The African Standby Force beyond 2015: ideals versus realities

2015-09-14

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, has a difficult problem to resolve. By January 2016, she will be expected to declare that the African Standby Force (ASF) – the continental peace support operations structure which has been under development since 2003 – has reached full operating capability and is ready to be deployed to various crisis situations across Africa.

The problem is that while the continent has come a long way in developing the ASF, it will still not be fully operational. So, what exactly should the AU Chairperson tell member states at the AU Summit in January next year?

Two things can be expected.

First, that the political aspirations driving the establishment of the ASF have been attained. Second, that conflict trends and realities in Africa dictate the need for a strategic review of the ASF Policy Framework and its operational design to ensure that peace operations are suitably prepared.

The AU and its regions have positioned themselves as indispensable in African peace operations

The driving political logic behind the ASF was that Africa wanted to play a more prominent, if not leading, role in peace operations on the continent. Over the course of the past decade, African operations have been deployed to 11 countries.

Moreover, African contributions to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations have increased from 10 000 to 35 000 per annum in the same time span, and deployments to African operations have hovered around the 35 000 to 40 000 mark per annum for the past three years.

Through the establishment of the ASF and investment in its development, uneven as that may have been at times, the AU and its regions have positioned themselves as indispensable actors in continental peace operations. A lot of lessons have been learnt as well. When it was first developed and conceptualised, two pillars underpinned the ASF.

First, the AU would provide continental guidance, while regions would be responsible for working with their member states to generate and retain standby capabilities required for operations, which could be activated and deployed when required. Second, six scenarios informed the ASF doctrine.

These ranged from providing military advice to political missions right through to the deployment of large, multidimensional operations, and even rapid intervention in situations characterised by grave circumstances. On both counts, things unfolded quite differently.

Of all the operations deployed to date, only those in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) can be categorised as having resembled the ASF model, where the AU worked with a region (ECOWAS and ECCAS respectively in these cases) to plan and deploy an operation. All the other operations undertaken followed very different models.

The realities of current AU operations are very different from what was anticipated a decade ago

In Darfur and Somalia, the AU followed the UN model of peacekeeping, working directly with contributing countries to generate and deploy the capabilities required for the missions. In Burundi and the Comoros, the AU used a ‘lead nation model’, where one country (here South Africa and Tanzania respectively) provided the core structure and a few other countries provided smaller contributions. In the cases of the operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Boko Haram, the AU authorised coalitions of the willing to conduct operations, while providing limited forms of strategic and financial assistance.

Realities on the ground required alternative solutions from what had originally been conceived. Apart from deployments models, mandates also change. The early deployments to Burundi (support for the implementation of a peace agreement), Darfur (support for the implementation of a humanitarian ceasefire agreement) and Somalia (support for the establishment of a transitional government) largely adhered to the deployment scenarios and the original doctrine.

This has changed rapidly in recent years. Currently, AU peace support operations engage in offensive operations against armed actors, undertake counter-terrorism actions, operate in contexts characterised by the use of asymmetric tactics, are charged with stabilisation roles, undertake security sector reform and serve as bridging operations. The realities of current AU operations are very different from what was anticipated a decade ago, and for what the ASF has been built for.

Beyond a review, the ASF requires a new operational design

The realities, experiences and lessons learnt have provided enough synergy in areas where urgent change is required. Among other things, policies, standards and training must be harmonised to improve coordination and joint operations. The African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) – a stopgap measure launched in 2013 – is also the cat amongst the pigeons since its integration into the initial rapid deployment capability is unclear. This needs to be reviewed.

Over the last decade, the AU has proven that it can operate effectively despite resource constraints, and make do with the capacities available. It already achieves many of the objectives of the ASF, including ensuring a collective response by African countries to conflict on the continent. The ideal of attaining full operational capability for all deployment scenarios is still a long way off, and conducting a costly AMANI II exercise – to be held in South Africa from 17 October to 7 November – will contribute relatively little, if anything, towards the ASF’s Full Operational Capability.

A strategic review will, however, show that through its experience of various past and current operations, the AU has already adapted to current African realities. Critics who claim that the ASF has been 10 years in the making with few results will easily be proven wrong.

Beyond a review, the ASF requires a new operational design, which should recognise that the AU’s model of working with regions and member states in different ways at different times is key to success. No single operational model could satisfy all deployment requirements.

As the AU Commission chairperson prepares for the next summit, her message should be that while the political aspirations driving the establishment of the ASF have been attained, it is now time to adjust its doctrine and operational design to current and future African realities. This would ensure that it can deploy the right force, at the right speed, and with the right resources to achieve success. Different models are required for different scenarios, as has been proven over the past 10 years. Only political will and commitment will ensure that the ASF fulfils Agenda 2063’s aspiration towards the peaceful and secure Africa we want.

Dr Walter Lotze, Senior Researcher, Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF), Berlin and Annette Leijenaar, Division Head, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, ISS

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