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How to unite enemy fighters into a single national army (and what that means for peace)

- November 11, 2015
Recruits of the Congolese Revolutionary Army, or M23, drill during training in Rumangabo military camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Oct. 23, 2012. (James Akena/Reuters)

Is integrating ex-rebels and former government forces after war the way toward a stable peace? Policymakers and academics seem to think so; military integration has become an important part of peacebuilding.

So far, there is little evidence that joining groups that have fought each other actually does make peace more stable. That’s partly because it takes time to evaluate how well integration worked. Looking at a new national army a year after integration does not tell you how cohesive and efficient it will be in 10 years, or during a new national crisis. That’s partly because military integration often has been understood as a technical process with quotas and structures — and so has drawn little academic attention.

But joining former enemy forces is a political project that requires negotiations, sticks and carrots. The methods used by local and international actors to get ex-combatants to work together and, quite literally, risk their lives for each other can help us understand what people need to overcome differences — and also what type of post-war society we can expect.

In my recent research, I’ve identified four elements that are essential, if not sufficient, to build those fighters into a unified force, despite their antagonistic histories.

1. Political education

By most accounts, Rwanda has an efficient and cohesive army. There, the government invested heavily in “solidarity camps,” or political education programs such as Ingando and Itorero. These programs aimed to create a new national identity for soldiers and citizens alike. They have also helped to rewrite Rwandan history in line with how the Rwandan government wants it portrayed, which has helped the increasingly autocratic Rwandan authorities remain in power.

This shows that an integrated military will not necessarily be under democratic civilian control. That makes it important to ask, as Roy Licklider has done in his book on military integration, who the civilians in control actually are. Do those civilians run a democratic or an autocratic government? These questions are crucial to answer to understand what to expect from the military.

2. Guaranteeing basic welfare

An army’s unity and cohesion doesn’t depend on shared political conviction alone, as was shown by a seminal article by Shilz and Janowitz. Their research examined why German soldiers stayed united and kept fighting during World War II, long after it was clear that Germany had lost. They discovered that fulfilling a soldier’s basic needs goes a long way toward creating cohesion and loyalty.

My own recent research gave similar results as I found that militaries integrated best when all the soldiers had enough food, adequate health care and regular paychecks. Rwanda has therefore invested heavily in providing for its army.

Not all governments have done this successfully. The Congolese army continuously receives irregular and insufficient salaries and food rations, which affects it in a negative way; hungry and unpaid soldiers are unlikely to be efficient in operations.

Taking care of soldiers’ basic needs isn’t enough to guarantee either an efficient and professional army or a stable peace, but it is necessary. Otherwise soldiers may not stay loyal to their employer and civilians lose control of the army.

3. Socialization

Researchers have long pointed out that to help former enemies better work together, contact and communication are important. Ingelaere and Verpoorten’s research on building trust among civilians in post-genocide Rwanda and Burundi confirms this.

Fighting and dying together is supposedly one of the most intensive socialization processes a soldier can experience. Many post-war armies are (unfortunately) likely to go through this, whether fighting remaining rebels or new enemies.

But there are other ways to socialize and bring together former enemies, from bringing them into common spaces like canteens to putting them through intense training and peacekeeping deployments together. That’s what has happened a great deal during the past decade, as nations in the global south – including post-war states – have increasingly contributed troops to peacekeeping operations.

For instance, the Burundian army was deployed in peace operations to Somalia just a few years after being integrated. So was the DRC army, which deployed troops to CAR. That happened at the same time as the largest U.N. mission at the time was in the Congo to quell violence and chase rebels.

Peacekeeping deployment involves training and fighting together in a new situation which is less risky than fighting in war. Such a deployment can socialize former fighters into an integrated although not necessarily united group. This seemed to happen to the postwar Burundi army when deployed as peacekeepers in Somalia, although recent events in Burundi have put this assumption in question.

4. Professionalization

Peacekeeping can also facilitate the professionalization of an army — which in turn can help former enemy forces merge into a unified military institution. Professionalizing involves teaching a military ethos, with rules, codes of honor and a commitment to remaining neutral during social and political upheaval.

Professionalization can be helped along when new armies observe other countries’ militaries’ (good) behavior in peace operations. Although a radically different process, professionalization, like effective political education, results in helping the soldiers leave aside individual differences for a higher, common purpose: that of serving the nation as an army.

These four elements — socialization, professionalization, political education and welfare provision — all help militaries come together as one. But how do we know whether all these have worked and the army has become a united force? Moreover, how can we decide if military integration actually can build a stable peace?

One way of testing the army’s capacity is to see how it performs in major military operations. Is the army functional and capable of performing its tasks?

A yes to this question does not necessarily mean that the army is actually united. That can’t be tested until we see how it behaves in a new national crisis. For instance, right now in Burundi, political trouble related to the elections has put the army in a difficult situation, as could be seen during the coup attempt in May. When and how should the military react in case the civilian political leadership splits? To whom should the military forces be loyal if the civilian leader challenges the constitution? What does it mean to be neutral in such a situation? There are no easy answers to these questions, as the emerging divisions within the Burundian army show.

5. A country ready for peace

Military integration can help build the peace to a certain degree by creating increased security, employing former fighters and standing as a united symbol for society at large. Yet military integration does not succeed unless there first is some stable ground to stand on: an environment ripe for peace.

Military disintegration is rarely the sole or the first cause of renewed conflict, as Krebs has argued.  However, as we see in Burundi, military integration may temporarily prevent major conflict and violence from erupting – and that can create space and time to allow international mediators to see political solutions. Military integration may therefore briefly stall a political conflict from spilling over into armed violence — but it is highly improbable that military integration alone can produce a stable peace.

Dr. Nina Wilén is a FNRS postdoctoral fellow at Université Libre de Bruxelles and senior associate of the Security Governance Group, and the author of the book “Justifying Interventions in Africa.” Follow her on twitter @wilennina.