When Intervention Works: The Instructive Case of Sierra Leone


Editor’s Note: This is adapted from a longer article published in the Journal for Strategic Studies. It is available to read for free for a limited time.

Lately whenever Western militaries intervene, they seem to leave behind bigger messes than they found. Whether the intervention is large (Iraq and Afghanistan), medium (Libya), or small (Syria), the record is dismally consistent. Such assessments can breed despondence, but while there is good reason for humility, some interventions do work. In some cases, deployed forces meet their objective, military and political efforts are integrated, and peace is crafted out of war. It can happen…

One such success-story is the British campaign in Sierra Leone between 2000 and 2002. When the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rejected the Lomé Peace Agreement and again threatened Freetown, the capital, Britain provided vital support to the Sierra Leone government and the beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission on the ground (UNAMSIL). British forces repelled the RUF advance and then remained in Sierra Leone to clear the path to peace. That peace has held for well over a decade and seen the passage of political power through fair elections.

The British intervention is a rare success story, but in spite of this, it is also a poorly understood and little studied case. The popular telling tends to miscast or misunderstand the important lessons that this campaign can provide. To improve on this record, I wrote an in-depth operational assessment, published in the Journal of Strategic Studies, and I offer its core points here.

The Utility of Force…

In the first week of May 2000, the RUF attacked U.N. bases in Sierra Leone, abducted several hundred peacekeepers, and made a new push toward Freetown. Despite offering RUF leaders immunity and power, the Lomé peace agreement was in tatters and another vicious round of fighting lay ahead. Supported by Charles Taylor’s regime in neighboring Liberia, RUF then numbered around 4,000 well-armed fighters, with additional hangers-on, and controlled 40 percent of the country.

On May 6, a British reconnaissance team was on the ground planning an evacuation. With at most 1,000 troops, British ground forces seized control of the airport, patrolled assembly areas in Freetown, and secured the road connecting the two. On May 12, British aims expanded to include supporting UNAMSIL and the Sierra Leone Army. On 14 May, RUF tested Britain’s resolve with an attack at Lungi Lol and was repelled. The on-the-ground commander, Brig. David Richards, used the momentum to stitch together a coalition of pro-government forces that pushed RUF from the capital. This was Operation Palliser and in six weeks, it helped turn the tide in a decade-old conflict.

Britain again used force in early September, following the abduction of 11 British soldiers by the West Side Boys, a far smaller group engaged mostly in crime and violence. With the Sierra Leone Army and Jordanian UNAMSIL elements, British Special Forces launched a bold rescue mission — Operation Barras. The hostages were extracted along with 22 Sierra Leoneans. The assault effectively defeated the West Side Boys and provided a persuasive parable for information operations targeting the RUF.

What allowed the use of force to be effective in this case? Of course nuts-and-bolts issues obtain, such as Britain’s pre-deployed assets and far superior capabilities. For instance, Britain easily intercepted RUF mobile-phone accounts and even paid for their continued operation to gain uninterrupted intelligence. As critical, however, were Brig. Richards’ leadership and his familiarity  with the local politics, area, and main players due to previous visits to the country. This knowledge helped calibrate the threat and use of force by British forces to serve Sierra Leonean needs. Indeed, actual British confrontations with either the RUF or the West Side Boys were highly infrequent. This operation was about empowering local allies and the United Nations, something that has gotten lost in the telling.

…and Its Limits

Indeed, if force was essential to averting failure, it would have been meaningless absent longer-term consolidation. Unfortunately, most accounts omit this aspect and privilege instead the dramatic clashes involving British forces, few as they were. Google reveals the lopsided focus: Palliser generates 4,210 hits, Barras a full 32,600, yet Basilica and Silkman, two operations aimed at transferring control to and strengthening the Sierra Leonean government, yield only 408 and 936 respectively. Silkman was also when the Sierra Leone Army and UNAMSIL seized actual control of Sierra Leone — a critical part of the puzzle.

The historiography leads to incorrect “lessons.” Accounts say, correctly, that Palliser changed the momentum but then go too far by ascribing strategic significance to this opening gambit. Palliser, writes one journalist, was when “a small British force ended a bloody civil war in just a few weeks.” A 2010 BBC documentary goes further, claiming that the country’s fortunes turned “around in the space of perhaps 48 hours.” Academics compare Palliser to “a glass of water to douse an early fire, thus obviating the need for a massive fire brigade-sized response,” and thereby ignore the 17,500 peacekeepers who deployed to sustain initial gains.

Similar hyperbole surrounds Barras. Even though the rescue operation targeted the West Side Boys, not the RUF, commentary speaks of its “major impact on the situation in Sierra Leone.” To William Fowler, author of the eponymous book, Barras “was a political act… an exercise in nation-building.” A decade on, The Guardian cast it as “the last significant event in Sierra Leone’s long civil war,” suggesting that it tied up all loose ends. Similarly, a 2015 retrospective on Barras in The Independent talks up its “epic importance” in having “rescued Sierra Leone from a hell on earth”— the piece never even mentions the RUF.

Missing in these accounts is the delicate process of consolidating military gains, transitioning control to local actors, enabling their advances, and creating sustainable peace out of war. In other words, the garbled historiography of this successful case omits exactly that which has doomed more recent campaigns.

Political Consolidation

The importance of transitions should be obvious from this case, as Basilica — the initial attempt to extricate British troops — was nearly an unmitigated disaster. The transition to Basilica was the British government’s attempt to avoid mission creep. It was hoped that Palliser, in six weeks, had achieved enough to allow a 250-strong training team to take over. It could not. War-torn and debilitated, Sierra Leone was far from ready and the U.N. mission was too weak to fill the gaps. The gains against the RUF were promising but incomplete — and begotten through a ragtag militia involving former and, as it would turn out, future adversaries of the government, including the WSB.

Indeed, it was the West Side Boys’ capture of U.K. troops that awoke the British government to the need for a greater commitment. After Barras, it authorized a robust operation aimed at bolstering the Sierra Leone government and its military. That effort, Operation Silkman, is an under-studied but essential part of the intervention.

Silkman was effective for four main reasons. First, it was based on a campaign plan that recognized upfront the precarious nature of government and U.N. control. It also correctly identified the regional factors sustaining the RUF, specifically Liberia’s support under Charles Taylor and the international diamond trade. It recommended a regional, politico-military course of action to address the conflict on these terms, with the military tasked to empower both the Sierra Leone Army and UNAMSIL.

Second, training increased. Building on Basilica, Britain announced three further training teams and the allocation of 5,000 troops for in extremis contingencies. By October 10, Britain had trained 3,000 members of the Sierra Leone Army. With British forces accompanying, advising, equipping, reforming (and initially commanding) SLA units, the force launched sustained operations far from the capital, sowing panic within the RUF ranks.

Third, in early November Britain sent a task force, including 500 troops, to shore up the beleaguered peacekeeping mission. It also sent a senior army officer to serve as chief of staff and British liaison within UNAMSIL. This support and coordination bolstered UNAMSIL’s ability to contribute to the British campaign plan by securing territory cleared by the Sierra Leone Army and initiating, in due course, a renewed disarmament process.

Fourth, the British government was now looking for success in Sierra Leone, not an excuse to leave. The commitment had a strong psychological impact on RUF. It feared British forces would get involved directly, something that local media and U.K. information operations exploited. Indeed, there was no publicly known limit to what the British forces could do or how long they might stay. With such backing, Freetown could insist on RUF’s full surrender with the possibility of reintegration but without the power and protection offered in previous deals.

An International and Regional Focus

A final reason for the successful transition was its placement within an international political strategy. At the U.N. Security Council, Britain lobbied for Sierra Leone and UNAMSIL, producing a Security Council visit to the country in October 2000, sanctions on blood diamonds, an international war-crimes tribunal, and significant boosts to UNAMSIL. Partly through British efforts, UNAMSIL obtained helicopter gunships, intelligence assets, a full signals battalion, new leadership, and new and motivated troops. By autumn 2001, it reached 17,500 troops — then the largest peacekeeping mission ever deployed. Britain also assisted UNAMSIL directly, filling key senior positions and providing 18 military observers.

Meanwhile, Britain was centrally involved in weakening Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia, which choked off RUF resources. Britain had since May 2000 sought to stem the trade in conflict diamonds. In the face of continued smuggling, and Liberia’s role therein, it now helped pass resolutions threatening sanctions on the Taylor regime and cracking down on “blood diamonds.” RUF profits dwindled.

Through its international, regional, and national actions, Britain had effectively countered RUF’s strategic and operational centres of gravity: the support from Liberia and its control of diamond fields. More than Palliser, more than Barras — though both were necessary — it was this congruence of British actions that checked the RUF and enabled the United Nations and Sierra Leone Army to take control.

A Very Long Engagement

By May 2001, the British team had trained 8,000 troops and officers, UNAMSIL was extending its presence, and RUF was disarming. By January 2002, the disarmament process was deemed complete and the UNAMSIL commander declared the war officially over. Elections were held in May 2002, in which the new RUF party failed to win a single seat. Still, the peace held — as it did months later during the contentious indictment of RUF’s leadership by the Special Court set up to try war crimes.

A final factor enabling this outcome was Britain’s long-term support. The United Kingdom led a post-conflict reform process, working closely with Freetown and UNAMSIL. It signed 10-year agreements with various sectors of Sierra Leone’s government for embedded support and substantial aid. It effectively rebuilt the Sierra Leonean army, stood up a competent police force with primary responsibility for domestic security, and provided vital support to the judiciary, intelligence sector, civil service, and other key institutions.

The implementation of these efforts was not unproblematic: countless analyses speak of difficulties with coordination, strategy, and commitment. Indeed, Sierra Leone remains plagued by socio-economic challenges and in many ways the predicament facing its youth has not changed since before the war. Nonetheless, the long-term support helped avert another war, build institutions, and establish a democratic foundation for further progress. This is exceptional, and notable given the devastating effects that the absence of long-term support has had on war-to-peace transitions elsewhere.

Fortune Favors the Bold

If this is a success story, was it made in the United Kingdom? Some observers point to good timing and luck to downplay British achievements. After all, RUF was not a formidable force, and following a decade of brutal fighting, war-fatigue had set in. Sierra Leone is also not a large country — slightly over twice the size of Belgium — facilitating the spread of government control (albeit via a large-scale U.N. mission). It is also true that the simultaneous war in neighboring Liberia severed Charles Taylor’s reach into Sierra Leone, stemming support to RUF. Taylor’s defeat in 2003 further mitigated the regional rotation of instability that had previously haunted this part of Africa and encouraged re-mobilization.

Most critical was the role of Guinea, which launched devastating attacks on the RUF following its incursions into Guinean territory in late 2000. By January 2001, RUF fighters were squeezed by Guinea and an empowered SLA and began to surrender all while dropping earlier demands of SLA disarmament. To some, Guinea’s offensives count as the most important factor behind the peace.

These “outside” factors must be acknowledged, not to belittle the British role but to emphasize that, as outside actors, success would always require aligning campaign objectives to the local environment — its politics, opportunities, and challenges. For example, Britain fed Guinea intelligence and sought to integrate it within its campaign plan. The United States boosted military aid to Guinea, and it is alleged (and denied) that it either directly or indirectly supported anti-Taylor outfits in Liberia. As to the war-weariness, after ten years of fighting, such feelings had primed the country for peace but the British intervention triggered the transition and enabled its success.

The point is that Britain neither singlehandedly transformed West Africa nor was merely an opportunistic bystander. Facing a government at the mercy of armed groups and a humanitarian and security crisis that the United Nations could not contain, Britain used a limited force to empower other actors, exploit shifting opportunities, and draw benefits from unanticipated occurrences. As Robert Thompson, the counterinsurgency expert, put it in one of his last interviews, the only formula in such fights is to “Get in place that which is correct, get in place that which is sustainable, and play for the breaks.”

What We Can Take Away

The British success in Sierra Leone yields five related lessons. First, the use of force achieved lasting strategic effect because it was credible and timely, but also because it was executed in service of a political process – namely to empower the government in Freetown and the U.N. mission on the ground. A common attribute of other interventions has been the singular failure to translate military gains into political objective, partly because there is no strategy tying the use of force to a viable end state.

Second, once Britain committed to the conflict, it drew up and followed a detailed campaign plan that accurately captured the nature of the problem and offered a sequenced course of action addressing both local and regional drivers of violence. On this front, there is no substitute for understanding the environment and local politics.

Third, Britain’s choice of an “indirect approach” was not opportunistically embraced as a way of minimizing political risk, but with full cognizance of the duration, difficulty, and dexterity required to enable and coordinate the efforts of others. In an era where Western powers seek to do “more with less,” Sierra Leone represents an exceptional case study in how this can be done.

Fourth, British military efforts were enveloped within an international and regionally focused response, carried out at different levels and using different instruments of national power. From tightening sanctions to supporting Guinea, to finding new troop contributors for UNAMSIL, all while building institutions in Sierra Leone, this was a multifaceted yet congruent campaign.

Fifth, it was also a long-term campaign, aided by Britain’s exceptional willingness to remain committed long after the war was officially over. The training team responsible for rebuilding the Sierra Leone Army only withdrew in April 2013, and even then transferred vestigial tasks to a 6-8 strong International Security Advisory Team. The case shows that even with the smallest of footprints, effective engagement often requires many, many steps.


David H. Ucko (@daviducko) is associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. He recently published “Can Limited Intervention Work? Lessons from Britain’s Success Story in Sierra Leone in the Journal of Strategic Studies.

Image: Sibyl MacKenzie, CC

Correction: This article originally misstated the relative size of Sierra Leone.