The SANDF appears to show no signs of slowing down its international peacekeeping responsibilities. As the state calls upon the military to contribute abroad, it appears as though the defence answer will answer. Despite crippling budget restraints, the SANDF will move onward to other theatres of peacekeeping and conflict intervention, whether through the United Nations or the African Union.

It is less than a month until the AU begins Amani Africa II (AAII). The operation kicks off from Lohatla and involves More than 5,000 soldiers from the continent. With the world’s eyes on AU member states’ ability to conduct a successful, high tempo military exercise, the SANDF will form the bulk of the force’s numbers. AAII serves as the benchmark for the operational readiness of the African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF is geared towards responding rapidly to a host of security crises in Africa, despite wide criticisms of its technical proficiency. So much so that the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), was launched as a direct stop-gap measure to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the ten year delay in implementing the ASF.

What if the ASF was never a good idea?

But to what extent is the ASF a realistic means of achieving security in Africa? The status quo amongst AU stakeholders and the hordes of NGO hangers-on is that the ASF’s implementation, whatever form it may take, is better than nothing. The assumption that the ASF is an intrinsically good thing that should be dragged into being regardless of challenges is a flawed one, though. What if the ASF was never a good idea? These issues were debated at length at the recent International Conference on Strategic Theory, held in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

To unpack the relevancy of the ASF requires a little bit of Clausewitz. What, after all, is the strategic aim of the standby force? If war and strategy contain political ends, then the ASF is certainly a political tool whose purpose appears to be to end conflict, maintain peace, and restore or establish political and societal order. Ambitious indeed. So can the standby force realistically achieve this?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is also no, but with nuance. As a political tool, the ASF requires a buy-in of political will for all member nations. Rhetorically, this may be achievable, with member states making the right noises about solving African problems with African solutions. But when one begins to break this proposal into its practical components, one African member state’s ‘solution’ may well not be in line with another’s. There lies the problem in unifying political will behind the ASF. At the Fourth International Strategic Theory Conference, a speaker wryly noted that ‘good’ states would not necessarily want to cooperate politically with ‘bad’ states in an ASF context. This is putting it mildly. A universal willingness to intervene in other state’s affairs militarily, and to do so in union with otherwise political enemies, is a difficult proposition. The reason NATO functions at all is due in no small part to the political uniformity of EU states in its objectives. For the AU, these interests are completely divergent.

The short answer is no. The longer answer is also no, but with nuance.

So the political alignment required for the ASF is unrealistic, yet we see the ASF plowing forward nonetheless. Which may indicate that this is a case of creating any solution rather than nothing.

What this means for the SANDF and units such as those that recently participated in operation Young Eagle is a growing responsibility abroad, but without clear and unified consensus from the political chiefs above. That will likely translate into soldiers seeing stricter rules of engagement, a far more challenging conflict environment, and ultimately the need for the South African soldier to be smart about future operations.

With parts of Central Africa fast sliding backwards and a landlocked, unstable Lesotho right inside South Africa’s borders, the operational terrain for future SANDF peacekeeping could see everything from urban centres to jungles and mountain warfare. With temperatures hovering around freezing during Young Eagle, this was at least good practice for the latter.