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ISS: African Standby Force: how the AU can get it right

Exercises at Lohatla.Last week, as part of the Amani Africa II field exercise, the African Standby Force (ASF) has been testing its Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC) at the Lohatlha military base in South Africa.

The exercise is designed to show whether the RDC is capable of deploying and intervening, within 14 days, in cases of war crimes, genocide and gross human rights abuses.

The aim is for Africa to possess the capability to act promptly, upon a request from a member state or when the African Union (AU) decides a situation is serious enough, to save lives and prevent crises from escalating.

The RDC will be an integral part of the regional standby forces, which would act as the precursor to the deployment of a larger mission. This will be no easy task, however. Other regional organisations have failed to produce such a capability on numerous occasions. Those involved in the development of the ASF would share the frustration expressed by Major-General Frank van Kappen, the former military advisor to the UN Secretary-General.

‘The planning of peacekeeping operations is the ultimate challenge because you never know where you have to operate; you never know what they want you to do; you don't have the mandate in advance; you don't have forces; you don't have transport; and you don't have money. We always have to start from zero. Each and every operation that we start, we start with nothing,’ van Kappen said in March 1997.

‘Standby’ implies ‘all systems go’: ready to spring into action. ‘Rapid deployment’ refers to a military unit’s ability to go somewhere at very short notice. Yet this seems to be precisely what most rapid deployment forces are unable or unwilling to do.

A bird’s eye view of how such deployments generally take place in the United Nations and regional organisations reveals important similarities and challenges. First, developments tend to be extremely slow; the average deployment taking between six months to a year.

A lack of appropriate and timely training also poses a significant constraint which, compounded by huge financial challenges, prevents forces from being on standby or achieving the objectives outlined in ambitious mandates.

Political differences and slow political decision-making often impede rapid deployment, while dual commitments from some member states often make it impossible to continue to deliver resources pledged. Weaknesses within partnerships and a lack of effective logistics mechanisms prove problematic, and elaborately structured deployments are often understaffed.

The lesson to be learnt, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President of International Crisis Group warned, is ‘if we just repeat the solutions of the past, it’s not going to work’.

The United Nations Standby Arrangement System (UNSAS) team, which was embedded in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1994, is a useful case in point. UNSAS is essentially a database system where troop-contributing countries conditionally pledge operational capabilities. This could be in the form of vehicles, communications equipment, soldiers, training, and airlift capabilities.

However, there is no guarantee that countries will actually commit these capabilities, which remain in their own countries while on standby. The system is voluntary. Issues around funding also discourage troop-contributing countries from committing capabilities, since they are responsible for financing resources while on standby and will only be compensated once deployed. UNSAS is further hampered by a zero-growth budget and resistance it faces in establishing a rapid deployment capability.

The North Atlantic Treat Organisation’s (NATO’s) Response Force (NRF) provides a good example of the difficulties faced elsewhere. To ensure standards are met, members have to undertake a six-month NATO exercise before deploying. Additional pre-training takes between six to 18 months. This is what may be referred to as their standby period.

Thus far, only certain elements of the NRF have been deployed. At NATO’s Wales summit last year, it agreed to establish a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a ‘spearhead force’ that could deploy at short notice.

Another example can be seen in the European Union (EU) Battle Groups, which date back to EU Summit discussions in 1999 and in 2003 where the need to improve rapid response capabilities was highlighted as a priority. The EU Battle Groups reached full operational capacity on 1 January 2007. To date, however, not a single battle group has seen any military action. In 2013, Anna Barcikowska from the EU Institute for Security Studies said, ‘Whereas militarily, Battle Groups have been “ready-to-go” for quite some time now, politically they are far from it. Yet, the longer EU Rapid Response remains a hypothesis, the more Europeans will fall short of their ambition to make a major contribution to global security.’

Next week, the Amani Africa II field exercise will draw to a close and the convoys of personnel, vehicles and equipment will leave Lohatlha and make their way back to their own countries. As the dust settles, what should people be looking for in the after-exercise review? Except for the command, control and communication required on the tactical, operational and strategic levels, the spotlight must be turned to whether best practices had been applied, and whether the outcomes are in line with standardised operational procedures.

It is hoped that the report will be critical and forward-looking, and that it would lead to a request for the original ASF concept to be revised once the AU has determined what exactly ‘standby’ and ‘rapid deployment’ implies in the African context. A clear direction of the final merging of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises into the RDC structures must also be included in the recommendations of the report.

In-depth analysis is also needed on how the United Nations and AU could better collaborate on the deployment of rapid deployment forces.

The AU’s African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) is made up of five elements: the Peace and Security Council; the Continental Early Warning System; the Panel of the Wise, the African Union Peace Fund and the ASF. The operational readiness of the ASF cannot be determined without evaluating the other four elements. The deployment process starts within these elements long before boots hit the ground. Synergy amongst the five APSA elements is required for timely and successful deployment.

We cannot expect the AU to thrash out the future of the ASF alone. Collaboration between the AU, evidence-based research organisations and others grappling with rapid deployment challenges will be needed to bring the ASF to final fruition.

Any force dealing with a constantly changing environment needs to keep evolving, and Amani Africa II will allow us to reflect on key matters. These include the mobility to deploy, operational compatibility among the regions, how resources can be mobilised from Africa as well as globally, and how pledged capabilities and collaboration among regions can be verified.

Africa is not unique in these challenges. At the opening ceremony of Amani II on 19 October, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ambassador Smaïl Chergui aptly quoted Nelson Mandela when he said: ‘We have walked a long road to peace... we may have made missteps along the way; but we have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. But we must not linger, because our long walk has not ended!’

Written by Annette Leijenaar, Head, Conflict Management and Peacebuilidng division, ISS

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.


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