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A president must know exactly where his troops are, what they are doing and watch out for them, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - US President Bill Clinton had “war rooms” for combating just about every domestic political crisis, from health care to sex scandals (perhaps).
But he didn’t have a war room for wars. And so in October 1993 his administration was caught flat-footed when 18 US rangers were killed and two helicopters shot down by warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed’s militias in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” episode in Mogadishu.
It was a classic case of “mission creep”.
The original task of the US force had been to deliver food aid, but Aideed kept frustrating that effort, so they decided to go after him.
Yet they weren’t given the means to accomplish the much larger mission.
One important lesson for presidents was when you have troops abroad in danger, know exactly where they are, what they are doing and watch out for them.
Lesson two was don’t expose your military unless you’re prepared to give them enough force to defend themselves and do the job.
South Africa’s Black Hawk Down moment was on March 24 when an undermanned and under-armed force of some 200 SANDF paratroops was overrun by Seleka rebels on the outskirts of Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR), losing 15 men.
This was also a bad case of mission creep; the force had started off supposedly just training President Francois Bozize’s military and ended up – inadvertently, it seems – fighting for his survival while his own troops and regional allies deserted.
Bozize, now in exile, has told the Sunday Times that President Jacob Zuma had let him down by reneging on an agreement – made just days before he was overthrown, during a desperate visit to Pretoria – to send in greater force to protect him.
What a nerve!
Why should South African troops have propped up a rotten leader?
Yet, as things turned out, it would probably have been a better course for Zuma to have followed than leaving a half-baked force in harm’s way.
For a serious and substantial force could have prevented Bozize’s overthrow and could, certainly should, have then literally put a few guns to his head and demanded that he honour his commitments in the power-sharing deal he had signed with Seleka two months before.
Instead the SANDF was forced to withdraw in confusion and the CAR has become far worse than before, an entirely lawless land.
Has Zuma fully learnt the lessons of Bangui 2013?
The same lessons as those of Mogadishu 1993?
South Africa now has 1 345 SANDF soldiers participating in the Force Intervention Brigade which is part of Monusco, the UN peacekeeping force in Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the brigade has a much more hazardous mandate than the rest of Monusco – to actively go after the M23 rebels and many other armed groups terrorising the eastern DRC.
Last week M23 clashed heavily with DRC soldiers near the city of Goma on the Rwandan border.
But there has been no sign of the Force Intervention Brigade – which also includes about 1 000 troops each from Tanzania and Malawi – engaging M23.
But that seems likely to happen soon if the fighting continues.
Zuma and Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos agreed at a meeting with DRC President Joseph Kabila in Luanda on Friday that Angola would become more involved in training the DRC military to improve its poor performance and would co-ordinate that training more with South Africa which has been doing it for years.
But why did Zuma not ask Dos Santos to contribute some of his capable, war-seasoned troops to the Force Intervention Brigade to take on the capable M23 rebels?
An official explained that the UN mandate for the brigade placed a ceiling of just over 3 000 on its strength.
That was because its mandate was just to be a deterrent, to support the current DRC-M23 peace talks.
But remember Mogadishu and Bangui.
Rebels, and especially the M23 backed by militaristic Rwanda, are not stupid.
The only sure deterrent is overwhelming force.
* Peter Fabricius is editor of Independent Newspaper’s Foreign Service.