South Africa should have heeded Black Hawk Down

Nearly 20 years ago, in October 1993, the hunt for the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid led to the Battle of Mogadishu – 18 American soldiers and one Malaysian dead, 73 Americans wounded and the deaths of as many as 1000 Somali militia and civilians.


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This event, made famous by the harrowing 2001 movie Black Hawk Down, also killed Operation Restore Hope, the United States’s bid aimed at bringing stability and humanitarian relief to the Horn of Africa nation. US troops were withdrawn soon after the Mogadishu disaster. In the aftermath, then-president Bill Clinton ordered a review of US policies and programmes, hoping to develop a comprehensive policy framework suited to a post-Cold War world. This became presidential decision directive 25, released in May 2004, which imposed a new discipline on decision-making for US involvement in UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations.

Fast forward two decades and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has just had its own Black Hawk Down moment in the Central African Republic (CAR). Its mission there has never been clear and it went badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 13 soldiers, the wounding of another 27 and (we are informed, apparently as confirmation of our soldiers’ bravery) as many as 700 of their opponents, members of the rebel coalition Seleka, dead.

The Somali episode epitomised the African guerrilla operation: centred on tribal or clan structures, operating in urban as well as rural areas, heavily armed and working alongside humanitarian and international organisations, while existing because of (and contributing to) a collapsed state environment. This is pretty similar to the Seleka rebels, now the government, that the SANDF faced in Bangui.


Apparently Pretoria knew, or at least hoped for, better. But its lack of war experience is telling. For South Africa’s foreign policy is essentially about not doing what the West stands for. Pretoria apparently hopes to engineer a more favourable global system on Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) foundations but, in the interim, this puts South Africa at something of a disadvantage – it’s the only Brics country with an interest in making peace in Africa. Also none of the Brics is, for example, directly involved militarily in the most complex contemporary nation-building-cum-peace-support operation today – Afghanistan. Had it been involved, South Africa would, first, have acquired leverage to use in Africa (a down payment to be among those who make the rules) and, second, it could have learned a lot that would have helped in the CAR.

Afghanistan offers South Africa several lessons.

Conflicting accounts
At the outset, it is critical to be absolutely clear about your mission. There are, at best, conflicting accounts of what the SANDF was sent to the CAR to do.

Unity of purpose across the force is vital and unity of command essential. Neither was achieved in the CAR, with fragmented local commands and various interveners ­operating with different goals.

This is linked to the need for effective command and control (C2), followed by good logistics. If they are inadequate and poorly arranged, it does not matter how good a contingent is at the operating level. Omar Bradley, the American World War II general, noted that “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics”. Or, as General Sir David Richards, the current British chief of defence staff, who commanded ISAF IX (the international security assistance force) in Afghanistan in 2006-2007, has observed: “With my experience of modern coalition ops, I say professionals talk C2 first, logistics second and tactics third.”

Predeployment training needs to be repeated, with demanding dress rehearsals. Units need to be capable of combined arms operations. The assumption at the start must be that it will be a tough fight. Peace enforcement is not peacekeeping. Too many contingents assume these missions will be easy. On the contrary, it’s a war.

There is also a need to know your enemy – and never ever underestimate their adaptability and motivation, as with the Taliban and the CAR rebels. Such an understanding is built on sound intelligence, not just of an operational nature but also one that offers a strategic picture of regional actors, group objectives and capabilities, plus network relationships and their morale.

Medical capabilities have also developed in Afghanistan, ramming home the importance of the wounded reaching top theatre care within the first “golden hour” of trauma. The South African contingent in the CAR reportedly had a medic with a rucksack.

Afghanistan also teaches that air power, especially in logistical support, wins battles. Begging safe passage and hitching a ride home should not be a necessity. If the Rooivalk attack helicopter was not to be used to bolster the South Africans in Bangui, then what is its purpose, except to loop the loop at air shows?

Other forms of offensive support, including artillery, remain important assets. So is the need for developed intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (Istar) capacity. But most African contingents have, as one Western military officer put it, “woeful” Istar and C2. South African intelligence was obviously either a catastrophic failure in the CAR or it was not supplied. If it was and was accurate, it was not understood or heeded.

Volatile situation
It is also imperative to get troop densities correct, even in a peacekeeping operation. Without that, you are simply sacrificing your forces. Although Nato-led forces in Afghanistan have enjoyed little more than half of the desired 20:1000 (ration of soldiers to population) counterinsurgency ratio and far less than the 32:1000 of the Soviets in the 1980s, inserting 320 soldiers to conduct a “training” mission and guard a president in a volatile situation, with a CAR population of 4.5-million and an estimated 3000 Seleka rebels, was exceptionally risky.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, any military solution can only be to create opportunities for a political solution. Without that, it is all a waste of time. Co-ordination with local and other foreign forces (including national departments, those dispensing aid or engineering services) is critical. It does not look as if mediation was attempted at all in the CAR. If it was, it failed dismally.

But various accounts indicate that the force in the CAR, among the best of South African soldiers, acquitted themselves remarkably well in the situation, despite being where they probably should not have been and despite the lack of organisational support. They lacked the basic equipment to do the job and had limited logistics back-up; they were dependent, for example, on emergency ration packs for survival. The lack of air support – for firepower, supply and tactical withdrawal – suggests an inexcusable degree of military illiteracy.

Forgetting what one experienced South African soldier has described as “the dubious wisdom” of deploying in the CAR on a bilateral basis rather than as part of an integrated multinational effort, this disaster is, at base, a result of cutting the defence budget dangerously, while at the same time volunteering for more continental commitments: South Africa will probably be part of the new UN-sanctioned “intervention force” in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For some time, there have been danger signals of declining capacity in the SANDF, related to the shortage of operational funding, the absence of suitable aircraft and poor intelligence – so notable in Operation Boleas in Lesotho in 1998, which resulted in 11 SANDF deaths, and again in Darfur in 2006, when 32 South African soldiers were ambushed and their weapons captured. There is also the general unsuitability of much of the current cohort, principally because of age – the average age of our soldiers is just too high. This also helps to explain why there are, today, more reservists (2200 of 20000) than regular troops (77 000) on operational missions.

If the government did place soldiers in the CAR with unclear strategic objectives for a lengthy period without sufficient armoured transport and air support and without due regard for these needs (from intelligence and medical services to command and control), it was taking unnecessary risks with its own blood and treasure.

Recovery from this tragic embarrassment will not depend on the ejection of the Bangui putschists but in preventing, as with the Black Hawk Down episode, a recurrence. That outcome, rather than singling out instances of individual or unit bravery, would signal a national victory.

Dr Greg Mills is the co-author, with David Williams, of the best-selling Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa and was an adviser to ISAF IX in 2006. He has had three subsequent assignments in Afghanistan

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