The Localization Strategy: Local Logic and Energy in Belgium’s Advising Mission to Niger
By Pierre Jean Deheane
There are constant themes that continue to reappear in policy discussions regarding the effective use of military force. These themes, presented below, make up a persistent list of points Western militaries (and political decision makers) have been doing ineptly over – and – over – again. Discussions on war in general, but especially security force assistance (SFA), in academic circles and conferences have revolved around these issues for decades,[i] giving the impression that they are insurmountable. The list is as follows:
- End States are not clear
- Lack of measures of effectiveness (monitoring, reassessing, feedback loops etc.)
- Milestones – impact assessments that do not sufficiently recognize complexity (particularly non-linearity) and the harmonization (of interests and values) of the “assisted” and “assisting” state.
- Energy (actions especially) is added into a system (assisted state) that cannot hold it
- Lack of Coordination (whole of government/comprehensive approach)
- Lack of local knowledge
- Not understanding the problem
- Focus on quick wins
- Institutional short sightedness and design
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the Localization Strategy (LS) has been shaped in order to confront the issues listed above. It will do this by presenting the strategic context from which the Localization Strategy developed and the underlying principles that guide a particular thinking process designed for uncertainty and complexity. A recent publication in Small Wars Journal focused on the theory of this approach;[ii] this paper will focus on the application. The SOF force generation mission in Niger (2018 – ongoing) will be used as a case study to illustrate how these principles have been put into action with noteworthy results.
The Localization Strategy offers a process of thinking built on observations from a multitude of thinkers in unconventional and conventional warfare.[iii] It explicitly brings together three dominant concepts (complexity, minimalism, and adaptive resilience) and places them on the human system. The human system is defined broadly as anything that impacts human behavior, whether material (things) or immaterial (ideas).[iv] The name of the strategy – Localization – is meant to directly confront the greatest enduring shortfall in military thought and practice: yesterday’s success determining today’s logic. It should go without saying that every conflict is unique to its complex human system. This is why the human system is the bedrock upon which all tactical and strategic processes develop (see Resilience Temple graphic below).
As practitioners, we must always remember that our own human system (socio-political et al) – when intervening – is a fundamental factor. It will act and respond with unique harmony and/or discord depending on time, space, and the nature of the confrontation or cooperation. This critical element to military thought (dual human systems) in planning and executing operations remains insufficient, despite the repeated calls from many experienced voices. Perhaps the reason is simple: “differing systems” sounds good, but how does an organization break these theoretical ideas down (including complexity, minimalism, and adaptive resilience) into something organized and actionable? I hope to be able to convince the reader that the Localization Strategy is a step in the right direction.
Belgian Special Forces Group (SF Gp) in Niger
The short explanation that follows will provide operational and historical context for the rest of this paper. In late 2017, the Special Forces Group was sent to Niger to find and develop advising opportunities with a small team led by what a few months later became a Special Operations Forces Liaison Element (SOFLE). In simpler and more specific terms, the team was meant to make itself as relevant as possible to the Nigerien (NER) special operations command (SOCOM). The commander of the NER SOCOM received a mandate from the Nigerien government in early 2018 to build-up 12 battalions over the next 3-5 years, suddenly making it the largest SOF force generation project in the world. The Belgian team began engaging with the NER SOCOM commander several times a week to plan how this force generation project should develop - course content, course structure, timelines, phases of assistance (train, advise, assist, accompany), and an exit strategy for western partner support.
A “circular” phased approach[v] - from training to accompanying - was presented to Brussels (Evere) and other western partner forces (who later greatly reinforced the efforts) in early 2018. The underlying “sense” to these phases were the principles that will be presented in this paper. One fundamental question guided every step: how will this technique or approach stimulate and reinforce the institutional, structural, collective and individual resilience of the NER SOF battalions? Standardization of equipment and courses were determined to be the first and foundational step to institutional development. As far as design - self-sustainability had to be the mortar bringing every piece of the NER force generation project together. The Resilience Temple below visually illustrates how all military assistance efforts should - in one way or another - aim to stimulate and reinforce adaptive resilience.
When Does the Localization Strategy Finds its Utility
The Localization Strategy provides a thinking process for any intervening force in any kind of operation where force is employed for effect. In other words, it finds relevance if force – in all its configurations[vi] – will or could be solicited in order to change human behavior. All wars employ force – in one form or another – to attempt to favorably alter the behavior of an opponent. This employment of force is at the heart of the Localization Strategy. Every kind of force (kinetic, non-kinetic), combined with how it is used (direct, indirect) will have different implications on the human system (see the spectrum of force below). It is very difficult to predict the implications of any action in a complex system, but actions must sometimes be taken nonetheless. Planning and operating in complexity requires carefully structured thought sequences – yet with space to maneuver and adapt to unfolding realities.
The Resilience Temple (RT) is a visualization of this carefully structured thought sequence. Understanding of the problem is increased by carefully analyzing the human system we are meant to affect. Every strategic (and tactical) act should be linked to this comprehension. All human systems are unique and will respond differently to stimulus (action). Given that human systems are always complex, a misstep can eventually have enormous implications. It is therefore perhaps unwise to provide clear solutions when the problems remain unclear. Minimalism is an excellent cognitive tool for cautiously navigating a complex human system. It forces a certain reliance on local processes and logic while setting better conditions for increased sustainability potential[vii] – defined and unpacked below.
The 3 Fundamentals of the Localization Strategy:
In order to function in this type of complex environment, the three fundamentals of the Localization Strategy are: 1) minimalism – when you come in “light” (materially and immaterially), you must rely on local actors and procedures to a much greater extent, making strategies more likely to be adapted to local realities and less likely to create dependencies; 2) having less intrusive and less entangling forms of intervention with a clear purpose (vision) of stimulating adaptive resilience in fragile states; 3) and most importantly – the more security forces open up to and are guided by the local energy and logic of the host nation’s state of being, the less authority and “foreign notions” will be necessary for durably strengthening it.
The Dark-side of the Localization Strategy:
It is not difficult to turn the intentions of this strategy upside down. If an intervening force understands strategically and tactically how to structurally strengthen a human system to be more resilient, that same intervening force also understands how to destroy the psycho-socio-structural nutrients of a healthy social system (increasing the fragility). I refer to this as the dark side of the Localization Strategy. Understanding the make-up of a system: what makes it strong, what makes it adaptable, and what allows it to grow in spite of disruption, are of course the same things that make it vulnerable. However, this will not be the focus of this paper, as security force assistance (the case study in this paper) is first and foremost about strengthening partner forces.
The Resilience Temple[viii],
It is imperative in strategy to construct a model or approach built on legal requirements and cultural values. It is also imperative to recognize that one must often act without fully understanding the situation. This has and will always be the case. Not having a clear end state (sometimes considered as not having a strategy altogether) may be the most sensible strategy when confusion and ambiguity are the only certainties. How does one determine a clear end-state in a complex area of operation, and perhaps more provocatively, should one do so? The graphical representation of the Localization Strategy above (very) intentionally places adaptive resilience as its end-state – or in other words, the constant and “general direction” north star regardless of confusion and ambiguity.
The Localization Strategy has been designed with one underlying principle: an end-state – adaptive resilience – that complements a complex and volatile world. This complementarity has a certain strategic looseness, ‘an intentional stance of both fluidity (of strategies, structures, and actions) and fixedness (of values and purpose)’.[ix] The rest of this paper will demonstrate how adaptive resilience as an end-state in the LS provides both strategic fluidity (in creative application) and fixedness (in strategic sense and purpose).
A Clear End-state Without a Clear Problem
Fragile conflict environments are vulnerable to stimuli in highly unpredictable ways. (This concept will be revisited when unpacking the principle “non-intrusiveness” below.) Therefore, the idea of a clear end-state where intervening nations assume straightforward objectives largely disregards the reality of war. As previously mentioned, unclear and evolving problems (always the case), should equal highly flexible[x] and evolving solutions. Lawrence Freedman speaks of sequential strategies involving discrete steps, ‘each dependent upon the one before, which together shape the outcome of the war’.[xi] The Localization Strategy – with adaptive resilience as an end state vision – encourages an approach that takes discrete steps, each highly dependent on real-time changes and shifting trends from previous steps. The agility necessary for sequential strategies, as defined by Freedman, has enormous implications for rigid command and control structures that persist in modern militaries.[xii]
The Complex Situation in Niger
More than 80% of Niger is covered by the Sahara Desert with a recent history of coup d’etats and tribal tensions that date back centuries. It is on two major north-south and east-west trading routes through the Sahel region that have been central to its economic history and conflicts. Niger’s history as a French colony continues to shape issues of identity. Structural remnants as well as bitterness remain noticeable and palatable (the military is largely French in its organization and procedures). There are also long standing tensions between herders and farmers that are being aggravated by shrinking pastureland, rising temperatures, and decreasing rainfall. Armed criminal groups are driving around stealing cattle and plundering villages as there aren’t many other options for those whose lands have dried up. Many join these groups to protect themselves, their families, and their villages. In other areas, these groups have merged with violent extremist organizations, using similar tactics, stealing and plundering, but now with a black flag over-head and a camera team.
It is not difficult to see how governments from developing nations can profit from black flag organizations (Violent extremist organizations) within their borders as the West responds with incredible financial packages. Niger is the second poorest country in the world with the highest fertility rate, corruption is rife[xiii], but at the same time, there are religious and cultural characteristics that must be recognized. Fatalism, in that God (or rather Allah) has planned everything already, gives a carte blanche for those in high positions to amass wealth, as it is their lot. Those in high positions also have high obligations to their family and tribe. People, in general, do not have access to education and are easily manipulated.[xiv] The Libyan war released a massive wave of cheap weaponry throughout the region. Any petty criminal with basic means, exchanged their sticks and machetes for AK-47s. This in turn created increasing demand for automatic weapons as attackers and protectors had to even out their relative advantages. With little other opportunities, many naturally turned to illicit trade throughout the region; asking the basic question: “how else am I to survive”?
Nothing is simple about conflict in dynamic and diverse human environments. There is an immense amount of information that continues to be interpreted in whichever way is convenient for those in power. There is no truth per se, there is only perception. After 18 months of deployment in Niger, I see a trend throughout all sectors (development, defense, and diplomacy) tending towards apathy and hopelessness. It appears that conflict and war are a very convenient state of affairs for many in positions of power. Their primary purpose, it is often felt, isn’t to solve problems, but to profit as much as possible from the assistance that comes as a result.
For the Belgian Special Forces Group’s (and our European and North American SOF partners’) purposes in Niger, we have come to support the development of 12 special forces battalions.[xv] We have designed a 20-week standardized program of instruction with two parts – basic and advanced. These courses focus on the techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) necessary to be effective combat companies in the Sahel region. We have set up a training center, with German financial assistance, that will be responsible for continuing our training efforts when we leave. This training center will make sure the Nigerien special forces battalions maintain their skill level and continue to modify and refine their TTPs to an evolving enemy. Everything has been designed to work ourselves out of a job; to make our presence completely unnecessary in five years. The Enhance, Channel, Assist, and Refine (ECARe) Cycle[xvi] provides a strategic plan for doing this. Recognizing that we are dealing with a complex or even chaotic environment, the ECARe Cycle follows the logic of “act, sense, and react”. Many of the principles below find themselves in the design of the ECARe Cycle - a direct result of applying the Localization Strategy to our problem-set in Niger.
The Principles of the Localization Strategy:
- Local energy and logic
- Avoid creating dependencies
- Less intrusiveness
- Less authority more relationship
- Emphasize strategic sense over strategic effect as it directs attention towards the purpose of an effort with more conviction[i] and offers a general vision of change.
- Compress the tactical and the strategic: Strategic-tactics (no tactical actions without strategic alignment)
- The human system as the “clay” from which “the bricks” of tactics and the structures of strategies are made
- Synchronization and coordination: The 3D+ Approach
- Minimalism: Inspiring tactics and strategies more adapted to local realities
1. Local Energy and Logic
As Geoffrey MacKechnie explains: ‘the ease of acceptance of a change will be influenced by the degree of incongruence with preexisting values and cognitions’.[xviii] This is where we must begin when we want to effect change without miscalculated disruption.
The basic idea is to rely on local actors and practices in order to avoid creating transient dependencies[xix] – the primary trait of fragile systems. Local energy and logic is written vertically on the right-hand side of the resilience temple where the “intake and flow” arrows from the soil (illustrated by the brown color) progress towards the end state. It underscores the entire Localization Strategy. How does one use local energy and logic at a tactical and strategic level to stimulate the resilience of a partner force or population? The rest of this paper will focus on connecting principles that should accompany the process of using local energy and logic. Most importantly this “organic”[xx] approach requires time and patience as one should try, as much as possible, to work by, with and through existing processes and established procedures.[xxi] There are certainly other advantages such as local buy-in and ownership, increased sustainability potential, increased need for coordination and communication (C2) across all sectors, increased need for understanding and navigating human factors,[xxii] and more advantages that will be discussed below.
A quick and necessary word on increased sustainability potential. In Security Force Assistance (SFA) operations, this may be the most logical and least understood concept of all. Every human system functions at a different speed and efficiency due to countless factors that make up the system. Some systems are cruising at 25% while others are at 10% or at 80%. If we see these systems as trains moving at different speeds, it may very well be due to the quality of the tracks/terrain/climate. The train cannot go much quicker in these conditions. The input energy – what is brought in by the advising security forces in whichever form – must consider the existing systems’ capacities. Progress in the form of assistance cannot ignore what should be thought of as sustainable input energy. If the system is running at 25%, one should try to seek sustainable gains. It is running at 25% for many reasons, and often this is simply chalked up to incompetence, lack of equipment, lack of training, lack of discipline, lack of courage, lack of this or that. Some of these factors may be true, but as a result of deeper underlying conditions (the tracks rather than the train). Do not come barging in with 90% as the objective (or 100 MPH), this is totally unsustainable and counter-productive. Work the 25% system to a sustainable 30%. Allow the time for the tracks (supporting material and immaterial structures within the systems) to adjust themselves without over taxation. Minimalism (described below and part of the “means triad” in the Resilience Temple) is often a perfect tool for forcing sustainable processes of support. In essence, work with less, work with more dependencies on people or things native to the system you are trying to affect.
I visited a Western military training team in north-west Niger and discussed the program of instruction with the instructors. These programs were intentionally designed to be employed by local cadres for instruction to their own troops (see case studies). Instruction from Western partner forces was meant to be as transitory as possible. The training team mentioned that they did not have enough instructors to follow the 6-week program. I asked why they didn’t use the Nigerien cadres as assistant instructors. They responded that the courses wouldn’t be given to a level they considered satisfactory. They added that it would also mean that local cadres would be doing their work. Fair enough, but both of these responses represent a problem in understanding. They wanted a result with the platoons that the cadres themselves would be incapable of maintaining. Instead of bringing down the expected level (set with foreign measures), working to increase the sustainability potential with small sustainable gains, the local capacities were ignored so that a final exercise at the end of the training program could impress the higher command for what then is truly “just a show”. I have often said to instructors in Niger to try to work themselves out of their jobs as soon as they arrive. But we as instructors need to also learn to understand that sometimes 35% (from our limited perspective) is okay, and will have more enduring “organic” results. When the input energy does not carefully consider sustainable inputs (in capacity development) it can result in demotivation, loss of confidence, and delegitimizing and/or disempowering the leadership responsible for maintaining a speed the tracks (system) cannot support.
1.1 Avoid Creating Dependencies
You work yourself out of a job. All efforts - training, equipping, and partnering - should be designed with self-sustainability (and resilience) in mind.
Example from Niger – Operation New Nero (ONN)[xxiii]:
A 20-week program of instruction (see case study below) was arranged from the beginning to be self-teachable. The 23 course manuals explain in detail – using images and videos – every tactics, technique and procedure necessary to be an effective combat company in the Nigerien context (based terrain and threats). Every Nigerien cadre, regardless of experience or speciality, should be able to give decent training with only the program of instruction as an aid.
Working towards non-dependency partnerships can be politically sensitive. Dependency converts rapidly to leverage, making it an attractive age-old political instrument.[xxiv] This can create difficulties as nations often work with or beside each other while having different revealed or unrevealed interests. More on this later as in Niger – for example – smaller Western states (with less interests) are working alongside larger states with more prominent interests in the region (resulting in more political incentive to increase dependency). Differences are immediately noticed when it comes to equipping partner forces. There are nations like Belgium that cannot provide equipment and attempt to find alternatives as illustrated in the case-studies. There are also nations that can provide non-lethal equipment, but it must come from the providing nation. Finally, there are nations that can supply all kinds of material – lethal and non-lethal – but again, it must primarily come from the providing nation. This form of equipping, in the long term, does not align with the Localization Strategy as it ultimately increases and maintains a need for support. However, not all equipment can be provided in a sustainable manner[xxv] due to insufficient industrialization or simply disinterest of the host nation; and sometimes pressing operational conditions make this approach too protracted. Nevertheless, Western armed forces should be looking at what can be produced and sustained locally such as medical kits, combat vests, combat pouches, weapon slings, uniforms, knee/elbow pads, etc. The case studies below will give several illustrations.
In security force assistance operations, non-dependency partnerships have direct implications for equipping, training, and assisting.[xxvi] How does one equip without creating dependencies? How does one train without creating dependencies? As previously discussed, using local logic and energy has ramifications that must be grasped by all defense, diplomatic, and development actors. Often, time is of the essence, but programs and processes must slow down to a sustainable pace. Non-dependency means making sure that performance and capability increases do not rely, in the long term, on foreign presence and support.
In Niger, the term “Nigerienization” is often used by the Belgian Special Operations Forces Liaison Element (SOFLE) to remind colleagues to work with local energy and logic. As mentioned before with the train and track metaphor, too often security forces put energy into a bucket that cannot structurally sustain it. There are holes and cracks, but oftentimes the solution is still to add more energy. When the bucket is almost full, pictures are rapidly taken, reports are adjoined, backs are patted, and attention is shifted to the next opportunity. With such a bucket, time, effort, and money are wasted. Self-sustainability has to permeate all lines of effort in military operations whenever possible.
The Life Saving Kit (LSK):
In early 2018, the Nigerien battalions each had different medical kits provided by various Western partner nations over the years. There was no standardization and often soldiers did not want to open their kits as it was the only one they might ever receive. Aligning with the Localization Strategy, the (still evolving) Life Saving Kit was designed and made in the artisan markets of Niamey to activate our local energy and non-dependency approach.
At the time of this paper (3 years since the project began), about 10,000 Life Saving Kits have been ordered and distributed[xxvii] to Nigerien security force personnel. It must be said that this approach requires tremendous patience and devotion because it is fully dependent on local processes and cultural habits that are foreign to Western security forces. It also requires enduring support from senior commanders who understand that quick wins – immediate medical kits brought in from the West – are often short and shallow in lasting impact.
The Nigerien Assault Plate Carrier (GAN)[xxviii]
The GAN project began in September 2019 when the Life Saving Kit had reached a high enough quality in fabric and stitching. It took 21 months to reach this point which emphasizes the slow gradual processes of stimulating local capacities. The Nigerien army is almost entirely equipped with foreign material. The equipping situation most often remains at phase 1:
Phase 1: Western partner nations acquire Western made equipment for host nation.
Phase 2: Western partner nations acquire host nation equipment for host nation.
Phase 3: Host nation acquires host nation equipment for host nation.
The GAN project managed to reach phase 3 as one of the first concrete examples in security force assistance in February 2020[xxix]. The GAN has drawn tremendous positive attention from the Nigeriens.