“Composite Warfare” – a composite insight into conflict and war in Africa


Eeben Barlow is a name well-known to those who are practitioners of military arts and skills, especially in Africa.

He has now taken all his considerable experience and distilled it into a 500 plus page publication titled “Composite Warfare”, which he sees as an African “Art of War”.

Split into three parts – “Understanding conflict and war in Africa”, “Conventional manoeuvre during composite warfare operations” and “Unconventional manoeuvre during composite warfare operations” – there are 22 chapters covering virtually every imaginable aspect of planning and executing war at whatever level in Africa.

Barlow’s introduction sets the tone for his textbook. He writes: “Africa has seen numerous conflicts and wars since the end of the Cold War. I have partaken in some of them as a soldier, an intelligence officer, a covert operative and as chairman of Executive Outcomes, a private military company that focussed on resolving Africa’s problems during the 1990s and more recently as chairman of STTEP International Ltd” adding “international resistance to both Executive Outcomes and STTEP’s desire to end conflicts and wars and see a stable Africa remains unparalleled”.

He has lectured and delivered papers at many African defence and military colleges, including some in South Africa where his insights into the planning and execution of various military tasks have been well received. After reading “Composite Warfare” this reviewer, not qualified in a military sense but a long-time observer of defence and security in South Africa and to a lesser extent, north of the Limpopo River, would venture Barlow’s venture into, for want of a better phrase “teaching writing”, should be compulsory issue for libraries at military education institutions from Cape Town to Cairo.

The author’s conviction that Africa will not see any full-scale conventional war but will have to endure conflicts where a mixture of conventional and guerrilla warfare tactics and operations are employed is carefully and thoroughly explained. Adding more value, from an operational and execution point of view is his comment to this reviewer “that everything in ‘Composite Warfare’ works. Nothing is theory; everything has been put into practice”.

This is in line with the hands-on manner and methods Barlow has worked out and put into practice on the ground in Africa. Again, his own words describe it best – “what is in the book has been successfully employed against groups and organisations including Boko Haram and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)”.

He adds ruefully that “outside interference” put an end to what would ultimately have been successful operations. That the interference hasn’t worked can be measured against the activities of both Boko Haram and LRA, both of which are still active and operational.

Barlow introduces each chapter with an appropriate quotation, the majority his own words, and these serve as an able stimulant for the student to delve properly into the wise words that follow.

As an example: “We need to not only look at how we organise ourselves, we also need to take a step back and revisit our principles of war. If we look at post-1945 conflicts and wars – and there have been many in Africa – we will note they have been very different from those beyond our shores. We seem to have a misguided belief that we can simply accept the principles of war of other nations and then all will be well. Our conflicts and wars are different. Besides, where exactly have those principles worked in Africa?” he asks before discussing the modern principles of war.

Barlow takes a different view on some aspects of war, but agrees with military scholars on others. As an example he told a division commander “somewhere in Central Africa” in 2011 that “firepower, mobility and manoeuvre are critical to our success”.
“Without these we cannot achieve our operational and tactical objectives. If we cannot meet our objectives, we give the enemy an advantage he certainly does not deserve. Give us firepower, mobility and the ability to manoeuvre and we will give you the enemy”.

Writing about defence and protection of the pillars of state, he notes: “We (soldiers) are merely an extension of politics. As long as Africa remains at war with itself, it will be unable to flourish and take its place in a vibrant, economically powerful and politically stable international community”.

Barlow’s seven pillars of state are intelligence, law enforcement, armed forces, governance, economy, populace and perceptions. He points out a personal analysis and dissection of every African conflict and/or war since 1945 allowed him to identify numerous commonalities.
“These led to the pillars of state theory, a theory that has proved itself in every conflict and war in Africa.”

An example of how well Barlow reads and knows the Africa situation comes in a single line caption to one of the many photographs illustrating the book. A photograph and Barlow and two unidentified Libyans is accompanied by the words: “In Benghazi in 2013 the author tried to warn the Libyans of what was coming … they opted to believe others”. Those who study and keep a weather eye on African affairs will know Libya today is not a well state.

There are other pithy comments by Barlow which all add value to a work that should be ignored – at their peril – by those wanting to learn about conflict and war on the African continent.
“Composite Warfare” is published by Thirty Degrees South Publishers.