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Belgium in military operations. Between rhetoric and reality...

(B2) How many soldiers are involved? In which areas? In what framework (bilateral or multilateral)? With whom (NATO, EU, UN)? All of these questions are answered, with supporting statistical elements, in an unprecedented study from the (Belgian) Royal Higher Defense Institute. With surprising results

(Credit: Belgian Ministry of Defense / B2 Archives)
  • The lesson of this study is very interesting. Because it is not in Africa - despite history and statements - that Belgium is most involved, even at the European level.

A military presence today reduced to 200 men

At the start of 2021, there were more than 1200 Belgians in operation. Of which only 200 men are on African soil, mainly in the Sahel. The Belgian contribution to multilateral peacekeeping operations in Africa represents only about half of all the troops deployed [by the Belgians] on African soil ". At the military level, the Belgians are thus present in Somalia (EUTM Somalia, EUNAVFOR Atalanta), in Mali (EUTM Mali) and in the Central African Republic (EUTM RCA). At the civilian level, they are present in Niger (EUCAP Sahel Niger), in Mali (EUCAP Sahel Mali) and in the Central African Republic (EUAM RCA). The others are present within the framework of bilateral cooperation (see below).

A temporary peak in 2017

In recent years, Belgium has only sent a limited number of men. And in non-combat functions. It nevertheless provides operational support and supplies equipment. Like its commitment to Mali from 2013 where Agusta helicopters were first deployed “ in support of Serval ", before being " redirected to EUTM Mali until the end of the year ". Subsequently, between 70 and 90 soldiers were sent to “ensure the protection of the Koulikoro training camp ". The Belgian command of the mission (July 2016 – January 2018) is accompanied by “ an increase in the Belgian military presence ", with a " pic » reached during 2017, but which remains temporary. In a general way, " the Belgian military effort drops sharply from 2018 and continues to decrease in 2019 and 2020 ».

Belgian military contributions to CSDP operations in Africa (2013-2020) (graph taken from the report)

A checkered commitment since 1994

However, Belgium used to intervene more in multilateral operations, being keen to present itself as a reliable partner, particularly in Central Africa. So, " nine of the 20 UN operations in which Belgium took part were in different African countries ". At the European level, Belgium participated in 29 of the 37 EU missions and operations, 16 of which were in Africa (nine civilian and seven military). In both cases, this commitment was made in phases, following a “ see-saw dynamics ". With a breaking point in 1994, following the operations carried out in Somalia and Rwanda. The reluctance of the Belgian political class as for military engagement in the former colonies were in reality present well before the setback of UNAMIR [United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, deployed from October 1993 to March 1996] ". But this episode left a lasting mark on people's minds and reinforced " the precautionary principle in the choice of Belgian operational commitments, in particular in Africa ».

Belgian participation in peacekeeping operations in Africa 1990-2020 (graph taken from the report)

End of the 90s, the presence that changes nature

At the political level, the author of the report sees this as the consequence of the conclusions of the commission on Rwanda published in 1999, which recommended “ [no longer contribute] troops to UN operations in countries with which it once had colonial relations ". Belgium then withdrew from all UN missions in Africa. But it continues and strengthens its participation alongside the United Nations in the Balkans.

Early 2000s, return to Central Africa

It was not until the beginning of the 2000s that Central Africa once again became a strategic zone, under the leadership of two ministers, Louis Michel (MR) for Foreign Affairs and André Flahaut (PS) for Defense. French-speaking, they highlight Belgian knowledge of the countries in the region, the terrain and the actors, and insist on using this expertise in order to stabilize the region.

Preference for bilateral partnerships

Belgian commitment in Central Africa is therefore increasingly carried out through “ a strong bilateral commitment, both through development cooperation policy and through foreign and defense policy ". Training of soldiers, capacity and strategic support as in Mali, Benin or Tunisia, assistance in preparing operations in Burkina Faso… The content of these bilateral partnerships is quite close to those of the European Union training missions (EUTM ). But the bilateral aspect allows the Belgians to have the feeling of better control of the situation and to be more effective, unlike multinational operations (EU, UN) when it is not in command. NB: partnerships also exist with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda (one of the most active) but few concrete actions are carried out, when the agreements are not suspended following elections (as in Burundi , where the agreement was suspended from 2015 to 2019).

(Agnes Faure, st.)

  • « Belgium and multilateralism in Africa: between rhetoric and practice », Myrto Hatzigeorgopoulos, Royal Higher Institute for Defence, Security & Strategy 148, Brussels, 66 p., June 2021. A download here
A commitment with variable geometry: economic reasons...
From a budgetary point of view, the defense budget has generally declined since the early 1980s, so that the financial windfall available for operations has been considerably reduced ". The economic crisis of the late 2000s amplified this problem.

 ... and policies
Belgian foreign policy towards Africa also depends on the composition of the government. French-speaking ministers have a more marked interest in the Central African region, while the Flemish traditionally have a more Atlanticist bent. Depending on the composition of each government, the priorities and preferred partners vary.

B2 Writing

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