African Solutions to African Problems: #Reviewing Composite Warfare

Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa. Eeben Barlow. Pinetown, South Africa: 30°South Publishers, 2016.

“Africa is currently the dumping ground for bad advice, and old and sometimes obsolete weapons from both East and West.”
—Eeben Barlow, Author’s Introduction to Composite Warfare

A useful metaphor for the way wars in Africa are perceived in the West is the way Africa itself is commonly viewed—a homogenous country instead of a continent composed of thousands of distinct cultures, interests, factions, religions, and more countries than America has states.[1] War in Africa is a vastly misunderstood concept to the majority of the United States military, save for the small number of Special Operations Forces that are fighting various groups across the continent. The prevailing narrative has been that the solution to the various African wars requires intervention by outside powers, which has been the understood norm with respect to Africa since its colonization by European powers, as seen in the numerous post-Cold War forays made by the U.S., UN, and other external entities. In his book, Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa, author Eeben Barlow seeks to directly challenge that narrative, instead proposing to not only define the nature and causes of conflict in Africa, but to guide African governments and militaries to fight war to conclusion on African terms.

There is not a single individual in Africa more qualified to write a book about warfare in Africa than Eeben Barlow, and to understand the book and his personal perspective, it is necessary to briefly examine his career. There is as much myth as fact associated with Eeben Barlow, and he is often nonchalantly dismissed as simply a mercenary. Not only does this characterization lack depth, but it entirely misses the motivations and career arc of the man. Barlow, a white South African, began his professional military career in 1974, joining the South African Defense Force during the South African Border War. His first assignment was as the commander of the Air Assault Engineers of 44 Parachute Brigade. From 1979 to 1983 Barlow served as a junior officer in the famed 32 Battalion’s Reconnaissance Wing, the primary unconventional warfare unit engaged in Namibia and Angola.[2] In 1984 he was transferred to Military Intelligence’s Directorate of Covert Collection, and later moved to clandestine operations in the South African Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the covert wing of South African Special Forces, until he retired in 1989.[3] In 1989 Barlow founded Executive Outcomes, a private military company, which operated in Angola, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere around the world. Barlow left Executive Outcomes in June 1997 and the company closed its doors in 1998.[4] In the interim Barlow worked as an independent advisor to various African governments, before being appointed chairman of Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment, and Protection International (STTEP) in 2009. STTEP’s website describes its mission as:

STTEP International Ltd is an international, privately-owned Military, Intelligence and Law Enforcement training and advisory company. Founded in 2006, STTEP has established itself as a dedicated, apolitical, highly professional, service-driven entity that supports both international—but primarily African governments and business entities.[5]

From December 2014 to April 2015 STTEP was  a combat advisor  to the Nigerian Government in its fight against Boko Haram.[6] Barlow speaks from a place of vast experience where conflict in Africa is concerned, and it  helps set the foundation for his book.

Composite Warfare strikes the reader as a Professional Military Education (PME) text that could be handed to any enlisted troop, junior officer, mid-grade officer, flag officer, and even policymaker, as a textbook for how to wage warfare in Africa. The author defines the central idea of the book, composite warfare, as efforts by all elements of the pillars of state (defined later in this piece), conducting a politico-military campaign connected to a clearly defined national strategy. This type of warfare is not purely military, but a true, unpartitioned, amalgam of political and military contexts.[7] The work is broken into three major parts: “Understanding conflict and war in Africa,” “Conventional maneuver during composite warfare operations,” and “Unconventional maneuver during composite warfare operations.” The chapters are logically ordered, first describing the fundamental nature of conflict and warfare in Africa, the principles of good governance, the strategic and operational principles of warfare, and later digging into the operational and tactical details, addressing both the conventional and unconventional aspects of warfare.

There is little in the book not worth reading for those interested in military strategy, but due to its length at over 500 pages, the focus of the remainder of this review will be that which makes is so important—its unique perspective and strategic power. What this book does is not only present an authentically African view on the conduct of warfare in Africa, something that is rarely seen, and never in such a comprehensive manner, but it also occupies the underdeveloped intellectual space between Clausewitz and Mao. The strategic narrative woven throughout combines the political nature of warfare espoused by Clausewitz in On War, yet also shows concern for governmental legitimacy and popular support essential in Mao’s On Guerrilla  Warfare. This approach, along with its depth of strategic and operational thought, as well as its perspective, makes this a must-read for any strategist seeking a non-traditional view on warfare.

In the opening chapters of Composite Warfare, Barlow sets the strategic framework he uses to inform the remainder of the work. He defines strategy in his own “Africanist” way:

A more Africanist [the author’s own] definition of National military strategy is that it is an intellectual exercise (guided by the national strategy and national security strategy) aimed at determining the most efficient, realistic, sustainable, and viable manner by which to deploy forces, engage hostile forces, and meet national security objectives while securing, protecting, and defending the Pillars of State.[8]

U.S. Army special forces with troops from the Central African Republic and Uganda in Obo, Central African Republic (Ben Curtis/AP)

He defines the pillars of state as: Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Armed Forces, Governance, The Economy, The Populace, and Perception.[9] Each of which are necessary to maintain the integrity and the sovereignty of the state.[10] The conversation herein about the nature of one’s own governmental legitimacy, and the importance of maintaining it, is one that is taken for granted in Western military strategy, as it would be unthinkable to not have a properly functioning government in charge of its armed forces. Legitimacy is assumed in the West, whereas in Barlow’s work, each pillar’s maintenance is central to the conduct of successful operations. His “perception” pillar is of particular interest to 21st century warfare. In the pillar description, he defines the tension between state, mainstream, international, and social media and their respective effects on governance and the state.

Throughout the text, Barlow places a significant emphasis on the importance of intelligence. This is consistent with his career in Special and Clandestine Operations, and  it is a common thread throughout almost every chapter. This emphasis most likely stems from the difficulty of proper intelligence collection, assessment, analysis, and dissemination, within, developing nations, therefore it necessitates continual readdressing.[11] He even goes so far as to write, “When intelligence fails, the Pillars of State inevitably suffer damage. [Intelligence] Failures may even result in the collapse of the Pillars of State.”[12] This lends a significantly elevated level of importance to intelligence, not just for military operations in Africa, but to the survival of the African state.

Composite Warfare’s chapters on conventional maneuver are comprehensive and informative. They serve as a guide for the planning and conduct of ground operations. Barlow addresses everything from the planning cycle and the composition of forces, to the decision to attack mounted or unmounted and attacks against fortified positions. These sections read much like a PME course would,giving detailed instructions, almost in how-to format, on the conduct of warfare, much of which focuses on the tactical and operational levels of war. Barlow has had significant successes as a military advisor, training forces in several African nations, and it would make sense that his intent is to be able use the work as a textbook in that endeavor.

Soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo patrol in Bangui, Central African Republic as part of the Multinational Force of Central African States. (Boris Heger/ICRC)

The “Unconventional Maneuver” section is one of the most interesting of the work, especially given the author’s experiences as an element of unconventional forces in several conflicts across the continent. He specifies the schools of thought on Unconventional Warfare within Africa as, “Revolutionary, Political, Socio-psychological, Ethno-religious, Minority, Proxy, and Economic.” He also uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a model “…by which to gauge the potential for conflict.”[13] This conversation helps illuminate the motivations behind why portions of the population may take up arms against its government, and provides a well thought out guide for reducing tensions or ultimately ending a conflict. Barlow then continues, similarly to the “Conventional Maneuver” section, to discuss the planning and conduct of unconventional operations in support of a national military strategy.

As the book comes to a close, in a section that probably could have stood separate from the rest, Barlow does something very interesting that is almost transparent to the reader until they contemplate the significance: he posits an African-specific military structure. He eliminates the squad, platoon, battalion structure of Western and Eastern thinking and instead proposes African Army Groups that vary in function from Special Operations to Tactical Air Support, and even a Pillar Support Group—each tailored to the individual nation’s needs. The Pillar Support Group’s function is uniquely African in that it is composed of civil servants and government officials who “…advise the division commander on threats to the Pillars of State—with the exception of military action—within the division’s AO. This group supports the division commander and allows issues of governance to be identified and rectified.”[14] This focus on the importance of good internal governance is seldom seen in Western or Eastern military texts, and it adds a useful new strategic dimension to combat operations.

As a stand-alone text on the conduct of composite ground operations in Africa, Composite Warfare would be an essential read for anyone with any interest in the subject. As a tool of Professional Military Education, there is no more concise, more reachable, or more comprehensive guide to composite operations, and therefore it would be invaluable to any African military to jump-start their training and professionalization. As a counter-narrative to common Western military thinking, the book has consequence to future wars in Africa and elsewhere.  Even the simple fact that the author writes about conducting operations without necessarily having air superiority, a thought abhorrent to U.S. military planners, has utility for informing strategists. However, most important, is what underpins the entire work, the pragmaticism and the near-idealism that permeates throughout, best shown in Barlow’s introductory remarks:

African conflicts and wars are not fought along politically correct lines; nor should they be fought to achieve stalemates merely to satisfy international organizations, foreign governments, and NGOs—there is simply too much at stake. These conflicts and wars are brutal, vicious, and savage, and often fought at very close quarters. If Africa is to take its rightful place in the world, it must bring these conflicts and wars to a speedy conclusion. My hope is that this work will assist armies in Africa do just that.[15]

The power of this statement cannot be underestimated, because within lies both the necessary pragmatism with which a practitioner must approach thinking about African wars, but also the necessary idealism of “African Solutions to African Problems,” which is what Barlow ultimately desires. If only as a way to frame the conversation about the nature of intervention in Africa, the significance of the book moves from useful to indispensable.

Jack McCain is a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: SPLA Soldiers. (Timothy Mckulka/UNMIS)


[1] Seay, Laura, and Kim Yi Dionne. "Weary professors give up, concede that Africa is a country." The Washington Post. April 01, 2016. Author’s note: This is a satirical piece, but it is indicative of the attitudes with respect to Africa.

[2] Barlow, Eeben. Executive Outcomes: Against All Odds. Alberton, South Africa: Galago, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


[6] Freeman, Colin. "South African Mercenaries' Secret War on Boko Haram." The Telegraph. May 10, 2015.

[7] Barlow, Eeben. Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa. Pinetown, South Africa: 30° South, 2016, 424.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 127.

[10] Ibid., 126.

[11] Author’s note: Although this is a problem not necessarily unique to developing nations, it is a particularly poignant problem in a nation with little pre-existing professional military capacity.

[12] Ibid., 212.

[13] Ibid., 363.

[14] Ibid., 483.

[15] Ibid., 15.