide-ranging including migration, trafficking; rare-earth minerals and more recently poly-polar doctrinal influence – it has a habit of setting aside what it has learned about how to be successful (or at least how to be less unsuccessful) and flipping straight to proxy fighting.  A good example of this is the international interest in the Accra Initiative (AI) which seeks to hold back trans-national terrorism in the Sahel.  Even though we know it is impossible to fight terrorism by purely miliary means, donors queued up to provide one-step-removed military planning support to the AI HQ.

The changing nature of peace support

Africa is usually very clear that in deploying a mission it is going in first to open the space for the international community to follow.  The thesis behind formal African multilateral PSOs (as opposed to ad hoc coalitions of the willing – so AU and region led) is that they will operate under a UN Security Council Chapter 8 mandate – ie that their role is to help create the conditions for the deployment of an integrated, multi-dimensional internationally led (probably UN but could theoretically be another organisation like NATO or even the EU).  So African multilateral operations tend to have a very heavy focus on (interim) political settlement (ceasefire; separation of forces; etc) and security focus because that is the normal obstacle to the deployment of a formal PSO.

Africa can generally get it together to settle a mandate, but it usually falls down on translating that mandate into an integrated operation.  Donors know this; Africa knows this; international organisations know this.  But at the end of the day, it is usually African soldiers who bear the lion’s share of the risk.

The military skills required to conceive, mount, supply and prosecute a bilateral military operation are all the same ones that a multilateral or ad hoc coalition needs: Joint Operational Planning, Integrated Planning, Mission Leadership, etc.  So, the building blocks of success lie first in national capability, then in small group trans-national capability (eg Regional Organisations) and only then in actual practice in a multilateral environment.

But donors have long assumed that it is somehow possible to build capability and deliver effect at a multilateral level whilst at the same time ring-fencing support to militaries, police services and civilians tightly for the purpose of mandated PSOs only.

And doctrinally donors understand that the military should serve a civilian-strategic intent, but they seem to persist in the practice that it is somehow possible to deliver military effect in a PSO context without it.  This points to a need to shift conceptual thinking – away from the inputs (better trained soldiers and police officers) and towards a focus on the desired outcomes.  For Africa the desired outcome is often that the UN come in to mount a fully integrated operation.  But this means that if the donor definition of success is transition out, they and Africa are working to diametrically opposed goals.

Integrated campaigning

For these reasons, Africa missions are rarely fully integrated – because their end state is the subsequent arrival of an integrated force.  In this respect, African operations often actually reflect the lack of integrated understanding on the part of the donors.  It seems unreasonable to expect an Africa (first operation under the AU: Comoros; followed by Burundi, Darfur and then Somalia with a few side excursions to Congo and CAR) which has only really been a PSO practitioner since 2004 to be better than the UN which has been honing its art for decades.

What most African missions do have is a political strategy – but only to a limited point in time.  Their political strategy is to get to the point where a wider mission can start up.  And Africa delivers political strategy even in contexts with no PSO – for example successive Sudan crises.  Arguably then, the great thing about working on these issues in Africa is the diversity of potential actors and mediators.  Rather than this being a sign of incoherence, this should actually be seen as a sign of resilience – there is always another route towards the desired goal.

Military means; political outcomes

The credible threat of military means is an essential element of peace enforcement and peace support.  The problem then is not the presence of military means but the absence of complementary political-strategic means.  Whilst the military get on with securing a space, others need to get on with the required settlement, stabilisation and development.  This requires enduring and consistent political-strategic engagement – with both the conflict setting and the African institutions and countries.  (And the west seems to have a problem with enduring commitment.)

The political outcome towards which the military should contribute is better human security, but the means by which this can be delivered will change over time – from peace enforcement to peace support to stabilisation to development.  And it will not be linear – like a train – it will require integrated planning and action.

The big problems arise when donors try to short-cut the process – and countering terrorism is usually the cause.  Donors may recognise the complexity and ponderous nature of sustainable strategic effect, but they also perceive a proximate threat to themselves.  So, they have a habit of subverting process to focus on things which are of concern to them – all the time reminding everyone to impress on the hapless country how things that threaten the international community also threaten them.  In the long run, this is neither security nor strategic.

So what?

Donors need to refocus the thesis of their support on achieving political outcomes by thinking and acting both politically and strategically; and being realistic about what it takes to advance strategy.  Donor talk of transition lands in African ears as an excuse to leave not a reason to engage differently.  This damages trust and confidence.

Addressing Africa’s conflict challenges requires enduring engagement and multi-dimensional approaches.  It requires the choreography of all the necessary means into an integrated, longitudinal whole.  Donors should stop telling Africa what African problems they will cherry pick; and start recognising that having a more credible, capable and – frankly – muscular Africa serves donor interests in general as well as often in the specific.

In the words of the late Dr Michael Mosely, if the world could do just one thing, it would be establishing an African seat in the Security Council and making Africa a capable actor there.