Intervention Tension: Burundi’s Moment of Truth

On 10 July, the tiny central African country of Burundi announced that its presidential elections, slated for 15 July, would be postponed by one week. The move marks the second electoral delay, and since April there have been protests, violence and a population exodus as the president postures for an unconstitutional third term. As one of the world’s poorest countries with limited strategic and resource importance, one has to wonder what the international community’s response will be should Burundi plunge back into the dark days of civil war and genocide. The moral lessons of history teach us that we must respond, but if historical events are any indication, it is unlikely that we will see much more than a token effort to restore stability in this part of the Great Lakes region.

Burundi’s Challenge

The events in Burundi have been coming to a slow boil over the past year and a half. Last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) unsuccessfully attempted to reform the constitution in a way that would not only upset the balance of ethnic representation in government, but would also allow their leader to run for a third term. International condemnation was swift, however the CNDD-FDD persisted and announced Nkurunziza as their candidate earlier this year.

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A  leader of an African nation overstaying his term limit is nothing new. Image Source: aidleap.org

Public outcry and hostilities in Bujumbura quickly followed, and less than one month later members of the military attempted a  coup d’etat while Nkurunziza was in Tanzania. Since then, ruling party supporters, to include the violent CNDD-FDD youth wing known as the imbonerakure, have sent scores of refugees fleeing into Burundi’s neighboring countries. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, one camp in Tanzania has swelled to 122,000, a number expected to increase as Election Day draws closer.

Last week on the international stage, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “concern” over the compromised political and human rights environment unfolding in Burundi. The United States also condemns the ongoing violence and claims that it will “seek to hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses.” Meanwhile, the Burundian Ambassador to the UN suggests reports of a rapidly deteriorating situation in his country (a place that only ten years ago emerged from a 12-year civil war that left 300,000 dead), are overblown. The most recent report from the UN states that we can expect more violence.

According to Burundian law, elections must be held at least one month before the final day of Nkurunziza’s second term,  26 August, and they cannot be pushed back again. This means that sooner rather than later, this Sub-Saharan country will enter a new phase of uncertainty and with stability in the country already compromised, the outlook does not look good. This summer Burundi already held parliamentary elections which the UN says were not free or credible. An increasing number of high level government officials, to include a Deputy Vice President, several electoral commissioners, and a senior judge—all citizens who do not agree with the ruling party’s measures—have fled for fear of being targeted as non-supporters of the CNDD-FDD.

An African leader aiming to overstay his term limits is nothing new, and indeed neighboring Rwanda faces a similar scenario in the run up to elections in 2017. As poor countries like Burundi experience upheaval as a direct result of this rule bending, the question then falls to the international community: how are we to respond? When does interference become a necessity in the name of safeguarding human rights? And if a response is needed, the more pertinent question must be pondered: will the international community be moved to act?

Never Say Never Again

I would argue that countries with little to offer in terms of strategic location and exploitable resources are the ones the world will most likely ignore.  In Rwanda, a Central African country of comparable size and composition, the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans was completed over 100 days while the international community largely leaned back on its heels and watched from afar.  The United Nations woefully under resourced its Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR) from the beginning despite repeated requests for increased support by the mission’s force commander, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire.  When the atrocities finally saturated the world media, cries of “never again” echoed throughout.

The reasons behind the Rwandan genocide as well as the international community’s response to it are complex and not identical to what we see taking place today in Burundi. Still, the broader question of “How much should we care?” persists. If the situation reaches a point where Twitter becomes saturated with images of crimes against humanity, will there be a call to action? Big players like the United States are undoubtedly already asking themselves whether they have the political will, resources, and most importantly, any real regional interest to link arms with the international community and put a swift end to bad behavior. Sadly, I’m not so optimistic that we really ever mean it when we vow, “Never again”.

The United States, much like other asset-rich countries, is stretched thin as it battles enemies on multiple fronts in the Middle East and Central Asia. These campaigns speak nothing of the myriad other “fires” that currently rage on the African continent: Al Shabaab in east Africa, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region and of course the Islamic State’s move into northern Africa. With so many other high-priority missions to tackle, does anyone really care about a tiny nation of 10 million that most Americans could never find on a map? Would the public really approve of troops being sent to a place that has no apparent impact on their day-to-day lives? Again, I am not so optimistic.

Masf. Image Source:
Violence attributed to loyalist factions such as  CNDD-FDD, continues to force citizens to leave their homes to seek safety elsewhere. Image Source: www.unhcr.org

General Dallaire wrote in his memoir that he doubts the world will pay anything but lip service to these far off countries of little immediate consequence to the international community.

“We have fallen back on the yardstick of national self-interest to measure which portions of the planet we allow ourselves to be concerned about. In the 21st century, we cannot afford to tolerate a single failed state, ruled by ruthless and self-serving dictators, arming and brainwashing a generation of potential warriors to export mayhem and terror around the world. The leaders of the free world are well versed in the importance of regional stability, but it would appear that they are hedging their bets when they choose which ones they will assist and which they will supply with only a string of strongly-worded condemnation.”

The clock is ticking for Burundi, and as the hour draws near for their electoral moment of truth, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world, as they stand-by and watch, will face a moment of truth of their own.

Megan Hallinan is an active duty US naval officer who holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Trinity College in Dublin as well as a master’s in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lived for three years in Dakar, Senegal. The views expressed here are her own and not those of the US Navy.

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.


[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Tunisia – Fertile Ground for Terrorism?

Last week, Tunisia was –unsurprisingly– hit again by a terrible terrorist attack. At least 39 Tunisians and foreign tourists were killed when a jihadist killer stormed the beach of two luxury hotels near Sousse in the heart of the country’s historic tourist zone. Without intervention unresolved socio-economic issues will continue to provide targets vulnerable for exploitation by terrorist groups.

Since the Jasmine Revolution in 2010-2011, the security situation in Tunisia remained quite calm but somewhat fragile until the summer of 2014. Apart from the Bardo Museum attack in March, several locations throughout the country were targeted by terrorist actions and social unrest.  Violent attacks occurred in Kasserine/Mount Chambi, El Kef, Sidi Bouzid, Tozeur, and Gafsa in the center and south of Tunisia, as well as Jendouba in the north and the Sfax along the central coast while increasingly active Salafists exploited minor riots in the southern towns El Faouar and Kebili. After the Bardo attack, Tunisia’s security forces took the initiative and apprehended or killed dozens of Salafi jihadists. While these actions achieved measures of localized success, they were not enough to defeat terrorism in the country.

The Socio-Economic Situation

Tunisia possesses many of the necessary requirements to serve as a positive role model for the other Arab Spring countries. This became apparent through the ratification of a modern constitution as well as successful presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2014. Despite this progress the country is not yet “over the top”; a fact frequently ignored by the West which is too happy to declare the triumph of democracy. Although the tragic Sousse massacre served as a wakeup call no one wanted to hear, the economic situation in Tunisia provides a fertile environment for discontent. Unemployment, a lack of foreign investment, labor pressures, and threats to tourism will increase social problems exploitable by radical Islamists.

Increased violence in popular tourist locations endangers the fragile tourist industry in Tunisia.
Increased violence in popular tourist locations endangers the fragile tourist industry in Tunisia. Image Source: Tunisia Ministry of Tourism

The root cause of Tunisia’s current problem is a socio-economic situation that remains problematic four years after the revolution. There is wide developmental disparity between the coastal areas and the interior hinterland. Though the Tunisian government is using its limited resources to improve this situation in neglected areas like Gafsa, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid (where the revolution started), the people there are –understandably– very impatient and the results have been mixed. In 2014, official figures said job seekers made up 15.2% of the 3,950,000-person workforce; an increase from 13.3% in 2006 though actual figures are probably higher. Unemployment among youth (those 15-24 yrs) is at 42.3% while about 35% of the country’s university graduates lack jobs. In the neglected areas of the hinterland these figures are significantly higher. In some areas more than 50% of the young population is unemployed.

By some estimates, Tunisia requires a 6% annual increase of the GDP for several years to achieve stability but this remains highly unlikely. Forecasts fall far short of that goal, ranging from +2.8% to +4%. What seems certain is the gap between available jobs and job-seekers will unfortunately increase for the foreseeable future though having a job in Tunisia is not an end to trouble. Even those Tunisians that are employed are coming into increasing conflict with their employers. Labor unions often stir up conflict with employers and between each other for their own gains. Fortunately, the most important union, the “Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail” (UGTT; Tunisian General Labor Union), has been playing a positive role in most of the conflicts.

Taken alone, these statistics appear daunting but the problem is further complicated by a significant decline in foreign direct investment since the revolution. Furthermore, Tunisia´s economy suffers heavily from the uncertain economic situation in Europe as well as from the war in Libya, where nearly 100,000 Tunisians worked before the revolution that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Prolonged regional instability and the continuation of terrorist attacks will retard remittances, discourage foreign investment, and impact the largest sectors of the economy.

In 2013 travel & tourism contributed 485,000 jobs (12.3% of the workforce) and comprised 15.2% of Tunisia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Though the estimates for 2014 are slightly higher at 15.5%, tourist arrivals (6 million) are off 13.1% from the 6.9 million that visited the country in 2010. After the Bardo and Sousse attacks all these figures will undoubtedly decrease significantly.[1]

More than four years after the Jasmine Revolution unstable socio-economic factors serve as vulnerabilities for terrorist groups to target.
More than four years after the Jasmine Revolution unstable socio-economic factors serve as vulnerabilities for terrorist groups to target. Image Source: The Next Great Generation

Currently, the agricultural and fishing sectors employ approximately 20% of the Tunisian workforce. Of these industries, agriculture poses a very complicated problem as on one side it is a crucial provider of jobs while at the same time it draws heavily on the nation’s very limited water supply. Regrettably, Tunisian agricultural products do not fare well on the international export market. Because of the low quality of production compared to invested resources, many consider this use of natural resources a waste.

Another sector requiring immediate reform is the textile industry. Comprised of some 2,094 industrial enterprises employing 10 or more persons, 1,656 produce exclusively for the export market. This sector currently accounts for a quarter of Tunisia’s exports and just shy of half of all manufacturing jobs. However, the future looks bleak as the industry in the face of increasing competition from China, Bangladesh, and other low-cost production countries.

Decreasing tourist revenues and stiff competition from abroad in the textile and  agricultural sectors drains Tunisia’s foreign currency reserves, putting pressure on the government’s ability to maintain heavy (and increasing) subsidies on basic foodstuffs like bread, milk, and sugar.  In 2014, subsidies accounted for a staggering 20% of all public spending (USD $4 billion, up from USD $600 million in 2010). Subsidies of this magnitude create massive incentives for smuggling which reduces the government’s ability to tax commerce, further strains its troubled finances, and erodes social support programs, particularly for the unemployed. With little improvement in their situation since the time of the Ben Ali regime, unemployed Tunisians increasingly compete with up to one million Libyan refugees for jobs and government support.

The Strategy of the Terrorists

The radical Islamists are firmly entrenched in some parts of Tunisia. With their ranks strengthened by fighters experienced from the wars in Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Libya, terrorist cells recruit sympathizers and fighters by exploiting the grievances of the population in the neglected hinterlands. Once armed and trained, it doesn´t really matter to which specific group the terrorists belong. The various Salafist jihadists are “coordinated” through a common ideology and vision of a fundamentalist Islamic State based on the Sharia. This commonality provides a “good enough” guideline for their distributed activities while the porous borders and chaotic situation in Libya will provide access to inexhaustible stores of weapons and ammunition.

The Salafist jihadists are aware that a military victory is not realistic at this time. As a result, their immediate objective is the establishment of “resistance pockets” in remote areas such as Jebel Chaambi. A consolidation of their rule and an enlargement of the controlled territory will follow. As their territory expands, they will terrorize the population and enforce a strict application of the Sharia.

Terrorist groups will attempt to exploit socio-economic vulnerabilities to discredit governments while other branches attempt to demonstrate an ability to fill the gap in services provided by the government.
Terrorist groups will attempt to exploit socio-economic vulnerabilities to discredit governments while other branches attempt to demonstrate an ability to fill the gap in services provided by the government. Image Source: Tunisia-live.net

Lacking the resources for a pure military victory, the Islamists’ strategy to assume power in Tunisia will likely include actions designed to trigger a social uprising. Initial phases will lean heavily on actions designed to destabilize the state in order to prepare the ground for such a revolution. For that purpose, attacks will focus on discrediting security forces, damaging or degrading key sectors of the economy (above all tourism) and (increasingly likely) threatening Western targets, as Western support is crucial for Tunisia´s economic recovery. These jihadists’ attacks will certainly come in the form of assassinations, bombings, raids, and larger scale coordinated terrorist attacks on prominent targets. (For a more indepth discussion refer to Security Risks in North Africa – The Strategy of the Terrorists)

While some groups focus on militant actions, other groups like Ansar al-Sharia serve a complementary function by engaging in charity activities to show care and concern for the needy among their followers.

The Way Forward

 Image Source: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter walks with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi before their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington May 21, 2015. Image Source: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Despite the odds, Tunisia is not a lost cause. There are signs of hope as well as many positive factors in the country. Tunisia has high levels of education, a strong civil society, close military links to the West (particularly with France and the U.S.), and an open-minded coastal population eager to integrate with other nations.

Furthermore, the successful transition from the Ben Ali dictatorship and the positive developments brought about by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda and its leader Rashid Gannouchi show that moderation and progress are achievable. However, there is an immediate need for much more international support in order to facilitate the transition of Tunisia into a model for the positive development of a Muslim state. The foundation for such a success is still present, but without sufficient support the future path of the country will be very, very difficult and without urgent intervention we should expect more violent incidents and terrorist attacks…

Wolfgang Pusztai is a Security & Policy Analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attache to Libya and Tunisia from 2008 to 2012. Be sure to read his other contribution to The Affiliate Network: MISRATA’S NEXT STEPS: NARROWING THE WINDOW TO SAVE LIBYA 

[1] After the 2002 Djerba/Ghriba synagogue bombing in 2002 (21 killed) the number of financial strong visitors decreased by about one million. This time it will be worse.

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