Enhancing the Efficiency of the African Standby Force: The Case for a Shift to a Just-in-time Rapid Response Model?

Africa Standby Force, AUThis shift will allow the #AU and the regions to focus more on… the planning for and management of actual missions

By Cedric De Coning, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD)

When political or social tensions result in violent conflict, the solution that is usually most prominently on the table is the rapid deployment of a peace support operation, as in the recent cases of the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. This is why the 2002 Protocol establishing the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) provided for the establishment of an African Standby Force (ASF). The ASF is composed of standby multidisciplinary contingents, with civilian, police and military components in their countries of origin. When fully operational by end-2015, the rapid deployment capacity (RDC) of the ASF should be on standing readiness to deploy within 14 days, in response to mass atrocity crimes.

This target has, however, proven to be quite a challenge. In fact, there is no international or regional organisation that can deploy such a force within 14 days. There are only a handful of countries in the world that have the kind of standing readiness capacity to deploy at such speeds. If pursuing this kind of response time is unrealistic, is it not time to take stock and question whether this is the type of model in which we should continue to invest our efforts? This article questions whether it is time for the ASF to shift from a standing readiness model to a just-in-time rapid response model. An overview is provided of the progress made with the establishment of the ASF to date.

Then, on the basis of an assessment of the actual African capabilities, as reflected in its deployments and operations, an argument for adjusting the ASF model to a more realistic and efficient just-in-time rapid response model is made.

The African Standby Force

The ASF is one of the pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), alongside the Continental Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise, the Military Staff Committee, the Peace Fund and the AU’s PSC. The ASF is thus part of a holistic African approach to engaging in conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

The ASF is a continental standby capacity with a brigade-sized multidimensional (military, police and civilian) standby arrangement in each of the AU’s five regions: North, South, East, West and Central Africa. The policy framework envisaged six scenarios for ASF deployments, ranging in intensity and complexity from Scenario 1 to Scenario 6, with Scenario 5 providing for a complex peace operation and Scenario 6 providing for a rapid (14-day) peace enforcement response to mass atrocity crimes. Each regional standby arrangement should have an RDC with units that are pre-identified, prepared and verified, and then placed on standing readiness so that they are able to deploy within 14 days. The model also implies that the AU and its regions must have functioning headquarters, with matching continental and regional logistical bases that can plan and support such operations, including the strategic lif t arrangements necessary to deploy the RDC within the 14-day time period.

The ASF Policy Framework was approved in 2003, and has been implemented in several phases or ‘roadmaps’. The initial target was set for 2010, but when that target was only partially met, a new target for full operational capability was set for 2015.

The African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC)

Over the last decade, in a parallel development to the establishment of the ASF, the AU has deployed several peace operations, including to Burundi (AMIB), Darfur (AMIS) and Somalia (AMISOM). Over time, frustration built up around the tension between the investment in an ASF capability that would only be ready in 2010 – later postponed to 2015 – and the need to deploy troops, police officers and civilians, as well as their equipment, to actual and ongoing operations. This tension came to a head in 2012, when the Government of Mali asked France to intervene in its crisis because the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were perceived not to be able to deploy their forces rapidly enough to deal decisively with the unfolding crisis in Mali.[i]

As a result of this frustration, a number of African countries decided to jointly create the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) in January 2013. The ACIRC was presented as an interim measure, aimed at addressing the rapid response deficit until such time as the ASF and its RDC reached full operational capability. The ACIRC is a voluntary arrangement, where those countries with the necessary capabilities make them available under the auspices of the AU. The distinguishing feature of the ACIRC is that it proposes a coalition-of-the-willing model that will be deployed by its contributors, initially at their own cost, under a lead-nation model. However, such a coalition will require AU approval for it to operate under AU auspices.

These factors – voluntary participation, coalition-of-the-willing, lead nation, self-funded – are all designed to make this mechanism more rapid. However, because the ACIRC model is voluntary, it will also fail to address the AU’s need to have a predictable rapid deployment capability.

In practice, it means that countries will only be willing to deploy at their own cost when they have dire national interests at stake.[ii]

2013 Assessment of the ASF

In the context of the Mali experience and the decision to establish the ACIRC, the January 2013 AU General Assembly asked for an assessment of the progress made to date with the establishment of the ASF. To meet this request, the chairperson of the Commission appointed an independent panel of experts in July 2013 to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the ASF.[iii] The panel submitted its report in December 2013, and in January 2014 the report and the recommendations of the panel were endorsed by both the ministers of Defence and Security and the AU Summit.

The panel found that despite progress towards operationalising the ASF, significant shortcomings, gaps and obstacles still remain. The panel was of the opinion that at the current pace and scope of effort, it is unlikely that the ASF will achieve full operational capability by the end of 2015. Therefore, the panel recommended that to achieve full operational capability by the end of 2015, a major effort will be needed over the following 18 to 24 months. The panel presented a plan of action that was aimed at addressing those key areas which, if left unaddressed, would make it impossible to achieve full operational capability.

The panel also recommended that the AU gives special attention to the financing of its peace support operations. The most significant constraint on AU peace operations, and its ability to respond rapidly to unfolding crises, is the inability of the AU member states to fund their own operations. The AU cannot make its own independent decisions regarding the mandate, scope, size and duration of its peace operations, as long as it is dependent on external partners to cover the cost of its peace operations.

The panel thus strongly supported the emphasis the AU is currently placing on generating its own resources. At the same time, the panel recommended that the AU takes steps to reduce the cost of the ASF by right-sizing its concept, structures and policies, including the concept of mission support, in particular.

The panel also recommended that the AU considers undertaking a Brahimi-type high-level strategic review of the future of the ASF and African peace support operations. The ASF was designed on assumptions derived mainly from the UN’s multidimensional peacekeeping experiences of the 1990s. Since then, the AU has managed peace operations of its own in Burundi, the CAR, Darfur, Mali and Somalia. As a result of these operational experiences, the AU, the regions and the member states involved have started to develop their own body of knowledge on African-led peace operations. A significant gap has opened up between the consensual peacekeeping model the ASF is designed for, and the actual peace enforcement and stability operations the AU has been called on to undertake in Somalia, Mali and the CAR. The panel argued that the existing ASF Policy Framework should be reviewed against these experiences, and be aligned with the realities of the African peace operation experience. This will ensure that a new strategic vision for African peace operations and the ASF will be in place, which can inform the future of the ASF beyond 2015.

Impact of the ASF on New and Ongoing AU Peace Operations

The panel also noted that it is artificial to reflect on the standby capacity of the ASF, without also reflecting on the significant increase in actual African peace operations capacity since the launch of the ASF project a decade ago. This increase is reflected in the number and scale of peace operations undertaken by the AU over this period, and the contributions from African troop-contributing countries to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations.

In total, approximately 40 000 uniformed and civilian personnel were mandated to serve in AU peace operations in 2013 (approximately 71 000, if the joint AU-UN hybrid mission in Darfur is also taken into account).[iv] In addition, African contributions to UN peacekeeping operations have increased steadily during this period – from a little over 10 000 per annum in 2003, when the ASF project was launched, to approximately 35 000 per annum by 2013. This means that, in 2013, more than 75 000 African peacekeepers served in African and UN peace operations.[v]

Since the establishment of the ASF, the AU has deployed missions of its own to Burundi, Darfur, Somalia, Mali and the CAR.[vi] Each of these missions involved political decision-making processes, planning, deployment, strategic and operational management and mission support. Several of these missions were also handed over and liquidated. Together, they represent a significant demonstration of capacity and experience. All these missions have been undertaken with support from the UN, European Union (EU) and bilateral partners, and they thus also reflect a growing body of experience with various forms of partnerships and collaborative action. In most of these missions, the ASF planning elements at the continental and regional levels have been involved in the planning and management of the missions, and the ASF regional centres of excellence have been involved in the training, preparation and evaluation of these missions.

Despite this record, some observers continue to criticise the ASF as ineffective, because its standing readiness model has not yet been utilised as envisaged. The panel argued that this distinction between the ASF – understood as the units, equipment and personnel pledged under the ASF – and the actual units and personnel deployed to AU peace operations, are artificial. The 75 000 African peacekeepers deployed in 2013 come from the same member states that have pledged contributions to the ASF, which demonstrates that these member states do have these capabilities and are able to deploy them when needed.

When it comes to rapid deployment, it should be noted that the AU, together with its troop-contributing countries and partners, have deployed forces into Somalia and the CAR far more rapidly over the last 24 months than the EU or the UN. It can therefore be argued that Africa’s actual deployed capacity is a stronger indicator of Africa’s real peace operation capability than the pledges reflected in the ASF. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the ASF is not only going to generate value at some point in future; it is already significantly contributing to preparing the capabilities that are deployed to actual African and UN peace operations.

The Case for a Just-in-time Rapid Response Model

The logic behind the standby concept is that the ability to deploy a peace operation rapidly will be greatly enhanced if you preselect soldiers, police officers and civilian experts; prepare and train them; make sure they have the necessary equipment and support systems in place; and then place them on a standing readiness mode, waiting for a decision to deploy them. The standby model assumes that such a standing readiness capacity is a necessary precondition for rapid deployment, but acknowledges that it is not sufficient to ensure that a peace operation can be rapidly deployed when faced with a dire crisis. Two additional factors highlighted in the 2013 ASF assessment – the political decision-making process and the financing of peace operations – have already been mentioned.

The ASF and all other such standby arrangements suffer from two further interrelated vulnerabilities. The first is the political will of the contributing countries to participate in any given operation. Agreeing to participate in a standby arrangement is one thing, but agreeing to participate in a specific peace operation is a separate decision altogether. The second is the match between the context-specific needs of a specific mission at hand and the off-the-shelf generic design of the standby force. It is a combination of these two vulnerabilities that has undermined all international efforts to date to establish standby arrangements that can generate predictable rapid response mechanisms. The UN Standby High-Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG)[vii] initiative, the EU Battle Group concept and the ASF share these same vulnerabilities. The SHIRBRIG initiative has already been abandoned, and it is unlikely that the EU Battle Group and the ASF’s standing readiness capacity will be used as envisaged. This is because each crisis is unique, and it is doubtful that a generic standby capacity can sufficiently match the needs – both in terms of the political coalition and the operational capabilities – posed by the specific challenge. Each crisis requires a context-specific solution, including the coming together of a unique set of countries that have a political interest in the resolution of the conflict, or have an interest in being part of that particular mission. Each crisis also requires a slightly different set of capacities, and the off-the-shelf generic standby brigade model does not meet such needs. This explains why the AU, EU and UN have not found a direct use for its standing readiness arrangements to date.

Rapid deployment can, of course, only happen if there are capabilities at national level that can be deployed. The basic assumption or logic of the standby model thus holds true at national level, but falls apart when it is applied at the multinational level. This is because at this level the decisive factor is not capabilities and readiness, but how those capabilities are coalesced in a political coalition that forges together political will, financial means, the capacity to plan, deploy and manage an operation and the national capabilities that can be deployed.

National interest is a subtle and often indirect driver in the consensual type of peace operations the UN and EU typically undertake, but it is still vitally important. In the AU context, where the operations undertaken to date have almost all been peace enforcement operations, with a stabilisation mandate that requires a higher degree of intensity, robustness and risk, the national interest of the major troop-contributing countries, in particular, has been of decisive importance. Both the missions in Somalia and the CAR have sustained heavy losses.[viii] A country with no interest in a given crisis is unlikely to agree to its capabilities being deployed in a high-intensity and high-risk operation, just because they agreed to be part of a regional standby arrangement. What can be concluded from the ASF experience to date is that the general effort to establish the ASF has contributed significantly to the capacity of the AU, the regions and AU member states to plan, prepare, train and deploy military, police and civilian capacities to actual missions. However, the standing readiness dimension of the ASF concept – that is, the idea of specific pre-identified military and police units being prepared, verified and then placed on standing readiness, so that they can be deployed rapidly when called upon to do so – has not, and is unlikely to be used as assumed in the design of the ASF.

This leads to the recommendation that we should adjust the post-2015 ASF concept to one that is aimed at generating a just-in-time capacity, rather than a standing readiness capacity. A just-in-time model will focus on developing common standards and procedures, including through joint training and exercises. It should also have a special focus on developing AU, regional and national planning, command, mission management and mission support capabilities.

There may be a place for the ACIRC lead-nation model, especially in dire emergencies when rapid response is critical, but the just-in-time ASF model proposed here foresees situations where the AU, in close cooperation with the regions, plays the lead role in putting together, planning, deploying and commanding its own peace operations.

This proposal does not imply that we abandon the ASF – only that we move away from the standing readiness model and, in its place, develop a just-in-time model. At the national level, many AU member states should, and do, have some units on standby to respond to national and international crises, regardless of the ASF, so the suggestion is not that member states move away from the standing readiness concept at national level.

A just-in-time model will require a leaner ASF investment, because less effort will be needed to manage the pledging and verification of specific units, and to manage the model of rotating the responsibility for being on standing readiness among regions. This shift will allow the AU and the regions to focus more on the preparation of just-in-time modalities and the planning for and management of actual missions. This would be a much more realistic use of limited resources.

The one exception is the civilian dimension of the ASF. Nations have military and police capacities that they can make available for AU peace operations, but they do not deploy civilian experts in the same way. Civilian experts are hired by the AU in their individual capacities. This is why it is necessary for the AU, in cooperation with the regions and member states, to continue to identify, train and roster civilian experts in political affairs, human rights, public information, humanitarian liaison and all the other specialities identified in the ASF Civilian Policy Framework.[ix]

It is now time, based on our experience with the ASF and actual AU operations over the past decade, to take stock and acknowledge that the standing readiness aspect of the ASF concept is not going to generate the kind of predictable rapid response the AU member states desired when they agreed to establish the ASF. Instead, we should shift our focus to a just-in-time model based on three elements:

  1. the modalities necessary to put together context specific coalitions consisting of the AU, regions, member states and partners;
  2. the ability of member states to contribute military, police and civilian capabilities; and
  3. the ability of the AU and regions to plan, deploy, manage and support peace operations.

We also have to invest much more in prevention, peacemaking and peace building, so as to limit the cases where rapid responses may be necessary. Mali may have been a reminder that we will not always succeed in deploying rapidly, but Somalia and the CAR have also shown us that the AU, together with its member states and partners, can deploy troops at remarkable speed. The reasons why we were able to deploy much faster in the latter cases has less to do with predesigned standing readiness arrangements and more to do with the kind of political will the AU was able to generate, and the context-specific coalitions the AU, interested member states and partners were able to put together. This is why a just-in-time standby arrangement is likely to be the more realistic and cost effective option for the future of the ASF.


[i]For an overview of these developments, see: Théroux-Bénoni, Lori-Anne (2013) ‘Mali in the Aftermath of the French Military Intervention: New Opportunities or Back to Square One?’, Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[ii] Ero, Comfort (2013) ‘The Problems with African Solutions’, Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[iii] The author was a member of the panel of experts, but writes here in his own capacity.

[iv] For deployment figures, see: and bit.ly/1g02Wrz> [both accessed 8 May 2014].

[v] See Lotze, Walter (2013) ‘Strengthening African Peace Support Operations’, Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[vi] For a comprehensive list of African peace operations, see Williams, Paul D. (2013) ‘Peace Operations in Africa: Lessons Learned Since 2000’, Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[vii] Koops, Joachim and Varwick, Johannes (2008) ‘Ten Years of SHIRBRIG: Lessons Learned, Development Prospects and Strategic Opportunities for Germany’, Available at: SQV4yF> [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[viii] Leijenaar, Annette and Heitman, Helmoed (2014) ‘Africa can Solve its own Problems with Proper Planning and Full Implementation of the African Standby Force’, Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2014].

[ix] De Coning, Cedric and Kasumba, Yvonne (2010) The Civilian Dimension of the African Standby Force. AU and ACCORD, South Africa.

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