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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Africa has been at war with itself for centuries.  

I believe that this is not likely to end within the short or even the medium term. There are numerous reasons for this continued state of conflict and it will not lessen, no matter how hard the outside world wishes it to as there are many agendas that drive this continued state of conflict.   

Many countries on the African continent have faced numerous types of warfare in the past – and will face similar – or expanded - threats in the future. Over decades, the continent has witnessed hot wars as well as cold wars – all aimed at achieving political-ethnical, tribal, religious, economical and even criminal goals. Countries will go to war with one another over water, food, resources, territorial disputes and so forth. Others will use proxy forces to achieve their aims and ambitions. Some will resort to the tactics of terror to achieve their aims. But they all have one common aim: Power. 

This places the senior command cadre of the African armed forces in a position of having to contend with both regional and domestic political, social and military matters.

The threats that governments in Africa face are diverse, multi-layered and complex. Countering these threats, therefore, extends beyond the normally accepted role of the armed forces. This requires military strategists and planners to have access to intelligence as well as foresight and vision (based on sound intelligence) of the geo-political and military developments in the region. If they cannot “see over the hill”, they will be caught unawares by what comes down the valley.

In the African context, the armed forces are an instrument of not only foreign policy but also of domestic policy. Therefore, to conduct effective military operations, the armed forces must be organised, trained, postured and correctly equipped and prepared for deployments and actions both within and/or beyond the country’s borders. These actions must cover the ambit of Military Operations Related to War (MORW), Military Operations other than War (MOOTW) and also Military Intelligence Operations (MIOs).

Most African armies are structured along the lines of the old colonial armies, ie sections, platoons, companies, battalions and so forth. Whereas this structure gives some continuity to the rotation of units and sub-units, it is in my opinion, not the type of structure that is entirely valid for Africa.  Added to this are numerous fractured colonial-era doctrines mainly unsuitable for war and conflict in Africa. In turn, this hampers the operational effectiveness of the armed forces more than is given cognisance to.

With few exceptions, most wars in Africa tend to be so-called small wars. Most African armies tend to be “conventional heavy” with little emphasis given to unconventional warfare units. The terrain in many countries is unsuitable for mechanised and armoured warfare. Where terrain allows it and the infrastructure exists, these units tend to be mainly road-bound, making them easy targets for ambushes and IEDs.

I am not advocating that African armies do away with their conventional units. These units need to be kept but reduced in size to make them more efficient fighting units. Conventional units remain important as African armed forces must be able to carry out multiple missions in order to give the government options.

However, in containing future wars and conflicts, I believe the time has come for African armies to seriously assess the validity of small war units, ie unconventional forces capable to operating in smaller sized units with sufficient helicopter support to sustain deployments, conduct air assaults and the leap-frogging of units as well as conduct casevac missions. Where necessary, terrain permitting, they must be supported by mechanised and armoured units. Close air support using sophisticated strike aircraft may have a significant role to play in a conventional clash of arms but in most unconventional operations, soldiers need slower low-flying aircraft to provide close air support.

Nations don’t need a military that can only do one mission at a time. They need a military that can conduct multiple missions to give the nation’s leaders and general officers as many options as possible. To achieve this, there needs to be a carefully assessed balance between conventional units and unconventional units, this balance being guided primarily by the threat and the terrain.

However, a lack of focus on both the enemy and the political objectives that need to be attained will result in a strategic failure.

What remains a fact is that wars will continue in Africa and the armed forces of African governments will need to carefully asses their future missions and responses. They will also need to reassess the structure, training and equipping of their armed forces.

Until this balance is achieved, many conflicts and wars in Africa will simply continue to simmer.


Unknown said...

hi Eeben. smaller more mobile units are logical as opposed to a marauding horde the size of a batallion crashing through the underbrush alerting enemy units miles in advance , almost like the zulus rampaging over the fields towards the british troops circa 1850`s in kwa zulu natal. smaller units move quicker and with less tell tale signs giving them away. the only problem that africa faces is the general lack of discipline among the indigenous soldiers necessitating batallion mindset to try and keep them in line.
south africa had possibly the only small groups/ units/ sticks made up of both black and white operators that could work autonomously without running amok in villages and torching houses and raping women which has become a norm almost throughout africa. even our "brothers" up north in libya practice marauding tactics as opposed to the way more practical approach of hearts and minds.

african armies need a radical change to their overall standard operating procedures, till that elusive day comes the civilians will continue to bear the brunt of hooliganism and war crimes, this is not endemic to africa only but it seems that when it comes to callous cruelty, africa have perfected the art of war so to speak.

what EO did in angola and sierra leone is a perfect example of dedicated, disciplined smaller units getting the job done without involving the civilian population. i recently listened to a guy wax lyrical about how fantastic UNITA are and were and how they were a shining light they were. i sat there in silence and just thought, "if only this clown knew the truth". its amazing how many dudes in their mid thirties all seemed to have been in 32BN and the recces. i do a quick back calculation and deduce that these weekend warriors were about 14 when they went on the "ops" they talk about.

even america is opting for smaller specialised units as opposed to batallion sized groups to engage dissidents.
thanks Eeben. mike da silva book nr 32.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Hi Mike,

Yes, smaller units can be more effective and efficient IF the doctrine is correct. However, simply creating smaller units without the required doctrine and training is a recipe for disaster.

I do not agree entirely with your comment about a general lack of discipline. Some African armies are very disciplined but of course, there are those that are not. Sadly, what South Africa had many years ago is nothing other than a distant memory now and cannot even begin to compare re training and discipline of the SADF of old but that is another story.

Ironically, many armies that appear to lack discipline are those that have received a lot of foreign government-backed “training”. I do not want to point fingers but I have been witness to the pathetic training and the results.

As for UNITA: That just shows how well the old SA government ran its propaganda operations. Those who praise the UNITA of old never bore witness to the mass atrocities it committed. Nor do they really know the history of that organisation. But then again, many so-called specialists on UNITA were simply mouthing off propaganda aimed at boosting a terrorist organisation and their own egos. UNITA of today is, I am told, much more moderate and politically astute.

Many of those that missed the war either because they were politically well-connected or too young to be part of it make many false claims today. They just need to be confronted once in company to stop them shooting off their mouths. I have done it and it works.



Unknown said...

I sat and listened to a guy waffle on about EO and his "job" supposedly in the company. He made many errors. I just got up and walked off and sat elsewhere. One of the people sitting there then told this walter mitty that i had worked for EO. The dude quickly finished his drink and left. You are right about our military, its a far cry from what it used to be. Discipline, training and honour make good soldiers.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Good on you for exposing the man, Mike.

To your “Discipline, training and honour...” I would add pride, confidence and responsibility.



Alex said...

Hi Eeben,

Very interesting article. I have on occasion wondered why so many African militaries seem so set in the ways of the 'colonial' structures, but I guess it's now so ingrained in their thinking that it will be hard to break out of. It's ironic, and sad, that since the SADF once contained 'probably the best bush-fighters in the world' (I'm quoting - or possibly slightly mis-quoting - a source I used in my research on the topic) that knowledge has been allowed to die out. I'm tempted to draw a parallel with the European and North American armies 'forgetting' tactics such as special forces and sniping after WWII once they 'no longer needed' it.

As for politics and strategy, once African countries have mastered the military strategy, infrastructure and other means necessary to control their own territory, I imagine it will become much harder a) for various rebel groups (LRA, Al-Shabaab etc etc) to control such swathes of the continent, with all their attendant horrors and b) for foreign powers interested in the resources of Africa to dictate transaction terms to suit their own foreign and economic policies.

How to go about achieving these changes I'm afraid I must entrust to people with minds and understanding greater than my own. The tactics practised by the SADF and others (and later EO) have been proven to work, so why no one now seems to be practicing them is beyond me.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Hi Alan,

You are quite correct – when thinking becomes so entrenched it takes a definite mindset to change it. However, some armies are now realising how they have been hoodwinked and led up the garden path so it is changing albeit slowly.

We who served in the SADF considered ourselves the best – but which army doesn’t? But, there was so much knowledge and experience in the SADF that has gone to waste. Very few armies wanted to listen to what we had to say as it was not “politically correct” to listen to us bad people. What they failed to realise is that much of their propaganda against the SADF blew back at them and they believed it. Fortunately, some African armies are beginning to realise this as well and are looking towards us helping them redevelop certain things for them. They have had enough BS fed to them to now realise that they have been purposely tricked.

The same applies to EO and the knowledge and experience it brought to bear. Again, EO became something that scared certain foreign governments as it was disrupting their negative political agendas. I say this because I know it to be true and not something I am saying because I am bitter and twisted. In fact, the contrary as it showed many governments who were actually trying to destabilise them. But such is the nature of politics.

However, if African governments do not start refining and redeveloping their grand strategies, their military strategies will lag behind allowing them to be caught off-guard.



simon said...

Great article on the context of conflict in Africa. To what extent do you think that foreign advisors are essential for the growth of African Armies? On the ground in real time are there soldiers and commanders that are growing without being in a patron/client relationship with the Western Powers? Do you believe that indigenous tribes can find an effective internal and decisive African way of War to meet the objectives needed to put an end to many of the conflicts. Or is the lack of resources and corruption so great that left to themselves, it will continue on as always?

Nyi Myint said...


I agree, we are radically rethinking armed conflict. Most modern armies are hesitant to transform to the realities of asymmetric warfare. Most nations can muster the requisite "hardware" to decisively win a tactical battle, in the end it becomes a strategic loss. As much as soldiers deplore reporters and the media "spin," it is the reality of modern combat.

Win the media, win the war.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Foreign advisors that have a genuine desire to impart skills and knowledge to African armies can have a very positive role to play, Simon. It is when they come with double agendas and a desire to impart as little skill and knowledge as possible – and in the process actually undermine the efficiency of African armies that they are not an asset but indeed a hindrance to progress.

I have recently witnessed numerous soldiers and commanders that are positively growing in their careers. They are becoming non-partisan and much more politically astute – the hallmarks of a professional soldier who serves the country and not a political party. That in itself is very positive.

Yes, they can find a way. I have been very privileged to assist in developing doctrine and being privy to military strategies for some armies and there is a major change in approach and outlook.

Africa’s curse is its abundance of natural resources. Being super rich in terms of resources makes it ironic that the continent remains poor. There are many reasons for this but corruption is not limited to Africa. It was not Africa that led the current economic collapse or created the banking scares we are seeing. Of course, corruption will continue but I suspect it will decline with time.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The media can be a very effective tool in mustering support for the armed forces and raising the morale of the nation, Superman.

However, given my past experiences with the media, I disagree somewhat with your comment “Win the media, win the war”. I would rather “expose the media and win the war” as many so-called journalists have very definite double agendas and appear to use their positions to fan the flames of conflict. It is these people who give journalism and the media a bad reputation and actually provide the enemy with a propaganda mouthpiece.

I am pleased to see that many African armies are radically rethinking armed conflict. After all, their role is to uphold their constitutions and do so with honour and pride in their profession.



Unknown said...

i have a general distrust for the media in general. it has become clear that journalists are seemingly no longer happy with reporting facts as they happen objectively. instead many adopt the sensationalist approach and create scoops so as to ensure funding and fame.
a good example would be the journalists that smeared EO back in 1993, when they printed absolute tripe and must have known it to be crap but they still went ahead and propogated fantastic mental gymnastics. what they (the journo`s) dont seem to comprehend is that by printing tripe they could very well be adding to the destabilisation of the area and put mens lives at risk. we werent exactly best "kanonies" (pals) with the angolans back in 1993 and irresponsible journalism could quite easily have left a lot of men in harms way.

the media is an invaluable tool if utilised correctly and those that are reporting are simply reporting the facts and not fantasy so as to sell more news papers. many of these unsubstantiated reports are usually from "anonymous" sources and i seriously doubt that it is to protect the source but to protect the journalist who if he made his source public would most likely be the laughing stock.( case in point, the clown who made way out claims about our dinner routines and what was on the menu)

africa is a complex place that is desperately trying to live in the 21st century but is still hanging onto their old tribal mindsets. the continent is rich as you have said but yet africa is in poverty. someone wants it like that. it is not easy walking into a stable country and economy, but it is a doddle to cruise into a country at war and take advantage of the abundant resources right there under their feet.

look at the poo that is flying in somalia today, the red cross are being chucked out by al shabaab hoodlums because someone told them that the red cross is handing out food that is past its date. i wonder who leaked that little nugget to the terrorists? my money is on a self ingratiating sensationalist journalist who has not considered the effects of his idiocy. 1 million people are being fed by the aid agencies, who the hell is going to feed them now? rice that "expired" last month is still better than starving to death in the streets of the capital city.

joutnalism has become prostituted, thats my very humble opinion and 5 cents worth. mike da silva

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You are quite correct Mike, they have a role to play if they act responsibly and report objectively. Sadly many journalist have NO desire to do so and the effect of some of the reporting certainly puts people who are trying to make a difference in grave danger.

“Anonymous sources” seems to me to be a synonym for lies.

Africa is trying to master its complexity. It may get there one day. But as long as outside powers and interests interfere in a negative manner and along with the media promote conflict, it will be kept in limbo.

The rice story you mention proves the point.



John said...

Good Evening Eeben,

Very interesting post, and some brilliant comments back in.
In regards to reducing the unit sizes to something more suited to the tactical environment are we maybe just seeing a natural progression back towards a more fractured political structure not being able to support large conventional armies anyway? It seems the old colonial structure was really geared towards keeping up with your neighbors (with good cause during the cold war) as a deterent. The large armies and maneauvers did not seem to get used in sub-saharan Africa anyway.
Will we see a gradual erosion, due to constant conflict, of African army structures if the political/industrial structure erodes? Just thinking is all - I may be way off base, so I am just asking.
My belief is that massive intercontinental land/sea warfare may be gone due to the effectiveness of modern weaponry - leading to far more compact combat strucutres suited for small scale violence. Large scale conflicts look like they are going the cyber route with attacks on infrastructure.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I always enjoy the comments John, as well as learn from them.

No, I don’t think it is because of fractured political systems being unable to maintain large armies. I think it is more a matter of realising that the European-model of warfare does not necessarily apply as a template for warfare in Africa.

The old colonial armies were an attempt to mirror-image the armies of the home countries. The focus was however possible war in Europe and thus a different focus. I also don’t think that African armies will be eroded due to political actions. Currently, they serve as a counter-balance to hostile neighbours’ armies.

Africa has never pushed a large navy to sea. In fact, most sea bordering African countries have very small navies as the main threats have always been perceived as land-bound. Where navies do exist, they are mainly used for sea patrols with a very limited offensive capability to support land forces. So here in Africa the majority of conflicts involve land engagements.

As for large scale conflicts – I fear that Africa will one day become the battleground for war between West and East. Therefore, I do not think that the era of large conventional land battles is totally gone. I am thus not advocating to “down-size” the armies, I am saying they ought to take a long hard look at what is really required and train and equip accordingly.



Zach said...

Hi, I am a political science student studying in San Francisco. I recently took a rather uninformative course on strategy and war. One of the many I have on this subject which that class failed to answer is as follows:

What is the decision making process like with regards to the use of unconventional military forces?

To give that some context: I am an American and our current and previous presidents have had very different approaches to the issue of war and how they deal with specific threats. George W. Bush preferred large scale drawn out conventional combat. In essence his strategy was based on taking control of a land mass, displacing the current authority and replacing it with his own until such a time as a suitable domestic authority could be created, matured, and subsequently enthroned.

Obama on the other hand has preferred the use of special forces units and targeted killings such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden and certain other individual thought to be leaders of insurgent/combatant organizations.

With that said the meat of the question is this: what factors into this decision? Is it a cost-benefit analysis based simply on cost of life or is there a more subtle moral question which these individuals grapple with when choosing which strategy to follow. It seems to me more likely that the strategy that they choose has something to do with the desired outcome, if that is the case would assassinating Sadaam and a significant portion of the ruling party have had the same result?

I have tried to omit any of my political opinions from this query, if I have not succeeded I apologize.I stumbled across your blog for the first time today and after reading about your professional history on Wikipedia it seems to me that you are in a much better position to have insight on this issue this than I do. Thank you very much for your time.

Zach S.E.

John said...

Good Evening Eeben,

Thanks you for your insight. I do hope you are wrong about a major conflict between East and West in the African continent. I do wonder though if we are seeing a telltale with more western armies going over to smaller, more agile thinking units as a prelude to a major conflict precursor in Africa. There are many small stories about events throughout that we see here.

Hope all is well,

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

A good question, Zack. Lectures on strategy can be boring and uninformative if the lecturer does not really have the knowledge to present his subject. I am lucky that I had very good teachers who kept us questioning every detail.

There are several factors that determine the feasibility of a strategy and its subsequent course of action or a design for battle. Whereas I list only some of these and not in any order of priority, the main considerations, in my opinion, are:

1. Desired outcome(s) – this is derived from both the political and the military strategies
2. The enemy – what he looks like, what he has, etc, etc
3. The Terrain and weather conditions/influence
4. What do we have to achieve the outcome in terms of assets
5. Sustainability

As you know, wars are fought on 4 distinct yet inter-related levels:

1. Political (we often don’t like to consider this level)
2. Strategic
3. Operational
4. Tactical

I am in no position to comment on US military strategy. That said, I too wonder sometimes at why a specific route has been followed. But, I suspect that the US also needs to show muscle to others who may be considering crossing its path in a hostile manner. Regardless, the decision is made at one of the 4 above levels.

The land invasion of certain targets is often undertaking to show this strength especially if the enemy has a large army. Nothing wrong with that approach. However, if there is an intelligence failure, it can lead to what might appear to be a quick ground war being bogged down into a war of attrition and a civilian uprising.

The role of Special Forces in executing quick, small-scale missions is well known. These forces are invaluable when a ground war cannot be accomplished due to numerous reasons ie being over-stretched, the target is located in an ally’s country, the terrain hampers the use of larger forces, the reach of forces must be demonstrated, etc, etc.

I hope I have been able to answer a small part of your question.

Good luck with your studies.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I too hope I am wrong John but all indications show that it is coming. It may not be a great big conventional war but there will be conflicts fanned by both sides to ensure their interests are safeguarded.

It is very apparent that many countries are sending so-called training teams to Africa as ways of cementing bonds and also assessing terrain. Only the future will tell which way this will go.

However, I cannot see peace breaking out in Africa over the short to medium term.



Unknown said...

hi Eeben, you suggest a war between east and west is possibly brewing and will be fed by the two sides here on the african continent. i would like to know who the east are?
during the cold war it was predominantly the soviets and their pact countries grandstanding against predominantly the americans and their mainly european nato affiliates.
will the east in this instance be made up of predominantly the chinese and the north koreans?
the russians it seems are too caught up in their own quagmires in the old soviet states and have become too capitalistic to be considered an "eastern threat".
the chinese have steam rolled across africa in a big way and are even busy in namibia.
will it be america and the uk against the chinese and north koreans?

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I regard the East as much as it was during the Cold War Mike, but with the inclusion of the Indian subcontinent as well as countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Just as the traditional West has training teams (military and PMCs) in Africa, so too do the Chinese and North Koreans have them in Africa.

We are already witnessing warfare by political means – and it will escalate in order to safeguard foreign interests of both East and West. Added to that is the amount of proxy forces wandering around – and be sure that they too will increase in size. Someone is supporting them, either directly or indirectly.

I don’t think we will shortly witness strategic offensives carried out by either East or West but we can expect an escalation in conflict, especially in West and Central Africa. However, we are seeing strategic involvement as was evident recently in West Africa and North Africa - such actions being aimed at regime change.

We will have to see who blinks first.



Zach said...

Much thanks Eeben,

It wasn't so much that the professor bored me as that he failed to teach me anything, he seemed to have his criticisms of specific battles and the tactics used in them pretty well figured out but he didn't seem to derive any lessons from the mistakes he was happy to point out. What really frustrated me (as a Political Science student) was his inability to address the process that leads to war, namely the politics of the situation (which since the class was listed as Poli Sci is really unforgivable) he explained in the simplest of terms how power distribution leads to conflicts and coalitions but only in the mathematical sense. Lastly he failed to provide us with any principles of strategy or decision making, your five factors and four principles are a far better explanation than we received over the course of a semester. Anyway, I didn't want to rant about my professor, I just wanted to express my gratitude, thanks for picking up his slack Eeben.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You are very welcome, Zach.

I am pleased that I may have been able to offer some insight into the subject. I find strategy fascinating and as I mentioned before, I have had good teachers.