05/28/2013 07:50 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Mali and the Primacy of Civil Authority

The international donor's conference on Mali co-chaired by France and the European Union earlier this month is another demonstration that "the United States has no choice but to embrace the sound underpinnings" of 'leading from behind.'" (Like "containment" at its start or "restrainment" now, it's better than it sounds.) Of the more than $4-billion pledged in Brussels by over 80 countries, the U.S anted up about $200-million, which will not come until after the election at the end of July.

As in the response to the crisis, Malians and other Africans, backed mostly by the Europeans and the United Nations, are leading Mali's recovery. The African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) of over 8,000 troops, mostly from ECOWAS countries under Nigerian command, will give way to the UN Multidimensional Integration Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in time for the elections. In the communiqué from the conference and the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the mission, a major part of the "national and international efforts" there are the "reform of the security forces, including domestic forces, the judiciary and the whole criminal justice system."

That's because the major driver of conflict in Mali, as in many places in Africa, has come mainly from the country's own security sector and not from the outside. Mali Defense and Security Forces (MDSF) are poorly led, equipped, and trained as well as fragmented and incapable of preventing its soldiers from committing atrocities against civilians, as evidenced in widespread reports of post-coup human rights abuses and MDSF retaliation in northern Mali, where it has had a history of repressive military administration. Then there is corruption: Numerous military officers and others, for example, may be linked to the drug trade, which may now pose an even greater threat to Mali's security than terrorism.

To mitigate fears of MDSF reprisals as it re-takes localities in the north, paramilitary units (gendarmerie) are accompanying regulars to question detainees during military operations and investigate disciplinary lapses by soldiers. The MDSF is accepting this practice, under Human Rights Watch encouragement, although it is not clear this is universal and command-driven. And the paramilitaries are hardly better trained than the soldiers they would oversee.

While it's also not clear the elections or MINUSMA will bring peace or more conflict to Mali, there seems to be a longer learning curve at work on peace and security in Africa. Amb. (ret.) George F. Ward, writing for the Institute for Defense Analyses on the efficacy of "African forces for African problems," notes that the African Union is backing off from its ambitious plan to create an African Standby Force and settle on a more modest African Immediate Crisis Response Capacity as a result of lessons from Mali. The UN, in turn, has authorized an "Intervention Brigade" in Eastern Congo composed of African battalions as an initial test of such capabilities for offensive action in peacekeeping forces. Their respective performances will be an indicator of whether African armies are capable of fulfilling these demanding missions.

U.S. involvement in Mali and much of the rest of Africa, in the meantime, has followed the pattern of bilateral engagement and a light footprint, with about 10 military advisors in Mali for "building partnership capacity." However, U.S. security assistance has largely focused on terrorism, which many locals do not perceive as their primary security challenge -- in fact, many fear as much if not more their own military and police forces than foreign terrorists.

U.S. security assistance in Africa has been overwhelmingly resourced to "train and equip" for tactical warfighting capability rather than strategic institution-building and military civics. Gordon Adams noted in Foreign Policy that "these competencies are unhinged, in large part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve our long-run goals for African state building or development."

"The U.S. was too narrowly focused on counterterrorism capabilities and missed the bigger picture," said former State Department official Todd Moss, while former AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham recognized failure to pass on "values, ethics and military ethos" in U.S. military security sector development in Africa.

The Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCP), for example, spent $353-million from 2005-10, then got $500-million more (albeit reduced 17 percent in FY13) and a broadened mandate that includes strengthening counterterrorism capabilities, denying support and sanctuary, discrediting terrorist ideology, and reinforcing bilateral military ties.

What's more, TSCTP civil-military operations training is correspondingly modeled on U.S. doctrine and practice, which stress defeating terrorists and other threats more than helping to build governance and civil authority. As a result of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Civil Affairs has been slanted toward the tactical and away from the strategic -- winning the hearts and minds of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker in order to find the bad guys and kill them. The overwhelming emphasis on threat-based counterinsurgency and counterterrorism prompted one DoD program manager of Trans-Sahel civil-military training to report that it has risked the exacerbation of "unhealthy civil-military balances."

Things are changing, albeit slowly. In a recent Joint Forces Quarterly article, AFRICOM Director of Strategy, Plans & Programs Maj. Gen. Robert Hooper said the "underlying premise of our institutional capacity-building efforts is that military forces must be subordinate to civil authority and accepted as legitimate members of a civil society based on the rule of law."

The non-partisan Mali Watch group, co-sponsored by the Alliance for Peacebuilding and The Bridges Institute, fully agrees but also sees this has not yet trickled down to all the troops. The group, in its recent point paper, "Enhancing the Primacy of Civil Authority in the Security Sector in Mali and Africa," does not see a sustained, large-scale outside military intervention in Mali as the ultimate answer to transforming the conflict there.

Rather, it contends: "establishing a healthy, sustainable civil-military relationship that institutionalizes the primacy of civil authority and links security sector reform and civil society peacebuilding efforts will be the key component of national reconciliation and addressing the main drivers of conflict." The primacy of civil authority is "at the crux of peace and security, democratization, and security sector capacity development," it says. A key way to establish popular confidence in the military is "in-depth training on military subordination to civilian rule" including civil-military specialists and for military support to civil dialogue and reconciliation at community as well as national levels.

It also recommends the restoration of not only Mali's regular military force, but also the police and gendarmerie as well as the inclusion of potentially reconcilable armed groups such as the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA). It also calls for "more sophisticated strategies" for the U.S. than used in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving greater multilateralism and civil-military institution-building rather than the more typical "train and equip" responses that consistently fail to address the institutional and civil-military factors that led to the coup in the first place.

Efforts to build civil-military capacity in post-conflict Mali and Africa at large, it says, should use more universal civil-military models that emphasis peacebuilding as much as security, such as the civil-military coordination framework coming into use by UN, African Union, and other forces. This means that U.S. Civil Affairs and civil-military security assistance education and training programs like the State Department funded Global Peace Operations Initiative and Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance must learn these new frameworks -- if they are to teach them to their clients.

What this all portends is a more humble, collaborative, and demonstrative form of U.S. leadership. Mali offers a teachable moment other than in conflict transformation. The primacy of civil authority -- a key component of democratic civil society -- must be integral to all international and U.S.-assisted security sector related efforts in Africa, in practice as much as policy. More an application of strategy than tactics, it helps mitigate the "slippery slope" of deepening and unending security engagements through a constant obsession with bad guys that has hallmarked the perpetual warfare the Obama administration is now trying to bring to an end.

Besides, the most effective leadership is by example. Walking the talk is the best way of maintaining influence, whether from behind or in front.