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NATO in Africa


Lieutenant Colonel William T. Van Atten, US Marines.

NATO’s first foray onto the African continent began in July 2005. At the African Union’s request, NATO agreed to provide logistical support to the then fledgling peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region of Sudan, called the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). NATO’s objectives were to provide only those support services which were specifically requested by the African Union in order to respect the leading role that the African Union plays in solving African problems. In order to refine the requirement, NATO dispatched a Colonel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to conduct day-to-day liaison with the African Union, principally through their Darfur Integrated Task Force. This post was named the Senior Military Liaison Officer (SMLO) and has been sustained on a continuous basis in Addis Ababa ever since its establishment. NATO has found this presence very useful for incrementally developing a working relationship with the African Union and providing a consistent “face of NATO”. Another basic tenet of NATO’s relationship with the African Union is that all activities have been coordinated with the European Union and the United Nations in Brussels and New York City, respectively, as well as through both organization’s regional offices in Addis Ababa. It was discovered early on that, quite often, assistance is not limited by a lack of willing donors but by the African Union’s capacity to absorb the assistance effectively. The United Nations is particularly well suited to serve as the clearinghouse for assistance offers and their UNMIS office in Addis Ababa has served this purpose well. Due to the local sensitivities about Western influence in African matters, even small activities can take on strategic political/military significance. All NATO support activities have been initiated with political communiqués, either in writing or in the course of face-to-face meetings. In order to support and coordinate NATO activities at the political level, Norway volunteered the use of their embassy in Addis Ababa to facilitate NATO’s ambassadorial activities. The Norwegian embassy has facilitated countless high-level meetings between NATO’s ambassador and his colleagues both in the African Union and other Alliance nation embassies. This careful political precursor ensures that African Union requirements are met in an appropriate and timely fashion, as well as ensuring that NATO capabilities and intentions are well understood by the political leadership of the African Union. Following a fruitful political discourse, the SMLO is able to begin the detailed coordination with both civilian and military counterparts in the African Union or the Darfur Integrated Task Force. Following this model, NATO has successfully delivered airlift assistance for five rotations of African Union peacekeepers supporting AMIS. This has been, by far, the most significant contribution that NATO has made. The provision of airlift support begins with an African Union request to NATO Headquarters detailing their airlift requirements. NATO then conducts a deconfliction meeting with the European Union to determine which organization will take responsibility for each airlift serial. NATO then forwards the request to Alliance nations through the National Military Representatives at the Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers Europe asking them to donate airlift resources. Donor nations respond and indicate which African troop contributing country they wish to assist. Some African nations, like Nigeria, only require funds that they subsequently use to fly their own aircraft. Other nations, like Rwanda, require an aircraft to be provided, which will deliver their troops and equipment. Contracted civilian carriers have been the most popular option. Military strategic lift aircraft have been used when necessary to move heavy equipment, like armored personnel carriers. Using these procedures, NATO has been attributed with transporting 32,300 personnel at en estimated value of approximately 17 million euros. The European Union has transported an additional 6,000 personnel. Additional NATO assistance has consisted principally of staff capacity building in various fields. One activity consisted of two personnel who were posted to the Darfur Integrated Task Force’s Information Analysis Cell in Addis Ababa. They instructed African Union staff officers on how to process, record, analyze, and report on intelligence information received from their field activities in Darfur. Another NATO effort consisted of developing the African Union’s capability to collect and document lessons learned from the Darfur peacekeeping operation. This effort was focused on facilitating the transfer of authority from the African Union to the hybrid United Nations and African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). NATO derived many cultural and practical lessons from dealing with the African Union. The first is that there is very little understanding in Africa of what NATO is and what they have to offer. As a result, there is some skepticism that must be overcome with patient discussion. It is vital to tailor assistance, especially training packages, to African Union needs. That tailoring can only be achieved by a detailed understanding of the requirement. This typically means conducting one or more visits to the intended training audience to gain an in-depth knowledge of what they need, how it will be employed, with whom it will be used, and most importantly, how to make it last. Although the upper echelons of the African Union organization do not change hands very frequently, the more junior staff positions tend to rotate rapidly, thus requiring an organic capability to reproduce the training. Organizations that provide training should be prepared to return in relatively short order to repeat the syllabus for a fresh set of faces. NATO’s future assistance to the African Union is going through a period of change. The onset of UNAMID has shifted some of the Darfur responsibilities from the African Union to the United Nations. NATO’s established mainstay for African assistance has been the provision of airlift. The United Nations has their own well established system to provide this service, so this has sent NATO looking for other ways to develop their nascent working relationship with the African Union. NATO has an ongoing agreement to provide airlift assistance for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and to provide assistance with an African Union study of the readiness of their African Standby Force brigades. The development of the African Standby Force is viewed as a critical enabler to enhance the African Union’s ability to respond to regional crises. It is also a good match to what NATO aims to provide as a global security organization. As a result, and again at the request of the African Union, NATO is in the process of coordinating high level discussions to identify specific areas where NATO may be able to provide assistance to the African Union as they develop the African Standby Force. The budgetary challenges faced by the African Union mean that they are a very lean organization. Man power shortfalls result in the necessity to deal with day-to-day crises at the expense of focusing on long-range strategic objectives, like developing a strategic headquarters for the African Standby Force. Money is one thing that NATO is not well postured to provide. NATO recognizes that good governance and stability on the African continent is a vital concern to the International Community. Achieving those objectives requires a wide spectrum of both bilateral and multi-lateral assistance efforts. NATO aspires to do their part by focusing on areas of niche expertise in coordination with other generous nations and organizations.