There’s still a way to go before the rapid deployment capability (RDC) of the African Union’s African Standby Force (ASF) is operational, the organisation’s specialised technical committee on defence, safety and security has found.
This came to light during a meeting of African Union (AU) Chiefs of Staff in Addis Ababa following the eruption of violence in Mali late last year and widespread fighting in the country earlier this year.
A report issued after the meeting noted that: “The Malian crisis highlighted the need to expedite operationalisation of the RDC and, more generally, to accelerate the establishment of the ASF.”
“The ‘Standby Force’, comprising five regional brigades, was intended to intervene promptly and quickly to prevent a troubled situation becoming a crisis, or at least to be on the scene quickly enough to hold the line until other forces can be deployed to deal with the situation decisively. It was not intended to ‘stand by’ and watch things unravel,” said defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman earlier this year.
In March, then-US Africa Command chief General Carter F Ham said that, “Mali is an example of why Africa needs to invest in a standby capability. If Africa could have deployed a standby force, Mali might be in a different situation today.”
Following its meeting, the AU committee said that, “It should be recalled that, in the management of the crisis, the AU and ECOWAS endeavoured…to deploy a mission to support the restoration of the authority of the Malian State in the northern part of the country, then occupied by armed, rebel, terrorist and criminal groups and to ensure the security of the transition institutions, established after the coup d’état of March 2012”.
The AU, ECOWAS, other core countries, the UN and other partners were all involved in the preparation of a harmonised Concept of Operations (CONOPS). After this, in November, the AU Peace and Security Council endorsed the deployment of a 3 300 strong African-led international support mission to Mali (AFISMA). Deployment was authorised for a year.
The first months of this year saw rapid developments on the ground in Mali while operationalisation of AFISMA and mediation efforts were underway.
“Rebel, terrorist and criminal armed groups launched a massive attack on Malian army positions in Konna, in a clear attempt to control Sévaré, the key entry point to the area and the location of the airport, which was to serve as the Launchpad for AFISMA.”
Then followed the French-led Operation Serval to block the advance of rebels, terrorists and armed criminal groups, which was launched in January this year. This saw more countries pledge troops for AFISMA as the initial authorised strength would not be able to cope with the escalating situation. A February planning conference in Bamako saw the mission size increased to 9 260 along with a revised CONOPS.
The technical committee noted “considerable delay” in operational readiness, logistic preparation and strength build-ups of units at AFISMA’s disposal. This was the result of logistic and financial constraints.
“AFISMA to date, and despite progress made, still operates under difficult conditions.”
All told, the technical committee is of the opinion the RDC is yet to be operational.
“The initial concept (of the RDC) remains a medium term objective to be pursued as a priority,” its report said.
Efforts to make the ASF and its rapid deployment capability reality go back as far as 2002 when the AU Peace and Security Architecture was established. It is designed as a set of institutions and standards to facilitate conflict prevention.
The ASF consists of multi-disciplinary contingents based in own countries and ready for rapid deployment as and when required. Its mandate includes observation and monitoring missions, humanitarian assistance, more complex peace support missions, intervention in “grave circumstances” and the restoration of peace and security as well as preventive deployment and peace building.
To fill the gap before the RDC leg of the ASF is properly up and running the technical committee has proposed “an urgently needed operational collective security instrument” to promote “as far as possible, African solutions to African problems” and proposes it be called the African Immediate Crisis Response Capacity (AICRC).
The committee proposes AICRC as a military tool, a reservoir of 5 000 troops made up of operational modules in the form of 1 500 strong battle groups. These groups should be able to deploy rapidly and operate under a central command with an initial autonomy of 30 days.
“AICRC should enable the continent to provide an immediate response to crises in the short term, while allowing for a political solution to the crisis,” the committee’s report said.