War has existed since the dawn of man but functioned mostly as an unregulated activity until the adoption of the Hague and Geneva conventions with rules for the conduct of war. These conventions were reached in order to provide protections for combatants and civilians, however not all nations and combatants subscribe to these limitations on the conduct of war. War can be waged in a conventional fashion with comparable forces meeting on a field of battle or asymmetrically using guerilla tactics. African wars since independence have been mostly internal wars where the rebel or non-governmental forces were not bound by war conventions as they lacked “state” status and thereby unrestrained in their conduct of battle. Rebel freedom to fight without restriction creates an advantage that is difficult to overcome.
Ethics of War
War has been a constant around the planet since before history began to be recorded. In earlier times, leaders were guided by a sense of honor but did not hold a prescribed code of conduct until the adoption of the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Sun Tzu authored his “Art of War” over 2000 years ago and discussed ethical leadership in accordance with “the moral law” and virtues attributed to the commander (Sunzi, p. 9). European knights also had a code of chivalry that varied in its substance and allegiance. As states formed and fought amongst each other in Europe, laws of war were developed based on the writings of Hugo Grotius, like his De jure belli ac pacis (the laws of war and peace) written in the 1600s (Jackson, p. 124). The work of Grotius and others like Thomas Hobbes gave rise to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which established that the king was sovereign and had absolute power in his realm but also established the sanctity of human life (Jackson, p. 128). States passed their own laws for entry and conduct in war based on their own sense of ethics and respect for human life. However, there was a growing consensus that some rules of war should be implemented.
Hague Conventions. International agreement by 49 countries in 1899 at the Hague convention established the first set of formal international laws for war based on traditional practices (ICRC, Convention II). The 1899 Hague Convention focused on land warfare, treatment of prisoners, and listed prohibited practices such as air bombs, expanding bullets, and chemical warfare. A follow-up convention in 1907 expanded the original Hague Convention and added rules for naval warfare (ICRC, Convention IV).
Geneva Conventions. Representatives from 16 countries met in Geneva, Switzerland in 1864 agreed to a convention on for the treatment of the wounded during war. This first international agreement on conduct during combat required aid for any wounded, protection for medical personnel, and established the distinctive signage for medical personnel, was eventually agreed upon by 57 countries (ICRC, Geneva 1864). The Geneva Convention was updated in 1906 and 1929 with a major revision in 1949 post-World War II to incorporated lessons learned. The 1949 convention confirmed the first convention, added protection of sailors during naval engagements, treatment of prisoners, and protection for civilians. 194 countries have signed the 1949 Geneva Convention, which remains in effect for signatory countries (ICRC, Geneva 1949).
Types of Warfare
Regular War. Traditional war often featured two armies meeting on the plains away from cities where the armies would march towards each other firing arrows, bullets, cannons or other projectiles until the opposing forces converged in hand to hand combat. Historical examples of regular or conventional war include Caesar’s victory over Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC where 30,000 of Pompey’s troops fell to a smaller but more experienced army led by Caesar (Dunstan, p. 176). More modern examples include German hedgerow defenses in World War II where the Germans established defensive positions using hedgerows to channel advancing enemy soldiers into converging sectors of fire (Doubler, p. 37) and US-Iraqi tank battles in the first gulf war (Clancy, p. 389).
Conventional war respects the conventions on war, generally respects human rights, and has the expectation of reciprocal good treatment from enemy combatants. Fighting techniques utilized by conventional forces tend to be raid, ambush, attack, and defend. Traditional forces prefer to fight away from civilian populations in order to avoid civilian casualties and confusion on the battlefield.
Asymmetrical War. Any war besides what is considered classical or traditional war that takes place on a battlefield by comparable or “symmetrical” forces using agreed upon rules of war can be considered asymmetrical war (Winter, p. 497). Asymmetrical war has also been called irregular war or guerilla war, and may include what states consider to be terrorism. Civil wars may be considered conventional or asymmetrical depending on how enemy forces are engaged. For example, battles can be fought as a conventional war as in the case of Union and Confederate armies meeting in Gettysburg (Linderman, p. 160), or using guerilla tactics such as the Missouri “Bushwhackers” and “Jayhawkers” irregular forces, “Partisan Rangers,” and “Calvary Raiders” in the American Civil War who carried out attacks on civilian populations, farms, and supply lines (McLachlan, p.8).
Guerilla forces have no rear or out of bounds areas and are able to strike their enemy where they think they are safe and “go to ground” or blend in with the local population. Asymmetrical forces may use unconventional weapons and tactics and may not strictly adhere or adhere at all to the conventions on war. Surprise is a key part of guerilla warfare and creates an advantage for guerilla forces (Walzer, p. 176).
Terrorism is another form of asymmetrical war that seeks “to destroy the morale of a nation or a class, to undercut its solidarity; its method is the random murder of innocent people” (Walzer, p. 197). Randomness of violence to individuals is critical, as terrorist acts should make people feel that they can be victims of violence anywhere and anytime. Fear would then motivate the population to compel their government to negotiate with or give in to terrorist demands in order to secure their safety (Walzer, p. 198).
Mismatch of Warfare. Conventional and asymmetrical forces may not respect the same laws of war creating a mismatch of fighting forces. Asymmetrical forces may not be bound by the same laws of war but would expect conventional forces to still respect the laws of war. Conventional forces tend to be armies controlled by the state and subject to national leadership. National leaders are influenced by domestic and international pressure and actors, such as domestic popular opinion, portrayal of government forces by the media, and a public not willing to support a large loss of life. For example, American forces withdrew from Viet Nam in part as a result of domestic pressure (Arreguin-Toft, p. 119). For asymmetrical forces the war constitutes a total commitment and guerilla forces expect to take losses and endure a long fight in order to win. Afghan fighters were able to outlast British and Soviet occupations and seem to be on track to outlast American occupation forces (Grau, p. xi). State forces usually have more resources and better weapons but a lower threshold for discomfort and losses. State forces greater resource requirements also entail a long supply chain, which becomes a vulnerability for state forces and soft target for asymmetrical forces. However, asymmetrical forces with outside support can sometimes outgun and be better financed than state forces, as in the Cold War or in the NATO supported overthrow of the government of Libya in 2011 (Lister, 2011). Following the timeless counsel of Sun Tzu, asymmetrical fighters seek to match their strengths to the weaknesses of their enemies (Sunzi, p. 28).
African wars since independence in the 1960s have generally been internal wars where government forces fought rebel forces or wars of secession such as Ertirea’s war of secession from Ethiopia in 1991 (State Department, 2012). South Sudan also won its independence from Sudan after decades of civil war in 2011 (State Department, 2011). Three interesting case studies of asymmetrical forces against conventional forces demonstrate the mismatch of forces and their benefits to the victor: the 1993 Operation Restore Hope which pitched US led United Nations forces against warlords in Somalia, the ongoing Ugandan hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the African National Congress (ANC) fight against the apartheid government of South Africa.
Operation Restore Hope. The government of Somalia fell in 1991 and coupled with a humanitarian crisis of mass starvation, the international community organized to provide food aid and try to rebuild the country. The United Nations (UN) commissioned the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) in 1992 to monitor a ceasefire in the capital city of Mogadishu, escort humanitarian supplies to distribution centers, and protect UN personnel and equipment (UNSCR 751, 1992). Despite increasing the troop levels of UNOSOM with Resolution 775 (1992), the security situation in Somalia continued to deteriorate. Operation Restore Hope, also known as Unified Task Force (UNITAF) assumed command of the UN operation in Somalia in May 1993 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 794 (1992). The US led UNITAF came ashore unopposed as the US Ambassador had negotiated for the militias to move out of the way of arriving forces (Durch, p. 323). UNITAF next secured the port and airport in order to allow humanitarian supplies to arrive and then began to seize heavy weapons in Mogadishu, encountering some resistance and fire from militia forces, but was overall able to create a more secure environment (Durch, p. 325). UNOSOM II was created by UN Security Council Resolution 814 (1993) to continue UN operations begun under UNOSOM and UNITAF and ran from March 1993 until its closure and the withdrawal of UN troops in 1995.
While UNITAF/UNOSOM II worked to secure the city and allow safe transport and distribution of humanitarian aid the UN also worked to establish a new government, but in the process marginalized local warlords. Mohamed Farah Aideed, supported by the Somali National Alliance (SNA), and Ali Mahdi were foremost amongst the warlords in UN negotiations and began to oppose UN actions in spring of 1993. Aideed believed he had earned the right to rule Somalia as he had toppled former President Siad Barre. Aideed was worried that the UN was establishing a UN trusteeship to restore Siad Barre as President (Durch, p. 317). On 4 June 1993 SNA forces rejected UNOSOM demands to inspect SNA weapon storage sites and the following day SNA fighters began to engage UN troops in Mogadishu with roadblocks, machine guns, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) assisted by Italian helicopter gunships were able to extract the UN troops, who suffered 24 killed and 61 wounded (Durch, p. 343).
The US reinforced its contingent with four heavily armed AC-130H “Spectre” gunships and used them to destroy SNA weapons sites during simultaneous QRF attacks on other SNA caches on 12 June 1993. UNOSOM also destroyed approximately 30 “technicals” (pickup trucks with mounted machine guns used for carrying troops). During the UNOSOM attacks approximately 3000 Somalis rushed UN positions causing a firefight resulting in at least 20 Somalis killed. On 17 June UN forces raided Aideed’s compound but Aideed escaped as armed Somali crowds (male fighters mixed with women and children) attacked UN forces, resulting in 5 UN killed and 47 wounded. The UN offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Aideed but SNA attacks continued (Durch, p. 344).
As the situation heated up the US sent 400 Army Rangers and Special Forces operators to Mogadishu in August 1993 to capture Aideed (Durch, p. 339). The UN continued its raids to capture or kill SNA leaders and on 3 October 1993, US helicopters supporting a Special Forces raid were shot down, and US troops had to fight their way out of the city. This incident, known as “Blackhawk Down,” was the turning point for the US and subsequently the UN, as the US subsequently announced its withdrawal from Somalia within 6 months (Durch, p. 347). US troops withdrew to within its base outside Mogadishu and the SNA and other warlord groups increased attacks on relief agencies and UN outposts. Nearly all US troops left Somalia by April 1994 and remaining UN troops posed little resistance to Somali fighters who overran their positions and looted the port. The last UN troops had to fight their way out assisted by a US Marine evacuation force in March 1995 (Durch, p. 350).
Lord’s Resistance Army. Uganda became independent in 1962 and experienced a series of coups, ending in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) forces defeated General Tito Okello (TRIAL, 2012). Museveni has since won several elections, the latest in 2011 despite claims of election fraud, and remains in power in 2012 (BBC, 2011). Ugandan leaders have used ethnic differences to pit groups against each other in order to gain support and power. Former President Idi Amin purged the military of Acholi and Langi soldiers and the Acholi had made up a good part of President Obote’s military. Museveni’s fight to capture power in 1986 pit NRA forces against Acholi forces and resentment and suspicion remain (Van Acker, p. 341). The Acholi are found in the north of Uganda and ethnic discrimination has created a North-South divide with the North being less developed and afflicted with government “protected camps,” where locals are forced to live for their own protection (Van Acker, p. 343).
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was formed in 1987 of Acholi soldiers as a religious movement led by the prophet Joseph Kony to overthrow the government of Uganda and establish rule based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA uses guerilla and terrorist tactics in its fighting, and as a religion based terror group does not have to fight in accordance with any law or customs of war, as any tactics they use are morally justifiable as a ”sacramental act” (Van Acker, p. 349). The LRA has some support among the local Acholi population but was also supported by the government of Sudan with arms and funding as Sudan and the LRA shared the goal of overthrowing the Museveni government (Green, p. 203). Some of the terror tactics used by the LRA included the “violent abduction and forced recruitment of minors to serve as child soldiers,” with an estimated 25,000 to 38,000 children forced to join the LRA (Videvogel, Coppens, Derluyn, De Schryver, Loots, & Broekaert, p. 552). The LRA would raid villages, kill or maim adults, seize supplies and children. The LRA is accused of killing over 10,000 Ugandans before it was driven by government forces from Uganda in 2006 into an area bordered by South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR). LRA fighters have continued its raiding tactics beating 800 people to death in North-East DRC in Dec 2008 despite the significantly reduced size of its forces (Thomson, 2011).
The US committed 100 Special Forces advisors in 2011 to the hunt for the LRA and assist Ugandan and regional forces by providing surveillance, advice, and technical assistance (Peter, 2012). Ugandan forces utilize 26 hunting squads who patrol the multi-state region day and night based on intelligence collected from locals as the LRA stopped using cell and satellite phones to communicate. The LRA has also been forced to change its habits to avoid capture and has stopped killing and abducting locals, cut off traditional dreadlocks, eliminated gardens, and moved deeper into the jungle. Instead of raiding villages for supplies, the LRA is now surviving on wild yams and fishing (Mugisha, 2012). Due to defections as the LRA has fled the multinational force, Kony is now estimated to control 150 fighters (Quinn, 2012).
African National Congress. South Africa has a different history than much of the African continent as it started out as a settler colony and under white rule until 1994 when all South Africans were granted suffrage and elected a government that represented the majority of the population. The rights of black South Africans were limited since the early days of white settlers in South Africa and the African National Congress (ANC) was formed by black elites in 1912 to work within the existing government system to resist oppression. Over the years the ANC became more radicalized and created the ANC Youth League in 1944, led by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sislu, and abandoned nonviolence in 1961. Several of the ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison in 1964, including Mandela and Sislu, and served nearly 30 years on Robben Island (Bauer & Taylor, p. 244).
While Mandela and others were in prison the ANC continued to fight the apartheid government of South Africa becoming more violent and attracting international condemnation of the government. Government actions, such as the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970, which restricted black South Africans to Bantu homelands for residence and left the rest of the country for ownership by the white population, mobilized the black population (Berger, p. 127). General strikes began in 1972 to protest apartheid rules, and in 1976 students protesting mandatory education in Afrikaans were shot by police. The shooting of students caused weeks of riots and a boycott of schools through 1976. 575 people and an additional 2400 were wounded during the riots (Berger, p. 137). The apartheid government targeted black leaders like Steven Biko, who were killed by police forces (Gobodo-Madikizela, p. 137).
Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, had 4000 guerilla fighters trained in Angola, Libya, Tanzania, and other African countries by 1978 and in the 1980s increased attacks on government targets. The ANC guerillas targeted infrastructure and strategic sites such as police stations and the South African synthetic oil refinery (Berger, p. 140). The ANC also sent representatives to Vietnam to learn how to win a guerilla war and increased a campaign of strikes and boycotts targeting apartheid collaborators (Berger, p. 142). The apartheid government stepped-up oppression by declaring a state of emergency in 1985 in Soweto and detained 8000 suspects without trial or charges. Violence between the state and activists in 1985 killed more than 250 people and continued in 1986 when the state of emergency was extended to all of South Africa. The government responded to increased attacks by conducting military patrols and searches at gunpoint (Berger, p. 145). The government also attacked ANC bases in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia (Berger, p. 147). Eventually the apartheid government began negotiations with the ANC and capitulated in 1993, allowing elections in 1994 where Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa (Bauer & Taylor, p. 245).
In the three cases discussed none of the asymmetrical forces were defeated, although the LRA had been driven from Uganda and was losing forces due to desertion and not capture. Uganda and South Africa have signed the Geneva and Hague conventions, whereas Somali does not have a functioning government or military (Geneva, 2011).
Somali forces defeated US forces and expelled the UN from Somalia due to their ability to mix with the local population while attacking and ability to manipulate foreign forces. Somali warlords knew the restrictions faced by US and UN forces bound by war conventions to not harm civilians and used civilians as shields to stop returned fire and channel foreign forces. The “Blackhawk Down” incident also allowed warlords to manipulate the American population and caused the US to withdraw its forces and the UN mission to subsequently collapse. US technology and weapons superiority did not allow it to accomplish its mission nor capture Aideed.
In Uganda, the LRA has managed to avoid capture despite US assistance and overwhelming technical and fire superiority of Ugandan forces. The LRA has adapted to blend into the local population and avoids using technology that gives away their location. The local population is also somewhat supportive or at least act in fear to not betray the LRA.The victory of the ANC over the apartheid government of South Africa was due to the mobilization of the population, guerilla action, and outside pressure as the international community boycotted South African products. The boycotting actions were organized by the ANC and other resistance groups and part of an overall strategy to force the government to capitulate.