/ 12 March 2024

An intelligent look at war

Niger; Eye Of The Sahel Storm
Refugee blues: A Nigerian girl who fled Boko Haram violence with her family across the border into Niger. Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

If the name Eeben Barlow is familiar to you, you probably have an opinion about him.

Barlow is a professional military man who had led an active, and controversial, life both as a soldier and officer in the army of the former apartheid government and, for the past few decades, as founder in 1989 and head of a private mercenary company called Executive Outcomes.

I read most of what he writes, and Barlow is a prolific writer. His latest book Human Intelligence: Supporting Composite Warfare Operations in Africa looks at — from his point of view — something I often think of as an oxymoron: military intelligence. In Barlow’s case, it isn’t — he knows what he’s talking about. 

Most governments maintain a military intelligence capability. Military and civilian intelligence are meant to collaborate. Military intelligence is supposed to keep the generals a step ahead of their enemies.

Human Intelligence is a step-by-step guide on best practice, as well as debacles, in military intelligence. There are numerous reasons why armies in Africa have a deservedly bad reputation and Barlow delves into this by examining what are, in his view, classic failures. These can lead to massive civilian casualties, displacement and refugees, as well as international isolation and sanctions. 

Barlow is part of the old school of fighting the communists and socialists who are threatening the Western way of life (whatever that is). But he is astute enough to recognise that military intelligence in certain countries, notably the US, tends to dehumanise the local population in Africa, especially when it comes to training African officers on US bases. 

It’s important to recall that all recent military coups in Africa have been carried out by US-trained African officers. One must ask what they are taught during these sessions. I don’t believe Barlow falls into this category of trainer.

I should, at the outset, explain why I read these sorts of books. I work in conflict zones and fragile states to assist in combatting violent extremism as well as preparing for development, which includes the reinsertion of combatants into civil society. 

My approach is to use dialogue rather than military means. Conflicts exist for many reasons. One is the inability or lack of effort by one side to understand the concerns of the other. Let’s look at a specific case — Boko Haram.

The uninformed assume this is a bunch of religious zealots who want to murder, kidnap and steal as a means of pursuing their goal of overthrowing governments in the Lake Chad region, particularly Nigeria. This is true only of a very small number of people who join the insurgency. 

A far larger number join groups such as Boko Haram because they are afraid, desperate, poor and hungry. The fear is often due to having fallen victim to military aggression. The poverty and hunger are usually due to their plight having been ignored, usually for decades, by the elected officials officially mandated to look after the electorate.

Barlow knows north-eastern Nigeria well. Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan appeared to have had little interest in what Boko Haram was doing in Borno State until elections drew near. Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari was ahead in the polls, and likely to take the densely populated north. 

In a last-ditch attempt to appear to care about the north, Jonathan, knowing that his poorly trained, equipped and motivated army stood little chance of defeating Boko Haram before election time, discreetly brought in Executive Outcomes for a clean-up operation. It did the work at night; the Nigerian army took the credit during the day. 

In the end, Boko Haram was not defeated, it simply extended its operations to the neighbouring states of Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Jonathan lost the election. The fight to destroy Boko Haram continues. 

Was this a failure of military intelligence? I don’t think so. Politicians and the military alike know where Boko Haram is and why it exists. I think Barlow would agree there is enough military intelligence available to get rid of extremist groups. It’s the desire that’s missing.

As Barlow understands, in zones of conflict and instability, the national armed forces are often part of the problem rather than the solution. Outfits such as Executive Outcomes — and there are many — would have few opportunities for employment if militaries, security forces and their bosses, the politicians, had peace, stability, and prosperity as goals. 

Human Intelligence is unlikely to be a bestseller. Its target audience is not large — military analysts who, in a best-case scenario, are working with their civilian counterparts. 

I’m sure Barlow is aware such co-operation is often less than balanced. A spate of recent coups on the continent indicate intelligence gathered by the military was used for their own benefit, rather than helping to keep civilian governments in power.

Cover For Human Intelligence

A case in point — what until recently appeared to be the best functioning regional organisation, the Economic Community of West African States, appears to be on the verge of collapse, having lost three of its members to coups: Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. This is tasty fodder for mercenary groups.

The Art of War author Sun Tzu said full knowledge of the enemy is necessary. Barlow seems to understand this. But the “enemy” isn’t always the enemy. Politics often negates intelligence.

The lay person is not going to understand much more about military intelligence after reading this book. It is a textbook for those in the business but it is not in the author’s interests to give too much away. The most interesting anecdote is about an employee at the US embassy in Pretoria. To find out more, read it!

There are numerous elements of the book that are interesting, including how governments, the military and elements of civil society should work together concerning information sharing. All this is fine — providing the intentions are good. 

If I were to give Barlow advice, I’d suggest he use his considerable knowledge to help the military and journalists better understand how they can work together to achieve noble goals, rather than, as is usually the case, see each other as enemies.

A dummies’ guide to the lengths to which governments will go to gather intelligence can be found in the entertaining TV series The Bureau. I have yet to come across anything produced for the public that comes as close to removing to cover of glamour that comes with popular perceptions of the spy industry. 

It’s also a reminder of former French president Charles de Gaulle’s words: “Countries don’t have friends, they have interests.” This is the key to understanding intelligence. All is fair in love and war. There are no rules. 

This could be extended to say the military doesn’t have friends in civilian circles, only useful contacts. Military intelligence is only as good as those who have access to it and what they decide to do with it, if anything.

• David L Smith, executive director of Okapi Consulting, has worked on media projects in conflict zones in Africa for decades. In his work, he encounters people in the military who could make much better use of intelligence, as well as those who use it for nefarious purposes. He views the military as part of the solution and part of the problem. Military intelligence should be used to help get rid of the problematic aspect.

Human Intelligence is published by 30 Degrees South Publishers.