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EU global strategy and the changing nature of conflicts

Recognising that the EU neighbourhood has transformed from a ‘ring of friends’ into a ‘ring of fire’, the strategy nevertheless remains vague on key concepts such as hybrid wars, terrorism, and strategy.

lead Federica Mogherini at a press confernce in the Netherlands, September 2016. Wikicommons/ EU2016 NL. Some rights reserved. The publication of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) on 28 June 2016 by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini represents the final result of a two year-long work that has involved extensive consultations with EU member states, European experts and scholars, and third countries representatives.

The Global Strategy represents a much needed improvement on the European Security Strategy (2003) which stated: “The violence of the first half of the 20th Century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history”. Given the deteriorating geopolitical situation in the southern and eastern neighbourhoods of the EU in recent years, it was obvious that this was no longer in touch with realities on the ground.

However, despite the Global Strategy’s recognition that the EU’s neighbourhood has transformed from a ‘ring of friends’ into a ‘ring of fire’, it remains vague on key concepts such as strategy, hybrid wars, and terrorism.

Generally speaking, strategy entails the setting of clear-cut objectives, determining envisaged implementation mechanisms and actions, and mobilizing the related resources needed to achieve those goals. In short, a strategy generally describes why, how and when objectives are to be achieved by the given resources. While the desired objectives of the EU are well expressed in the EUGS, an explanation of the necessary (military, political, ideational and economic) means is lacking, as is a clear understanding of the kind of threats the EU is faced with.

For instance, the document highlights the risk of hybrid wars, referring to the kind of operations Russia has been conducting in Crimea. However, the document does not specify what a ‘hybrid threat’ is, where it originates, and what kind of means the EU would need to counter it. This is a serious shortcoming because hybrid warfare could refer to two very different kinds of military operations. First, a state could resort to hybrid warfare in order to avoid a direct military confrontation with the enemy conventional forces using Special Forces, local militias or contractors. Secondly, hybrid warfare refers to non-state groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra and others that are hybrid because they mix the use of advanced weapons (mainly missiles and drones) with conventional infantry and terrorism tactics. Consequently, they blur regular and irregular tactics, creating a “new” kind of warfare in which terrorism becomes the main, but not the sole, fighting method.

Insurgent groups

As a consequence, these non-state groups could not be simply defined as terrorist: the notion of insurgent groups appears more correct. This is because, historically speaking, every insurgent group has resorted to, at least to some extent, terrorism as a tactic; militarily speaking, just because a group controls a territory, its population, and its resources does not make it automatically a terrorist group.

Instead it rather is an insurgent movement that uses terrorist tactics according to its objectives and based on the current tactical situation. The EUGS points precisely to the risk linked to terrorism but seems to be rooted in a rather narrow notion of terrorism and does not precisely indicate who is the enemy that resorts to terrorist tactics, where exactly such an enemy operates, who its allies are and how the enemy finances its operations.

To be sure, defending EU citizens and interests from terrorist attacks is a priority of EU policy but de facto this is just a tactical response, and the EU urgently needs a more comprehensive and proactive approach that would truly allow it to fight the actual insurgency and the related geopolitical issues that fuel those terrorist attacks. Moreover, this kind of approach would be consistent with the EUGS statement of investing in prevention and resolution of conflicts, avoiding “premature disengagement”.

Promoting resilience

Focusing on Africa and the Middle East, the EUGS commits to intensifying “its support for, and cooperation with, regional and sub-regional organisations”, and for this purpose it highlights the need to look beyond states and issues that are at the front line of the EU’s neighborhood. The EUGS calls upon local and regional actors and international organizations (e.g. the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the African Union) to intensify collaboration, multilateral cooperation, and to “promote resilience”.

Yet, while such calls appear to be rather overdue and mutually beneficial, the EUGS ignores other major issues in the southern neighbourhood, notably the conflict in Iraq, the role of Kurds, of Shia militias, and of ISIS, thereby creating a dangerous shortcoming to address in a comprehensive way the new geopolitics of the area.

The EUGS urges EU member states to invest more in cyber technologies and “in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, including Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, satellite communications, and autonomous access to space and permanent earth observation”. Consequently, the EU strategy seems to envisage a kind of conflict similar to those fought by the United States against irregular fighters since 2001 using targeted killing operations. A precise definition of targeted killing operations does not exist but they could be described as operations that a state could enforce thanks to its drones and its intelligence capabilities and that are destined to eliminate specifically targeted individuals.

Today such operations take place extensively: Israel conducts them against Hamas; Russia does the same against Chechen fighters; and the United States does it in their fight against the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in multiple theaters of war. This widespread recourse to such killing operations has several grounds: it is convenient for governments with casualty-averse domestic populations; it is considered morally preferable to conventional alternatives; it is believed to disrupt and degrade terrorist organizations by keeping terrorists on the run, reducing their ability to plot attacks, and eliminating skilled operatives.

The last justification assumes that targeted killing operations are effective; however, evidence about this presumed effectiveness is lacking. Moreover, the use of drones has caused hundreds of civilian casualties – a development that has created hatred towards this kind of weaponry and strategy. This is a key point because, given that the EU needs a comprehensive approach, creating hate amongst local populations is certainly counterproductive.

Finally, in spite of the use of high-technology devices, the reality of current wars is that they are still fought mainly by infantry, notably by foot soldiers that engage in close combat on the ground. In fact, 81% of American casualties after the Second World War are infantrymen; this is also true for EU member states involved in violent conflicts; for example, all Italian soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 were infantrymen from different army branches. To be sure, investing in modern technology and in research and development is a key asset. However, if the use of drone causes hatred and if it cannot be considered a substitute of “boots on the ground”, as every recent operation suggests, then a more enlightened policy would entail investment in ways that provide improved training and fighting capabilities of infantry troops (even using advanced technology), rather than investments in new and rather costly state-of-the-art devices.

Closer cooperation

Lastly, the EUGS highlights the need for closer cooperation between EU member states among one another as well as between the EU and NATO, the latter of which “remains the primary framework for most Member States”. Although this kind of call is not new, today cooperation, at least at the logistical and research and development level, is even more strongly recommended. EU member states collectively spent some €200 billion on defense in 2015, but much of it is wasted. For example, there are nineteen different types of armored infantry fighting vehicles across EU member states, while the United States produces just one type. Since every EU member state has its own political agenda, strategic culture and geopolitical areas of interest, it is admittedly impossible to have the same military requirements for weapons systems. Yet, projects like the European Defence Action Plan and the European Defence Research Program could help to strengthen military cooperation and thus generate cost-reducing synergies.

In conclusion, the EUGS represents a key strategic document for the EU and it outlines convincingly the priorities of the EU’s foreign and security policy. However, it suffers from serious shortcomings regarding the definition of strategy, the notion of terrorism – much more complex in reality than the document seems to presume – and the use of the right military means to deal with the current security situation in the EU’s neighbourhood and beyond.

About the author

Andrea Beccaro is a Research Fellow at the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe (Natolin), Warsaw.


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