Improving security in the grey zone between war and peace

Louise Wiuff Moe

Ruined tank in Hargeisa, Somaliland | Image credit: Carl Montgomery via Flickr

Many of the contexts in which international intervention and peace support takes place today — from Syria and Iraq to Mali and Somalia — are marked by competitive interactions between state and non-state actors, playing out in environments which are not easily characterized as either total war or stable peace. In response to such complex conflict scenarios, new security approaches have emerged that aim to combine local reconstruction and peace support with efforts to combat insurgents. In this context, counter-insurgency strategy — a strategy known for integrating tactics of warfighting with efforts of peacemaking — has had a global renaissance, particularly in the wake of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This grey zone between war and peace is somewhat new territory for a number of international organizations and donor governments. While the appeal of more flexible security approaches is understandable in light of the complexity of many contemporary conflicts, there are a number of related risks and dilemmas that need to be reckoned with upfront. Failure to do so may instead create new security threats in the longer term and/or run counter to principles of democratic accountability, rule of law and human rights.

Lessons (to be) learned from the Somali context

One of the key contexts for testing new flexible approaches to security has been Somalia. During the late 2000s Somalia was often cast as an example of successful international support for African counter-insurgency. Since then it has also emerged as a context rife with examples of the adverse side effects of such support. These too hold lessons to be learned.

What follows after ousting an insurgency?

Responding to the persistent state fragility in Somalia, international donor policies have followed a two track approach, whereby conventional state-centered stabilization has been accompanied by ‘local track’ support to peace and security. The approach makes sense given that local (often sub-state) authorities provide the population with degrees of governance and security that in many areas would otherwise not exist. Yet, as the goal of defeating Al-Shabaab increasingly dominates intervention agendas, too often the local partners of choice are self-serving strongmen in charge of militias, rather than local leaders and elders interested in peace. Militia leaders might be useful allies against Al-Shabaab, but they have proven unfit for the task of creating a more secure, peaceful and equitable environment for Somalis.

The counter-insurgency operation launched in former Al-Shabaab stronghold Kismayo (a strategically important port city in south Somalia) is illustrative of the type of unintended consequences that tend to follow from a ‘train and equip’ approach focused on local actors. The city was ‘cleared’ with the help of externally equipped local militias, which subsequently clashed violently over control of the city and region, while the central government unsuccessfully sought to assert its authority. Eventually, militia leader (and Al-Shabaab convert) ‘Madobe’ managed to take military control and set up a new administration, known as the Jubaland administration. Apart from illustrating how short-term counter-insurgency gains may well come at the price of political fragmentation, the ‘Jubaland case’ also reveals unintended negative effects on human rights. Jubaland security forces are also known perpetrators of significant human rights violations in Kismayo — involving killings, injuries and detentions of civilians, including of minors suspected of affiliation with Al-Shabaab. However, they remain key local allies — and thus recipients of military training and resources — in the ongoing international war against Al-Shabaab.

Security for whom?

In the context of international donor governments seeking to favor areas of stability to prevent opportunities for Al-Shabaab, Somaliland, located in the north of the Somali territories, has also received increased attention and support. Whereas south Somalia is marked by open-ended violent conflict, Somaliland enjoys relative peace and stability and has its own government, police force and army. On this basis, Somaliland is seen to provide a local bulwark preventing the spread of the Al-Shabaab insurgency and, as a British security contractor explained me during a visit to Somaliland, it is also seen as ‘a semi-permissive environment from where to start stabilizing’.

While Somaliland indeed offers important insights into the significance of local resilience as a source of decentralized peace and order, the lessons concerning intervention are more ambiguous. Given Somaliland’s stability and the presence of functioning institutions, much external support has been provided under the banner of security sector reform as an element of supporting wider processes of consolidating peace and democratization. Yet, as agendas of ‘preventive counter-insurgency’ have become predominant, support to the security sector has increasingly focused more narrowly on building the coercive capacity in the defence sector. A narrow focus on military capacity building may, however, — as a few recent initiatives in Somaliland illustrate — jeopardize commonly acclaimed tenets of security sector reform, such as comprehensive/sustainable security, rule of law, civilian oversight and human rights.

A particularly illustrative example is the internationally supported establishment of the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) in Somaliland. The RRU officially operates under the police and targets suspected Al-Shabaab insurgents. Due to training and funding, through contractors, the unit is far better equipped than the Somaliland forces. By officially framing the RRU as ‘Somaliland police’ the initiative itself was ‘sold’ as security sector reform designed to ‘help Somalilanders keep their hard-won peace’. This contrasts starkly with widespread complaints by civilians and human rights lawyers, noting that the forces have been used not only to capture Al-Shabaab suspects but also as a coercive tool against people and institutions that are critical of the government. Hailed as ‘local police’, the RRU, however, has no public mandate, no description of command structures and no arrest reporting. Thus the RRU illustrates a wider double-sided development born out of counter-insurgency-driven capacity building: the concentration of coercion in the hands of externally supported elites and, simultaneously, a de-bureaucratization that evades transparency and legality. This mirrors similar types of capacity building of special armed units in Mogadishu and Puntland (and beyond Somalia, too). Increased capacity without accountability does not bode well for prospects of building up locally credible and legitimate governance and security institutions. This could be harmful as, ultimately, such institutions would be the preconditions for sustainable ‘post-insurgency order’, in the Somali context and beyond.

Maintaining human rights and accountability in the grey zone

While wider policy shifts away from the wholesale ‘democracy export paradigm’, applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, may arguably give way to more contextualized and realistic approaches to supporting order and security, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Democracy assistance is possible without the corollary of blueprint democracy export. Yet, ironically, while the populations in ‘grey zone contexts‘, shaped by intrastate armed conflict and insurgencies, are among the most exposed in terms of human rights abuses and supressive security institutions, it is exactly in these contexts that international interventions — counting western along with increasingly assertive non-western actors — tend to downplay goals and standards of human rights and democratic accountability; also pertaining to intervention approaches themselves!

There is a need to recognize upfront the dilemmas and trade-offs between goals of countering insurgencies and terrorism, and goals of promoting sustainable and accountable security for populations in conflict zones. Donor governments need to specify policies that can practically ensure that the former do not come at the expense of the latter. This is important for legitimacy and for long-term efficiency: externally supported, unaccountable and/or abusive security institutions delegitimize both international actors and local governments, and may provide opportunities for insurgents as alternative providers of security/order.

Louise Wiuff Moe is a researcher at the Helmut Schmidt University. Her current research is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

Her recent article in the March issue of International Affairs is titled ’Counter-insurgency in the Somali territories: the ‘grey zone’ between peace and pacification’.

Read the article here.

Key arguments in this blog will also appear as part of the Global Public Policy Institute’s PeaceLab blog.

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