Strategic Competition and Irregular Warfare in Africa: Lessons from the Cold War (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Peter Burns, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The 21st century will be the African century. The continent’s population is on track to exceed 2.5 billion by 2050. The effort required by governments, economies, and institutions to effectively manage this level of growth will be demanding given the varied challenges Africa faces. Political stability, internal security, climate change, and foreign influence are just some of these challenges, and they will require deliberate planning, investment, and action to address.

The rapid growth of Africa over the next several decades will occur amidst the backdrop of increasing international competition. This creates an opportunity for African states to leverage international alliances through political and economic alignment. The risk of polarizing political alignments by African states is to repeat the past, specifically the Cold War. During this time, strategic competition between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China in Africa created instability and conflict which underlies volatility in many African states to this day.

In the modern conceptualization of strategic competition, the United States seeks to gain relative advantage over adversaries through a whole-of-government approach that includes instruments of military power. The military power applied in strategic competition often takes the form of irregular warfare, as it did during the Cold War period. Application of irregular warfare doctrine is the responsibility of special operations forces, who are increasingly employed around the world to pursue objectives below the threshold of war, often referred to as the grey zone. In the African case, responsible application of special operations forces to strategic competition objectives must be rooted in the lessons of the Cold War to avoid polarizing a continent whose bright future is at risk from foreign influence.