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Clausewitz's lesson on friction for African peacekeeping forces

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Clausewitz's lesson on friction for African peacekeeping forces

John Stupart

09 Oct 2019

7min min read
  • War
I I

n October 1993, US Special Forces and a detachment of Rangers were plunged into a 48-hour firefight against what had then seemed to be the entire armed populace of Mogadishu. Part of the ill-conceived UNOSOM peacekeeping mission to Somalia, what came to be known as the Battle of Mogadishu, resulted in 21 soldiers’ lives lost and an estimated 350 Somalis killed. The disaster resulted in the withdrawal of US forces from Somalia two years later and a general failure to achieve any of UNOSOM or US objectives.

But from this terrible first foray into African peace enforcement evolved an entirely new approach to fighting a counter-insurgency on a multinational scale. Where the US stepped back, a gradual shift towards an African-led effort at cleaning its own house has taken place. In Clausewitzian terms, the degree to which “friction” is experienced during warfare contributes significantly to the achievement of any strategic outcome. The Somalia intervention saw ‘friction’, in pure Clausewitzian terms, placed on UN forces from all levels of leadership.

Subsequent military operations in Africa have yielded positive outcomes in some circumstances. The Kenyan-led invasion of Somalia in 2011 under Operation Linda Nchi saw much of this friction reduced and simplified through the definition of a realistic strategic objective and the presence of multinational support. In another example, the 2013 introduction of the Force Intervention Brigade brought another African-led multinational force into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to produce material results against entrenched rebel groups in the region. This evolution of multinational warfighting in Africa has created a momentum shift towards the creation of entirely new ways of counter-insurgency warfare.

To an extent, it is working.

Friction in conflict

Carl von Clausewitz’s thinking on the notion of friction applied to unforeseen delays in executing an objective within a military organisation. Clausewitz termed these the “myriad of small, but collectively numerous things that happen that cannot be foreseen or planned for, and which cause leaders to spend time on unforeseen decision making”.

From the planning room, sending a thousand troops from point A to point B should be a predictable exercise in theory. And yet, unforeseen and unexpected delays brought on by weather, illness, mechanical complications, human terrain problems all combine to create ‘friction’ that obstructs the completion of the task. This is just as much the case on the battlefield of Borodino as it is in the streets of Mogadishu.

Moving the strategic goalposts

Engaging in military operations of any kind requires clear strategic objectives from the outset, despite knowing that friction is inevitable, if you want to have any hope of success. This demands questions like: What political results are you hoping to achieve with the use of military forces? When the UN approved a US-led intervention in Somalia to alleviate famine conditions and secure channels of humanitarian aid through Resolution 794, the scope was clear. However, as John Bolton pointed out in a scathing Foreign Affairs article in 1994, this strategic plan changed almost immediately: 

“American forces entered Somalia on December 9. Later that day, however, the secretary-general told a delegation from Washington sent to brief the secretariat that he wanted the coalition not only to disarm all of the Somali factions, but also to defuse all mines in the country (most mines were in the secessionist north), set up a civil administration and begin training civilian police”.

In essence, the UNOSOM force had been tasked with a greatly-expanded mission with none of the resources necessary to achieve it, and with zero local support. Indeed, it was the hostile clan-structured warlordism in Mogadishu that drained much military focus away from UN forces. Friction had thus begun to accumulate before UNOSOM forces had even truly begun its tasks.

When President George H.W. Bush was succeeded by Bill Clinton in early 1993, the US Administration opted to expand operations in Somalia even further by adopting the policy of “assertive multilateralism” which translated to the use of foreign military forces in a nation-building exercise in the country. 

Rapidly expanding political objectives met with a singular militaristic approach invariably resulted in the disastrous 3 October Battle of Mogadishu and the unraveling of UNOSOM entirely. USattempts at nation-building in Africa thus concluded with an American corpse being displayed on the streets of Mogadishu and the end of international consensus and support for multinational intervention in Somalia.

Operation Linda Nchi - Kenya’s sledgehammer

In 2011 Kenyan forces mounted a large-scale invasion of Somalia under the code name Operation Linda Nchi. The Kenyan military deployed an estimated 6,000 soldiers for the operation, including an amphibious invasion of the southern port of Kismayo (Operation Sledgehammer). The invasion was aimed at wiping away Islamist militant group Al Shabaab’s base of operations and support, effectively removing a threat to Kenya itself and stabilising the Horn of Africa region.

Modern African militaries seldom engage in such large-scale, set-piece campaigns. For the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) to successfully occupy critical seaports in Mogadishu and Kismayo, much of the ‘friction’ involving the movement of troops had to be solved. In this regard, several Western powers assisted Kenya’s military, both in terms of training, logistics, and equipment. The imagery of Kenyan troops sporting modern British equipment and, in some cases, Belgian assault rifles, stood testament to the rapid re-equipping of Kenyan forces and the proverbial smoothing over of potential friction-points before Operation Linda Nchi began. US unmanned surveillance drones also supplied vital intelligence to Kenyan officers.

Linda Nchi achieved several significant objectives, enough so to convince regional leaders for the need to rehat Kenyan troops into a parallel African Union (AU) Mission, AMISOM, in the country. Although Al Shabaab remains to this day a serious threat to Kenyan and Somali interests, their funnels of economic support have been heavily curtailed by the efforts of Kenyan military and AMISOM forces.

Linda Nchi illustrated a surprising capability by African forces to effect strategic gains on the ground. Despite widespread scepticism over the KDF’s capabilities, multinational support pre-deployment and the integration into AMISOM thereafter highlighted just how much further along strategic planning had come since the 1992 UNOSOM mission. 

Although the US had taken a firm back-seat in terms of African peacekeeping ever since the Battle of Mogadishu, its assistance in supporting KDF troops was integral in removing much of the friction Kenya would otherwise have faced on its own. So much so that the foreign assistance in backing Kenyan warfighting may well have made the difference between a limited victory and outright defeat.

South Africa steps into the breach

The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) entered into being in 2013 at a point in time when the UN MONUSCO contingent in the DRC was grappling with an ever-growing threat of the M23 rebel group. Comprising a brigade-size contingent of armed militants, some of whom were previously state soldiers themselves, M23 had waged a particularly vicious campaign against civilian and soldier alike in the eastern parts of the country.

"Friction is ultimately everywhere in warfare, and Africa is no exemption to this rule."

The FIB was ushered in by UN Resolution 2098. While not the first force aimed at using force to pacify a region, the FIB was, however, the first to be granted a mandate to specifically root out and eliminate armed rebel groups in the region. The kid gloves, as it were, came off.

Within just four days of fighting, a South African-led FIB task force in conjunction with local FARDC troops and other peacekeepers assigned to MONUSCO managed to split M23 in two and push it back from every single tactically-advantageous vantage point they had occupied. The victory over M23 was, as African Defence Review’s Darren Olivier put it, “unprecedented”.

The FIB illustrated just how truly effective African warfighting had become when conducted in a specific manner. In this case, the FIB relied on South African, Tanzanian and Malawian combat leadership and a robust UN political mandate to reduce the ‘friction’ leading up to the 2013 defeat of M23. Significant combat air support, logistics, and effective communication with all branches of the FIB and attacking forces rapidly reduced the margin of error when fighting the rebel group, itself a relatively capable military force.

In this regard, the FIB showcased how African-led joint task forces can achieve substantial strategic gains despite lacking all the capabilities and resources of foreign forces, provided that foreign assistance takes care of some areas of friction.

Picking up the text books

The Clausewitzian notion of friction is a universal law of war that materialises in a multiplicity of ways. Within the African conflict context, much of this friction can be overcome or reduced before the first shot is even fired, saving countless lives. The political and logistical nightmare leading up to the Battle of Mogadishu, for example, was improved upon and illustrated during Operation Linda Nchi nearly two decades later. 

At times, however, these lessons are shortlived. Indeed, even the FIB’s remarkable successes a few years ago have recently become stuck in a quagmire of political indolence. Moreover, there are several glaring examples in which friction has contributed to a collapse or failure to achieve lasting outcomes. 

AMISOM, for example, is pursuing its planned withdrawal and handover of security responsibilities to the Somali government. The intent: to be mission complete by 2021 - even though this objective fails to take into account the security realities on the ground. Although AMISOM and Operation Linda Nchi achieved many of its objectives, including the clampdown on Al Shabaab attacks and the creation of a net of stabilisation around much of the country, there remains a significant gap between AMISOM's military capability and Somalia’s own political and operational resources. A rapid withdrawal heedless of the reality on the ground could result in a significant Al Shabaab resurgence.

Looking further field, friction is evident within the current security forces battling a rising Islamist insurgency in West Africa. Here, the Nigerian Multinational Joint Task Force and the French-led Operation Barkhane have mounted years-long operations against Islamic militants in the region and broader Sahel. Although some material advances have been experienced, friction abounds. Poor morale, compounded by inadequate logistics, a lack of funding and equipment issues have combined to create a strategic quagmire for the region. Amidst such friction, militants have been able to expand their geographic reach and strike capability significantly over the last half few years, compounding the threat.

Friction is ultimately everywhere in warfare, and Africa is no exemption to this rule. Planners aiding in reducing or eliminating African conflicts, armed groups, or regions of insecurity would do well to recall this permanent fixture of strategy. The evolution of African warfighters has shown how this phenomenon can be overcome with the combination of sound policy goals by leaders and effective logistics on the ground, be it from Western allies or other AU member states. 

(Main image: South African soldiers prepare to move during Exercise Young Eagle - Thomas Holder/ADR)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s)a and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA and CIGI.