Between War and Peace: Capacity Building and Inclusive Security in the Grey Zone

30 May 2018   ·   Louise Wiuff Moe

Case studies from the Somali context demonstrate that merely building capacity of the defense sector without democratic accountability does not lead to locally credible and legitimate governance and security institutions. The German government should put the principles of accountability, rule of law and human rights back at the center of its new SSR strategy.

Many of the contexts in which German peace support and security sector reform (SSR) take place, are marked by competitive interactions between state and non-state actors. These interactions play 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 that aim to combine local reconstruction and peace support with efforts of combatting insurgents have emerged. In this context, counterinsurgency strategy – a strategy known for integrating tactics of warfighting with efforts of peacemaking – has had a global renaissance. And this strategy, re-emerging in the wake of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, greatly resonates with wider key trends of civil-military collaboration, and shifts from grand-scale liberal reform efforts to low-footprint engagements centered on support to local security and defense capacities.

This grey zone between war and peace is somewhat new territory for a number of international organizations and donor governments, including Germany. And while the appeal of more flexible security approaches is understandable, there are 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 cast as an illustrative case of successful international support to African counter-insurgency capacities. But it has also emerged as a context rife with examples of adverse side effects of such support. These too hold lessons to be learned.

In the context of intractable 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 security. The approach makes sense, given that local (often non-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 and their respective militias rather than those local leaders and elders working for peace.

Militia leaders are questionable allies in the quest for long-term stability

Militia leaders may 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 counterinsurgency operation – launched by Kenya and subsequently gaining international support – 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 such local track ‘train and equip’ approach. 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 counterinsurgency gains may well come at the price of political fragmentation – as empowered local strongmen compete with each other and the central government over power and sovereignty –  the ‘Jubaland case’ also reveals unintended negative effects on human rights. This is as the Jubaland security forces are also 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 in the ongoing international war against al-Shabaab – and thus recipients of military training and coercive resources.

Security sector reform or military capacity building? There is a difference!

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 to 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 for 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 security has increasingly focused more narrowly on building the coercive capacity of the defence sector. A narrow focus on military capacity building may, however, jeopardize commonly acclaimed tenets of security sector reform, such as comprehensive/sustainable security, rule of law, civilian oversight and human rights. 

An illustrative example is the internationally supported establishment of the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) in Somaliland. The RRU officially operates under the police and targets suspect 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’, but constituting a force with no public mandate, no description of command structures and no arrest reporting, the RRU illustrates a wider double-sided development born out of counterinsurgency-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 in Puntland (and beyond Somalia, too). Increased capacity without accountability does not lead to 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. 

Putting accountability, the rule of law and human rights at the center of an SSR strategy

When designing its SSR strategies for complex conflict settings Germany should do three things.

First, put principles of democratic accountability, rule of law, and human rights back at the center. Capacity building may serve as an element of SSR, but increased military capacity without democratic accountability undermines goals of sustainable security and peace.

Second, Germany should reckon with local non-state structures and actors, as they constitute significant instances of ‘governance without government’, but remain aware that they are no panacea for sustainable security. The ‘strongman approach’ is prone to win short-term battles against insurgents, while losing the long-term peace.

Third, Germany should recognize upfront the dilemmas and tensions between the goals of countering insurgency and terrorism, and the goals of promoting sustainable inclusive security for populations in conflict zones. The German government’s new strategy on security sector reform should 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 and order. 

Maintaining accountability – also in the ‘grey zone’! 

Wider policy shifts away from the whole-sale ‘democracy export paradigm’ may arguably give way to more contextualized and realistic approaches to supporting order and security. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. As Katrin Kinzelbach argues, democracy assistance is possible without the corollary of blueprint democracy export. SSR is one of the key policy areas in need of context specific and detailed policies for promoting democratic accountability and human rights. 

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 suppressive security institutions. Yet, ironically, it is exactly in these contexts – commonly seen primarily as breeding grounds for terrorism and transnational crime – that international interventions increasingly downplay goals and standards of human rights and democratic accountability - also pertaining to intervention approaches themselves! Germany needs to break with this pattern if it wants to make a positive and sustainable difference.

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Louise Wiuff Moe

Louise Wiuff Moe is a researcher at the Helmut Schmidt University. Her research is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) as part of the wider research project group ’Overlapping Spheres of Authority and Interface Conflicts in the Global Order’. The entry draws on research insights from the author’s article ’Counter-insurgency in the Somali territories: the ‘grey zone’ between peace and pacification’in International Affairs 94(2) 2018. Key arguments in this blog also appeared on the International Affairs Blog on 23 April 2018.