Meanwhile back in the South


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week, NATO leaders gathered in Madrid for their summit. It was billed as one of the most significant NATO meetings in decades. Finland and Sweden were invited to join the alliance, massively increasing NATO’s territorial expanse, doubling the length of its border with Russia, and increasing its members from 30 to 32. The allies committed major extra forces to the alliance’s eastern flank. The United States proposed to establish a corpslevel headquarters in Poland with an associated support brigade, and to send two extra warships to the Rota naval base in Spain, as well as two extra squadrons of F35s to the United Kingdom. Most spectacularly, NATO agreed to increase the size of its forces on high alert from 40,000 to 300,000.

The significant increase in forces, equipment and command structures to be forward deployed on the territory of NATO’s eastern allies certainly went a long way towards assuaging these countries’ anxieties after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Defence budgets across the alliance are going up as well, and the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, announced in Madrid that, collectively, the allies have spent an additional $360bn over initially planned spending levels on their militaries. At the same time, and in response to an appeal to the summit from President Zelensky, the alliance pledged to resolutely support Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion in the long term.

All these steps, and the vast resources committed to implement them in the years ahead, suggest that the allies have a clear Eastern security strategy. They clearly see and assess the threat largely in the same way, as the language describing Russia as “the most significant and direct threat in NATO’s new Strategic Concept testifies, and they are prepared to support each other. Allies distant from the eastern flank, like Canada, Portugal, France and Italy, are all sending additional forces east, and the latter two countries have offered to command new NATO battle groups in Romania and Bulgaria, respectively. NATO’s display of unity in response to Russia’s aggression has been noteworthy, but all the troop reinforcements and building of new bases and weapons storage depots in the east, not to speak of maintaining high readiness levels for a much larger force for much longer periods, will be expensive and take time. Pre-occupied by Russia and the future of Ukraine, NATO will probably have little time and inclination to focus on other challenges elsewhere in the world.

just as NATO’s energy in the east has been driven by a deteriorating security situation, the South in its own way has also become more complex and challenging

To be fair, the summit in Madrid did pay lip service to the world beyond Europe’s eastern neighbourhood. The leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea were invited to Madrid, although the focus there was on bilateral reconciliation talks between Japan and South Korea rather than on how the Indo-Pacific partner countries of NATO will engage – collectively or individually – with NATO in the future. The new Strategic Concept also mentioned the challenge of China and castigated Beijing for its unhelpful and pro-Moscow stance during the Ukraine conflict. Yet, China was described in much milder language than Russia and as a “systemic competitor” rather than a “direct threat”. Although NATO continues to recognise the growing inter-linkages between Atlantic and Pacific security in the 21st century, it is still not clear which role the Indo-Pacific partners will play in securing European allies from outside threats, and vice-versa. Still, even if there were no solutions, at least the principal actors were around the same table and the issue was high on the agenda.

The same could not be said, unfortunately, for the South. A summit session on the South and the security challenges stemming from Africa was scheduled for the final hours of the summit on Thursday morning, but by that time, leaders and the bulk of the press corps were already heading to the airport, as the key business had been completed. Not much percolated from the discussion and no new initiatives were announced. This is not because allies close to Africa across the Mediterranean have not tried to put the South higher up the agenda, particularly for a summit hosted in a Mediterranean member state. The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, pointed to the many security challenges that Spain is facing from Africa in his pre-summit interviews, as well as the need for more allies in northern and eastern Europe to become involved in these issues in the same way that they expect Spain to send its troops and aircraft to the Baltic states and Poland. He even evoked the possibility of a NATO intervention in Mali. He also emphasised that, just as NATO’s energy in the east has been driven by a deteriorating security situation, the South in its own way has also become more complex and challenging.

In the first place is the return of Russia as a player in African affairs. We are no longer talking about Ethiopia, Angola or Mozambique as during the days of the Soviet involvement in Africa during the Cold War. Today, the talk is more of Russia opening a military facility at Port Sudan, investing in Algeria as the country becomes more isolated in Africa over its stance on Western Sahara, resuming its arms sales to Egypt and sending its Wagner mercenaries across Africa as its agents of influence.

China would like to have a permanent presence on the west coast of Africa too, and is seeking to build a base in Equatorial Guinea

The Wagner Group has spread its tentacles beyond Syria and Libya to Mali, the Central African Republic and Burkina Faso. It offers military support and training, close protection for politicians and the protection of vital economic assets, such as oil refineries, gold, diamonds and precious metals mines, and transport hubs in exchange for a handsome share of the profits. Wagner does not put its host governments under pressure to respect human or minority rights nor to improve governance. Its availability has allowed the military putschists in Mali to ask the French to leave and to turn instead to Moscow for weapons and financial aid or grain and energy supplies. The EU has already imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group for human rights violations and illicit economic activities, and there have been reports that Russia has had to pull some Wagner mercenaries out of Africa to fight in Ukraine. Yet in Africa, as in Syria before, Moscow has demonstrated how a small injection of its forces into a conflict zone at the right moment, not bothered with nationbuilding or human security but only there to prop up the local regime, can have a disproportionate impact.

China is also spreading its wings in Africa. The Chinese military role on the continent started with some modest contingents in UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan. More recently, the Chinese have been seeking a more strategic role to underpin their considerable economic investments in African infrastructure under the One Belt, One Road initiative. According to Stephen Townsend, the US general at the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), China would like to have a permanent presence on the west coast of Africa too, and is seeking to build a base in Equatorial Guinea, the only former colonial possession of Spain in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, China has been using mainly its soft power in Africa, not just through its development aid and cheap communications devices and networks but also the delivery of COVID19 vaccines, some of which were offered for free, at a time when Western countries were prioritising their own populations and reserve supplies. China does not yet have its equivalent of the Wagner Group, but its growing military role may tempt Beijing to become more involved in Africa’s domestic conflicts, whether these are in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel region and Chad, or the standoff between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the fate of Western Sahara. This could complicate the efforts of the UN, EU and US to mediate.

In addition to the growing political and military influence of Russia and China in the South, NATO allies must contend with other challenges too. One isthe uptick in illegal migration and human smuggling as the restrictions on movement imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic are progressively lifted. In the weekend before the Madrid summit, hundreds of migrants stormed the fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Heavy police intervention was needed to quell the riot and 37 migrants were reported to have been killed, with many more injured. Many of the migrants came from Sudan, which is hardly surprising given that one third of the population of Sudan suffers from extreme hunger. The heavyhanded tactics used by the police on both the Moroccan and Spanish sides of the border has led to protest marches across Spain and even on a smaller scale in Morocco.

Persistent regional conflicts are exacerbating tensions between powers on different sides

Terrorism is also on the rise. Despite its two military operations in the Sahel stretching back to 2011(first Serval and then Barkhane), France was not able to drive Al Qaeda or ISIL-affiliated groups out of the region, depleting their ranks and killing many of their leaders. There are signs that these radical Islamist groups are now attempting to move south towards Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria. The UN reports that over 70% of all terrorist attacks today are taking place in sub-Saharan Africa. Africans are overwhelmingly the victims of these attacks but the targeting of Westerners and Western-owned properties and assets is part of these groups’ standard repertoire and will no doubt continue. If they manage to gain a permanent foothold in a territory, as appears to be the case in northern Mali, they may turn their attention to establishing cells and organising attacks in Europe or the US, as Al Qaeda did from Afghanistan before 9/11. In addition, persistent regional conflicts are exacerbating tensions between powers on different sides, as is currently the case with Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara.

The manner in which these fluid and complicated factors, including organised crime and terrorism or climate change and migration, might interact in the future is not easy to track and predict. Tipping points – specifically when these start to combine and pose a more immediate and direct threat to allied security – are hard to identify in advance yet easy to recognise in hindsight. Putin, one man in control of one country and with a single national army and declared set of territorial ambitions is, from a conceptual viewpoint at least, easier to grasp and deal with than the more grey zone and multi-actor threats emanating from Africa. This is no doubt another reason why the allies in Madrid devoted massively more time to the East than to the South. The roadmap for action, largely involving intervention on their own territory rather than someone else’s, was obviously clearer and easier to implement.

It is of course important to get security on the eastern flank right. Yet the problems in the South will still be there long after Putin has departed. NATO will need to flesh out a more coherent and focused strategy for the South sooner or later. In doing so, it doesn’t need to start from scratch as there are some past activities that the alliance can usefully build on. For instance, in 2017, NATO opened a Hub for the South at its Joint Forces Command in Naples. This was designed to function as an intelligence fusion centre and to increase its situation awareness and anticipation of security developments in the South. It also established a regional counter-terrorism training centre in Mauritania. Given Mauritania’s central role in cooperating with the alliance, it was a positive gesture that the foreign minister of this country was invited to a dinner with the NATO foreign ministers in Madrid.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO had started to look at ways it could support the G5 Sahel multinational counter-terrorism task force

Moreover, NATO intervened with its air forces in Libya in 2011 to halt the offensive of the former Libyan leader, Gaddafi, against the insurgent population of Benghazi. The alliance established a relationship with the African Union and sent a liaison mission to the AU headquarters at El Fashir in Ethiopia. NATO also assisted the UN by airlifting UN peacekeepers from Burundi to Somalia. It focused on advising the AU on how to set up its Standby Force for regional crisis management and peacekeeping. Later on, the alliance supported the EU during the EU’s Sophia maritime operation in the central Mediterranean to combat migrant smuggling.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO had started to look at ways it could support the G5 Sahel multinational counter-terrorism task force with equipment and logistics. Stoltenberg was openly talking up the prospect of NATO taking on training and defence capacitybuilding missions in Africa and the Middle East as the alliance completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not much has been heard about such missions since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but this track record, however disparate, suggests that NATO does have something to offer security in Africa.

As the alliance looks beyond its immediate concern with Ukraine and begins to give Africa a second look, it will be important to establish the right approach and framework from the outset.

The first step would be to initiate an EU-NATO dialogue on the South

In the first place, the EU must be in the lead. NATO will be too wary of more interventions after the failure of its operation in Afghanistan and too preoccupied with Russia in eastern Europe to be a major player in Africa. Moreover, the alliance’s image in Africa is not always positive due to criticism that NATO took out the Gaddafi regime in 2011 but did not follow up with a stabilisation force on the ground and did little to prevent the ensuing chaos. So the alliance’s perception of what it achieved for human rights and the UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect is not matched by the perception of Libya’s neighbours who had to deal with the upsurge of violence, armed militias and human trafficking inside Libya.

The EU has significantly more African experience than NATO, as most of its recent missions under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) have been in Africa, including the EU training missions in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and most recently, Mozambique. The EU has also coordinated national deployments of warships in the Gulf of Guinea to deter pirates’ attacks on commercial shipping. Its ability to combine military deployments with civilian assistance, governance and humanitarian projects, as it demonstrated during its Atalanta counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden from 2015 onwards, is also a major advantage over the more militaryfocused NATO. In its recently issued mission statement, the Strategic Compass, the EU states its intention to set up a 5,000troop brigade for rapid intervention, and this could be specifically configured for operations in the South, given that NATO already has its own Very High Readiness Joint Task Force ready for deployment in eastern Europe. However, the EU’s assets may be limited by the fact that a good portion – €1.5bn – of its recently established €5bn European Peace Facility has been spent on sending weapons to Ukraine, limiting what can be spent on the training and equipping of African forces.

So the first step would be to initiate an EU-NATO dialogue on the South to develop a common situational awareness and a joint threat assessment of security risks. A common alert and early warning system of impending crises could help to foster a faster and better coordinated response. The EU could also brief NATO more systematically on the progress of its EU CSDP missions to identify ways in which NATO could assist, for instance with airlift, satellite observation and intelligence, air and helicopter cover, emergency extraction and medical support on a contingency basis. This enhanced form of EU-NATO interaction could be a major plank of the third NATO-EU Joint Declaration, which is currently being negotiated between the two institutions and should appear soon, following up on the NATO Madrid summit.

The US, EU and NATO could form a contact group with these countries to organise exercises, fuse intelligence and assessments and reinforce border security

A clear objective must be to have greater US participation in African security. The US has AFRICOM in Stuttgart as a permanent tracking and planning mechanism for African contingencies. Every spring, it organises a training exercise with Morocco and other partners in the Maghreb and West Africa. During the Trump years, US interest in Africa declined substantially and the Pentagon withdrew its special forces from Niger and Somalia. The withdrawal of the forces, drones and aircraft from Niger particularly hurt the French, who were relying on these US assets to support their Barkhane operation in Mali. The Biden administration has fortunately shown more interest. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has toured Africa and the Pentagon is sending its troops back to Somalia. So Africa could usefully become a key topic of the bilateral US-EU defence dialogue that both sides agreed to set up outside NATO during their summit in Brussels in the spring of 2020. This dialogue has been slow in getting off the ground, holding its first meeting at ministerial level only in the spring of 2022; but the common security interest in facing up to the multiple challenges of Africa could certainly give it a boost and operational focus.

The next step is to work more closely with those African countries whose governments are more reliable partners for the West. This has definitely not been the case with the military putschists in Mali and Burkina Faso who have backtracked on promises to hold elections and return to civilian government. They have both turned against their erstwhile protector, France, and Mali recently withdrew from the G5 Sahel. The Central African Republic has also opened its door to Russia. Guinea experienced a military coup and Tunisia is moving in a much more authoritarian direction under President Kais Saied. So it seems to make more sense for Western allies to strengthen its ties instead to the more stable and pro-Western governments in Morocco, Ivory Coast, Niger, Chad, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria andMauritania.

The US, EU and NATO could form a contact group with these countries to organise exercises, fuse intelligence and assessments and reinforce border security. To facilitate these activities, a network of small, discreet military bases shared by Africans and Western special forces and air forces could be developed. As Mali has left the G5 Sahel, this contact group could find ways to support the four countries that are still in the task force and explore other ways to promote regional security cooperation, particularly in fighting terrorism and capacity-building. The Frenchsponsored European Intervention Initiative, which now brings together 10 European countries including the UK, Norway and the Baltic states, could usefully work with this contact group in order to exchange operational knowhow and experience and conduct joint operations. A Western African transatlantic contact group could also interact with other groups, most notably ECOWAS, which has launched peacekeeping interventions in the past, like Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and has recently imposed sanctions on Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea following their military coups. The assets of the contact group could be used to help implement these sanctions, especially in better border controls and aerial and space monitoring of movements on the ground.

The West could certainly use an AU Security Forum-type structure to push back against the Russian and Chinese disinformation narratives

Another idea is for the AU to establish an AU Security Forum modelled on the same lines as the Security Forum that ASEAN has been running for some years already in the Indo-Pacific region. This forum brings together ASEAN with leading outside powers to discuss ways of improving cooperation and developing joint approaches to the diplomatic and military challenges in the region. This AU Security Forum could work with the leading international think tanks in Africa, Europe and North America to organise a top-level annual security conference involving civil society and prominent academics and experts as part of a track two diplomatic dialogue. The role that the annual Munich Security Conference plays in linking the transatlantic security community to the wider worldor the manner in which the Shangri La conference in Singapore fosters an informal and more personal dialogue between potential adversaries in the Indo-Pacific are models that could be useful for African security too. Of course, there are security conferences in Africa, but they are mainly academic and do not sufficiently involve political and military leaderships, and they are on too small a scale to produce the degree of confidence building which is the objective here.

The West could certainly use an AU Security Forum-type structure to push back against the Russian and Chinese disinformation narratives that present all the problems of Africa as the fault of the West and try to excuse the Russian aggression against Ukraine by the precedent of NATO interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya – as if these could be placed on the same level.

These ideas and suggestions do not in themselves constitute a strategy for the South, but rather levers to get the conceptual ball rolling. There are bridges between NATO’s eastern flank strategy and its looming southern flank that need to be better explored. For instance, will Putin, blocked from further military and diplomatic advances on the eastern flank through the alliance’s enhanced deterrence actions, increasingly try to undermine alliance security instead through its ‘soft underbelly’ in the South?

Even without Russia and China stirring the pot, the challenges emanating from the South are already sufficiently serious to merit more sustained attention and a more coherent Western strategy. The inter-connections between the actions of individual leaders or specific groups and constituencies and transnational shockwaves, such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and rising energy costs, will need to be better analysed and understood. At its next summit, the alliance will no doubt still have Russia’s posture in the east and the implementation of its own defence responses uppermost on its agenda. Yet devoting at least 50% of its time and effort to tackling the challenges of the South would seem as wise as it will probably be inevitable. If Madrid was not such a bad vantage point after all to address the issues of the East, then NATO’s 2023 Summit destination, Vilnius, might serve just as nicely to take a deeper look at the South.

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