West Africa’s Decisive Intervention: A Lesson in Strategy

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” - Sun Tzu [1]

The waning weeks of 2016 and the first month of 2017 witnessed one of the most strategically effective uses of military force in the 21st century. When long-time President of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, refused to step down after being voted out of office, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sponsored a Senegalese-led intervention that forced Jammeh to leave the country.  This intervention upheld the integrity of the Gambian democratic process and allowed the victor, Adama Barrow, to assume leadership of the small West African country. The ECOWAS intervention force assembled the means to impose its will on their opponent, formulated and executed a strategy calibrated to achieve the political effects desired, and achieved all of its policy goals--all without firing a single shot.

In recent years, inter-state military conflict has declined. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, explored the decrease in many types of violence and eludes a continuation of that trend “if the conditions persist.”[2] Joseph Nye has taken on the question of of whether or not military force is obsolete and Rosa Brooks has questioned whether there is even a distinction between war and peace. The Gambian Intervention, seemingly an example of a classic use of interstate military force, occurred in the midst of these debates. This short military intervention in a small West African country can teach us more than it would seem.

Operation Restore Democracy

The Gambia became independent in 1965 after centuries of British colonial rule. The tiny country remained a constitutional monarchy (with Queen Elizabeth II as the official monarch) until a referendum in 1970, whereupon it became a republic. Following the country’s governmental transition from a monarchy to a republic, Sir Dawda Jawada was elected to the presidency five times. A decade later, in 1981, a coup attempt prompted Jawada to request military aid from neighboring Senegal. The Senegalese troops easily defeated the rebel opposition and Jawada remained in power.

The republic period lasted until 1994 when another coup succeeded in installing Lieutenant Yayha Jammeh, then only 29 years old, as president. President Jammeh’s administration has been controversial, and not simply because he refused to risk fair elections. His tenure was marked by restrictions on the freedom of press, various human rights abuses, and anti-LGBT policies. His grip on the country even led to an attempted coup d’etat involving US citizens.

Jammeh’s...grip on the country even led to an attempted coup d’etat involving US citizens.

This is why the 2016 election was such a surprise. After 22 years in power, Jammeh not only lost the election, but conceded that loss in a speech.

The election and the subsequent concession should have been a victory for Gambians and West Africa, a region that has seen too little democracy and rule of law since decolonization. Jammeh had the chance to set an excellent example for other African leaders, but somewhere it went wrong. Jammeh recanted his concession nine days after the election and prepared to stay in the country, forcing his popularly-elected opponent to flee to neighboring Senegal.

Yahya Jammeh has refused to leave office despite losing The Gambia's presidential election last December | AP

Yahya Jammeh has refused to leave office despite losing The Gambia's presidential election last December | AP

It was at this point that the public reactions began. ECOWAS stated that it would intervene militarily if Jammeh did not accept the results of the election even as Jammeh attempted to force Gambia’s judiciary to weigh in on the election and confirm his decision to remain. The African Union gave Jammeh a deadline of 19 January 2017, at which point it would stop recognizing him as the legitimate president of Gambia. ECOWAS was as good as its word. They selected Senegal to lead the military intervention, but troops from Nigeria, Mali, Togo, and Ghana also contributed forces. Troops began massing on the Gambian border on 18 January. On 19 January, the UN Security Council endorsed the intervention and Adama Barrow, still in Senegal, was sworn in as the President of the Gambia.

That evening, with Jammeh still refusing to step down, Senegalese and Ghanaian troops crossed the border into The Gambia. The Nigerian Air Force conducted reconnaissance flights and began a naval blockade. There were reported clashes, but Senegalese forces quickly took control of Jammeh’s hometown of Kanilai. Meanwhile, negotiations with Jammeh continued and many Gambian officials either resigned or pledged allegiance to Barrow. The upheaval left Jammeh with only a small mercenary force. Although he missed more than one deadline to step down, on January 21 Jammeh acquiesced to a deal to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea.

The Intervention and Decisive Military Force

To call the Gambian Intervention decisive seems obvious, but the term “decisive” is loosely defined in strategic studies literature. “Decisiveness” is sometimes used to simply mean “important” but whether or not a military action is decisive is only meaningful in relation to the desired goal. If the action achieves the intended goal, it was decisive. To evaluate the decisiveness of the intervention then we must look to the political goals of the strategic actors. In the case of the Gambian Intervention, the political conflict is not hard to diagnose: Jammeh wanted to remain the President of the Gambia, and a host of other political actors- foreign and domestic- wanted a legitimate transition of power. The ECOWAS coalition achieved its political aim of removing Jammeh and enabling the legitimate transition of power in the Gambia, therefore the intervention was decisive

But why was it decisive? In the course of a matter of weeks, West African leaders came to a consensus to use military force to achieve a political goal, aligned military means to achieve that goal, and planned a strategy aimed at an opposing strategic center of gravity, Jammeh himself. To do this, they needed to heed Clausewitz’s injunction to correctly diagnose the type of war upon which they were about to embark.[3] When it came to execution, little was left to probability and chance; Senegal had even pre-identified stocks of food and supplies for refugees. The ECOWAS effort was successful because they understood exactly the kind of war upon which they were embarking: one where Jammeh himself, lacking popular support, would be the focus of operations. ECOWAS designed a strategy to isolate Jammeh from centers of gravity below the strategic level; the Gambian armed forces, the Gambian people, and other elements of the Gambian government. Subduing the enemy without fighting is indeed the acme of skill, but in this case it was made possible by an accurate diagnosis of the strategic context a la Clausewitz.

When it came to execution, little was left to probability and chance; Senegal had even pre-identified stocks of food and supplies for refugees.

The reward for the lucid appraisal of the strategic situation, effective planning, and a tightly disciplined use of military force was the achievement of the political end state without a shot fired and without a life lost. The intervention was decisive because of the logical alignment of all of these critical factors.

The odds were heavily against Jammeh from the start. The Gambia is a tiny country, and its neighbor Senegal is not. Even if the Gambian military and populace sided with Jammeh, the ECOWAS coalition could have easily generated enough military force to overcome whatever forces stayed loyal to Jammeh. Lastly, that Jammeh himself was the strategic center of gravity that drove the political clash was fairly obvious. However, war is a phenomenon of probability and chance. Mistakes, missteps, and miscommunications are always possible. Senegal could have launched a larger, full invasion of the Gambia. More foreign forces would have raised the probability of misdirected violence against the populace, potentially leading to a nationalist insurgency that would turn the political legitimacy of the intervention on its head. The fact thatthis did not happen is a testament to the accurate diagnosis of the strategic context that drove decisions based on existing military means and objectives. The intervention called for a sufficient but smaller force, and ECOWAS was wise to recognize this. 

The story of the Gambian Intervention should put to rest the question of whether military force can still be decisive in the 21st century. Clearly it can. But to be decisive, military force must be employed in a strategically coherent manner.  The fact that the threat of violence was never actualized is irrelevant; war is the use of violence or the threat thereof for political ends and thus the Gambian Intervention is a demonstration of the decisive use of military force that, since it was bloodless, should also be seen as an example of Sun Tzu’s “acme of skill.” This achievement is the result of the proper alignment of strategic means based on an accurate assessment of the political conflict.

If the debate about whether military force can still be decisive is put to flight, another debate can begin; a debate over an unanswered question. If the ECOWAS nations can manage to devise and execute an effective and decisive strategy in the 21st century, why can’t others?

Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst and officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a Featured Contributor for The Strategy Bridge. He's the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (forthcoming May 2017) from the Naval Institute Press. Brett holds a B.A. in History from The Ohio State University and an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

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[1] Griffith, Samuel B trans. Sun Tzu. The Art of War. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. Page 77.

[2] Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. New York: Penguin, 2011.Page 671.

[3] Howard, Michael and Peter Paret, trans. Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. Page 88