By Frederic Wehery
The escalation and spillover of Libya’s conflict has posed mounting security challenges for Tunisia and exposed shortfalls in the country’s defense transformation, in the areas of capability gaps, interagency coordination, intelligence sharing, strategic planning, and in the military’s relationship with foreign security patrons.
TUNISIA’S OVERDEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN AND ESPECIALLY AMERICAN PLANNING SUPPORT
A common refrain among observers and critics of Tunisia’s defense establishment is that its foreign backers are setting the country’s defense priorities, steering it toward the containment of two spillover threats: stopping sub-Saharan migrants from crossing the Mediterranean (a concern for Europe) and countering terrorism (a priority for the United States but also Europe).
While this dynamic should not be overstated, it does carry some truth. “To get our attention, they use the T-word and the M-word,” observed a U.S. defense official, referring to terrorists and migrants. Echoing this, a European defense official in Tunis noted, “The individual lenses of (donor) countries—counterterrorism and border control—drives their growth.”
As a result, the Tunisian military is increasingly dealing with unconventional and low-intensity challenges, many of them stemming from Libya.
But several retired officers questioned whether this might be swinging too far in one direction and ignoring potential conventional threats, especially from Libya, which cannot be ruled out and have not been assessed through any systematic planning. “We shouldn’t have an army only focused on asymmetric threats,” noted one retired general.
“Terrorism is just one threat—it is wrong to transform the army only this way.” He went on to applaud Tunisia’s diplomacy as the first line of the country’s security, noting that it had kept it out of major wars—so far.
Still, the uncertain trajectory of Tunisia’s neighbors necessitates accounting for a range of conventional challenges over the mid and long term. This is especially the case in Libya, where foreign-piloted drones and fixed-wing aircraft are bombing the capital and the western region, close to Tunisia, with impunity.
Air defense is, therefore, a growing Tunisian concern: since 2011, there have been several instances of aerial intrusion from Libya, often by pilots who are lost or experience mechanical problems.
Generally, the cases are resolved quietly, though more provocative acts are met with diplomatic condemnation and demarches. Tunisian military officers maintain that their response was quick—the Tunisian air force recently scrambled fighter jets to intercept an airspace violator from Libya (but it landed before they could), according to the press. Tunisian politicians have also publicly threatened to shoot down trespassing aircraft.
Yet, privately, retired officers and U.S. defense officials cast doubt on Tunisia’s ability to detect and respond effectively. According to one retired air force officer, Tunisian military doctrine forbids the shooting down of aerial intrusions—though a U.S. official quipped that “it’s convenient to make your doctrine prohibit things you can’t actually do.”
Tunisian officers are candid that investments in air defense, whether radar, missile, or fighter upgrades, are too expensive and have been subordinated to the priority of fortifying the land border with Libya.
In the meantime, Tunisian intelligence is intently focused on monitoring the disposition and factional control of Watiya airbase in Libya’s western region, given its proximity to Tunisia.
At any rate, planning for conventional and nonconventional contingencies from Libya and elsewhere has not been carried out in any systematic or coordinated manner. Various planning efforts have been undertaken but remain stymied by competition, opacity, and the lack of staffing.
According to the constitution, the President of Tunisia is supposed to have oversight of the determination and coordination of national security planning, under the auspices of the national security advisor.
But several current and retired officers noted that this is not happening, principally because of a lack of staffing. “We don’t see how the president can be a real player,” one retired general officer cautioned. “He doesn’t have the staff.”
Personnel shortages similarly impede MOD coordination: Tunisia has no equivalent to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, so each of the four services has its own planning department. “But nobody synchronizes,” noted one U.S. defense attaché.
The MOD has a coordination staff—roughly 30–40 people, according to a U.S. official, “but this is not enough to manage the services.”
In some cases, whatever plans that emerge from this dysfunctional system simply “sit on the shelves,” according to one retired Tunisian officer, or are not disseminated widely within the government, let alone the public.
In November 2016, for example, the Tunisian national security council oversaw the drafting of a National Strategy Against Terrorism and Violent Extremism, but it was never published.
Underpinning all of these problems is the lack of an overarching national security strategy into which the services’ planning can be “nested,” according to one U.S. defense official.
The Tunisian military’s principal think-tank/higher education institute, the National Defense Institute (NDI), with assistance from the U.S. National Defense University (NDU), tried to rectify this deficiency in 2017, but the output, a white paper, was never published and, according to U.S. and European defense advisors, was unsatisfactory.
Without a coordinated and effective planning process, Tunisia’s defense needs are defaulting to the requirements set by its major security patron, the United States.
The foundational blueprint in the U.S.-Tunisian defense partnership is a document called the Bilateral Country Action Plan (BCAP), which was signed in 2017 after deliberations between the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation and Tunisia’s different service branches.
The BCAP, one U.S. defense noted, resulted from a series of “forcing conversations” that U.S. officers conducted with their Tunisian counterparts (in other words, the United States largely drove the process).
The BCAP thus serves as a sort of connective tissue among the Tunisian military branches who have been unable to formalize or coordinate their own planning process. According to one U.S. official, it is possible to “intuit” Tunisia’s overall national security priorities from the BCAP—though the extent of actual Tunisian input is unclear.82
The BCAP’s four priorities are the following:
- Development of a Joint Operations Center (JOC) that would focus on air-ground integration, with an eye toward the insurgent threat in the western Chaambi mountains. The JOC would also address spillover threats from Libya, including from extremists and aerial infiltration, especially from drones. The JOC has established facilities and manning but is still working out its standard operating procedures. One U.S. defense official working on Tunisia admitted that the JOC remains “theatrical.”83
- Bolstering of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), including by procuring a fleet of U.S. Cessna 208 Caravan reconnaissance aircraft that would feed intelligence data to the JOC.
- Development and maturation of a Tunisian military intelligence cadre through U.S. assistance to a military intelligence training center. This cadre would serve to better prepare Tunisia’s armed forces to analyze and forecast foreign adversarial threats.
- Improvement of the capability and interoperability of Tunisia’s special operations forces.
Beyond these four priorities, the blueprint includes a focus on border security (both land and maritime), crisis response capabilities (including medical services), and defense institution building (in other words, the reforming and rationalizing of Tunisia’s defense bureaucracy).
In addition to the BCAP, Washington’s outsized influence over Tunisia’s defense planning is further evident in a recent and aborted strategic planning exercise conducted by the Tunisian MOD. In June 2019, the Centre de Recherche Militaire (CRM)—a military research center under the MOD that is usually focused on scientific research rather than strategic studies—commissioned a one-year study of Tunisia’s defense requirements up to 2030.
Led by seven retired generals and admirals, the project was supposed to project future threat scenarios, with a focus on Algeria and Libya, and from these, assess the needed Tunisian capabilities and budget, according to one participant. It was also meant to rectify the failure of the aforementioned, NDI-led white paper exercise.
Although the U.S. Institute for Defense Analysis and the U.S. military’s Defense Institution Building (DIB) program supported the CRM project, informality and a lack of official Tunisian support impeded the effort from the beginning.
The project never received its own budget, and its staff did not have access to any official Tunisian documents, especially classified assessments from Tunisia’s military intelligence arm, the ARSD (though whether the ARSD actually produces long-range forecasts that would support such planning is unclear).
Moreover, the CRM team did not receive the BCAP document from the Tunisian MOD. Ironically, visiting U.S. defense officials who met with the CRM team in June 2019 had to request that the Tunisian foreign liaison office within the MOD provide the BCAP document to the CRM.
This remarkable episode underscores the disjointed nature of Tunisia’s information sharing. Put simply, an MOD-sponsored planning effort did not have access to Tunisia’s most important foreign security assistance document, and it was the United States that ultimately played the role of information-broker—within the Tunisian MOD.
By the late summer of 2019, the CRM effort collapsed altogether: the Tunisian minister of defense became a candidate in the country’s presidential elections and, according to one participant in the CRM project, was traveling on the campaign trail and unable to shepherd the project or receive updates.
This highlights yet another issue: the absence of a professional civil service cadre within the MOD that could provide continuity in the midst of a turnover in senior-level, political appointees.
CONCLUSION: TOWARD A MORE ORGANIC, ADAPTIVE DEFENSE RESPONSE TO LIBYA
In assessing the Tunisian military’s evolution, it is important to take the long view—and to appreciate the significant strides the armed forces have made since the 2011 revolution.
Among Arab militaries, the Tunisian armed forces stand out for its respect for elected institutions and civilian authorities, even if relations are at times strained and hobbled by cultural, political, and bureaucratic obstacles.
For a force that was woefully neglected and largely confined to the barracks pre-2011, it is steadily proving to be a competent, combat-tested organization. It has capably responded to a number of security threats, particularly by terrorists and insurgents.
According to observers inside Tunisia and to foreign advisors, it is slowly adopting reforms that will turn it into one of the more professional military organizations in the Maghreb and certainly on the African continent—all while playing a supportive role in Tunisia’s democratic transition.
Yet questions remain regarding the long-term trajectory of its transformation. In particular, there is uncertainty around whether it is fully prepared to meet a spectrum of challenges, especially those emanating from Libya, the most unpredictable and militarized of its neighbors.
The aforementioned capacity shortfalls, bureaucratic impediments, and planning deficiencies are impeding this transformation, specifically regarding Libya. Foreign allies of the Tunisian military should, and are, assisting in mitigating these deficits.
Yet they should be mindful of Tunisia’s overdependence and realize that the country will have to own its defense reform, at its own pace.
The U.S. military can be an exemplary mentor and trainer—and perhaps more hands-on involvement by embedded U.S. advisors is necessary in the Tunisian defense ministry and services’ staffs—but the United States and other foreign partners should neither take center stage in coordination and information-sharing efforts, nor act as arbiters between competing Tunisian agencies.
With this in mind, an immediate concern in responding to the Libya challenge is the need to better adapt the Tunisian military to its border enforcement mission in the south.
This should include developing and formalizing more population-focused military capabilities, such as civil affairs, public affairs, and medical services.
Such an approach should also clarify the army’s legal mandate for arrests and contraband seizure, improve army coordination with the MOI forces, and preemptively address corruption in the army’s ranks through mechanisms like better pay and benefits, audits, and inspectors general.
Beyond dealing with low-tech spillover challenges like smuggling and terrorists, the Tunisian military needs to better prepare for future conventional and asymmetric threats from Libya, including from drones, surface-to-air missiles, fixed wing incursions, and even ground forces.
These are all currently present on the Tripoli battlefield, less than 100 kilometers from Tunisian territory. Finally, as emphasized above, the military should not be the sole or primary policy tool for dealing with the Tunisian-Libyan border.
A comprehensive package of socioeconomic reforms and better political integration is needed for the south—a solution that Tunisian civilian officials and military officers have stated that they recognize, but that may still take years to implement.
Additionally, the dynamism of the Libyan conflict landscape has underscored the need for better predictive intelligence by the Tunisian military at the operational and strategic levels. But such assessments are only good if they are shared and disseminated.
Here again, the Tunisian defense establishment is plagued by stove-piping, outmoded technical architecture, and unit-level training deficiencies.
Ideally, strategic intelligence should feed into military planning for future capabilities, acquisition, and force structure, but this process has been hindered by insufficient staffing, civilian turnover, and bureaucratic distrust.
As a result, the armed forces’ strategic priorities are being heavily influenced or managed by foreign partners, especially the United States.
This is problematic for Tunisia, not only because it creates dependency but also because Tunisians know their local context best: the country’s small geographic size, modest resources, and unique strategic environment require a homegrown capacity for planning instead of one influenced by a foreign superpower.
Without alleviating these problems and making planning more organic, Tunisia’s military could not only be saddled with expensive equipment that is ill-suited to actual missions but could, again, be caught off guard by some unforeseen variant of the Gafsa or Ben Gardane attacks.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.