The 2011 revolution threw the Tunisian armed forces into an unfamiliar role. The army suddenly found itself upholding basic stability, and it has had to take on new tasks for which its previous orientation, training, equipment, and budget are inadequate. As it seeks to respond to these challenges, the military is moving into areas hitherto reserved for the civilian security organs, which is a new and significant development in Tunisian politics.
Since its creation in 1957, the Tunisian army has been tethered by institutional constraints and organizational straitjackets that placed limits on its autonomy and prerogatives. Tunisia’s post-independence rulers kept the army’s size small and its budgets limited in order to prevent it from being able to mount a viable coup. As a result, the army was militarily weak and maintained a largely apolitical posture.
After the 2011 revolution that deposed then Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the army was forced to assume roles beyond its traditional military functions. This has included law-enforcement-oriented work like protecting public buildings as well as the provision of aid to Libyan refugees. The army has also shouldered the responsibility of fighting organized crime and stemming the arms and drugs trade along Tunisia’s porous borders with Libya and Algeria. Its Special Forces Group (GFS) has taken the lead in confronting the rising menace of terrorism.
Taking on all these tasks at once has nearly brought the military to the breaking point. Despite its professionalism and discipline, the military does not have enough resources to protect internal order, monitor rising troubles in border regions, and subdue a mushrooming radical Islamist militancy.
Successive governments have tried to address these problems. The Tunisian defense budget increased from €542.9 million ($719.7 million) in 2013 to €678 million ($901.1 million) in 2014, but it remains insufficient for the multitude of new tasks. More increases are expected as the military remains in desperate need of more personnel, training programs, and specialized military equipment.
Tunisia’s foreign partners have also promised to boost the military’s capability. Since the mid-1980s, more than 3,600 Tunisian officers have benefited from training programs in the United States. The United States declared a threefold increase in military aid to Tunisia in 2015. The armed forces have also stepped up cooperation with their better-equipped Algerian counterparts on border security, customs, and counterterrorism.
Adapting to this radically different threat environment necessitates a redefinition of the military’s roles and responsibilities. Most security threats fall within the gray area between law enforcement and military activities. The challenge is to avoid intruding on the activities traditionally reserved for the internal security forces. While maintaining a clear division of labor, there needs to be closer integration and coordination between the services.
So far, however, coordination between the army and the internal security forces has been ineffective and limited to basic measures such as joint patrols. The exchange of intelligence on violent extremist groups remains lacking and at times unreliable. This lack of collaboration, compounded by the fragmentation and operational weakness of the internal security forces, has prompted the military to develop its own intelligence-gathering capabilities. Indeed, after several attempts in 2014 to consolidate the intelligence structures of the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, the military opted to create its own intelligence and security service. The army is also lobbying hard for the ability to create more special units proficient at urban and rural counterinsurgency.
Given the continuing organizational turbulence in the police and other associated internal security forces, some military officers are calling for a new demarcation of the external and internal roles of security institutions. The implication is that the armed forces are better suited to meeting the challenges posed by terrorist insurgencies and should therefore be allowed to have an expanded role in security provision. This would entail an expansion into domestic intelligence gathering and the possible acquisition of judicial police powers, especially in turbulent border regions. There are also calls for the army to help protect major strategic interests like Tunisia’s phosphate production and, in cases of disruptions or persistent strikes, even run the mines.
Heeding these calls would represent a dramatic intrusion into the prerogatives of the internal security forces. This is a risky path to go down. In fragile political contexts such as Tunisia’s, great caution is required for any tampering with the boundaries between domestic and external security provision. At worst, a consolidation of the military role in domestic affairs might lead to the politicization of the military establishment and the temptation to meddle in politics to defend sectional interests and organizational gains.
Civilian authorities must continue efforts to equip the military and reform the structural dysfunctions and operational weaknesses of the internal security forces. Meanwhile, they must also redefine the roles of the military and the internal security forces in a way suited to the new threat environment, without compromising the principles of professionalism and accountability.
The use of the army for internal security missions remains highly controversial, and Tunisia’s international partners should not support such a redefinition of roles unless accompanied by strict democratic oversight. Nor should international partners engage in building the capacity of security institutions without establishing clear benchmarks that the Tunisian government must meet. The stakes are high.
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