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African Standby Force to be Operational by Early Next Year

Soldiers from 22 African nations join exercises as part of the African Union's African Standby Force (ASF) at the South Africa National Defense Force's Lohatla training area, Oct. 27, 2015.

Why does Africa need a standby, continental army that can parachute into hotspots at a moment’s notice?

For South African Navy Captain Jaco Theunissen, the answer can be boiled down to just a few words: Mali. The Central African Republic. Congo.

“It’s specifically because of those interventions,” Theunissen told VOA News. “... The feeling is that Africa should send their own African force instead of bringing the United Nations to come and do peace support operations. Let it be an African standby force doing the African peace support operations.”

The 25,000-strong African Standby Force, under the auspices of the African Union, aims to do just that. The force right now includes service members from Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The ASF is expected to become operational in January.

Captain Theunissen is the military spokesman for the unit’s most recent exercise, called AMANI Africa II. The war games scenario recently ended in South Africa.

He says the troops he recently observed are well-trained, professional soldiers. Being African, he says, gives them a greater understanding of their environment, which makes for better peacekeeping.

Money Always an Issue

Analyst Jakkie Cilliers leads the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. He told VOA News that he is a big proponent of the force.

“The African Standby Force is absolutely indispensable,” he told VOA News from Brussels. “The idea was originally mooted more than 15 years ago, at a time that the international community, the West in particular, were withdrawing from the provision of peacekeeping. They were willing to provide funding. And what has happened is that they have put money on the table, the European Union in particular, and Africa then developed what is now known as the African Standby Force.

"It’s not yet fully operational, but already we see components of the force deployed in places like Somalia and elsewhere. It is absolutely essential that Africa contribute to maintaining and keeping the peace in Africa because the international peacekeepers aren’t available anymore,” he added.

But no one disputes that this endeavor faces one major challenge.

“It’s money,” Theunissen said. “It’s always money. It’s a very expensive, costly and technical operation. So the big challenge will always remain money. … But, just looking at the exercise, because it was as real-life scenario as possible, it would indicate, that it is possible, the strategic projection that was done by by the African Union countries themselves, and the whole exercise proved that it can be done.”

For better or worse, Cillers says, the creation of the standby force won’t entirely displace the U.N., but complement it. The U.N., he says, isn’t always prepared to deploy unless there is “a peace to keep.”

The ASF is envisioned to enter more fractious situations and help restore peace. In this way, he says, the standby force can move in quickly to pacify hotspots, and then hand over to the U.N.

Will Soldiers Be Seen as Neutral?

But there is another challenge. Many African nations have clashed over land and resources. And Africa’s colonial-era borders have given rise to numerous cross-border skirmishes between rival ethnic groups. This history can make for tricky peacekeeping, Cilliers says.

“The tradition of peacekeeping is that the troop contributors need not be from the region, and need not have any specific interests in a particular area,” he said. “This has not been the case. And the reason, very often, is that only that regional countries, let’s say in the case of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, have a real interest and political will to intervene."

Also, he says, Africa usually does not have the funding to send troops long distances - to deploy soldiers from Rwanda into West Africa, for instance.

"So what inevitably happens is that the peacekeepers come from the immediate region," Cillers says. "Not ideal, with all kinds of problems, but it is better than having nobody there.”