The US military is perhaps the greatest logistical operation in history and the best suited for transport and supply drops in out of the way places. And in countries where the US is not involved in political security or violence, it may be well suited also to provide medical and civil assistance as well. But during war time, should the US military provide aid alongside international and local civilian nonprofits at the same time and among the same communities in which it is conducting combat operations?
The question is important now because the US Agency for International Development, one of the largest planners of civil-military operations, may have new leadership in the nominee for Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah. Many supporters of the Obama and Clinton candidacies for President believed that the Bush Administration had not only gone to war for the wrong reasons but then conducted those wars poorly. Many remain hopeful that some of the more contraversial changes in how aid was delivered might be revised.
Questions about civil-military action during wartime heated up in 2002 when the US began these efforts in Afghanistan, relying largely on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) which were military units working alongside state department employees to meet with nonprofits on the ground and distribute a variety of projects meant to help local communities recover while making the US military look more friendly. For example, I got a chance to see a tremendously successful PRT project restoring rice paddies in Kunduz…
However, the debate really took shape when humanitarian aid workers, particularly locals, were afraid that greater cooperation with the US military while it was conducting combat operations nearby was endangering aid staff and programs. Taliban fighters began seeing the civilians as spies working with their enemy, so instead of attacking soldiers in armored vehicles the fighters began more often simply attacking the unarmored civilians and their programs. The same month of my visit to that project in Kunduz, the Taliban took credit for murdering twenty-two foreign civilians and at least four local aid workers (Source: ReliefWeb). Many also believe that the civil-military enterprise is the most contraversial aspect of the NATO presence in Afghanistan given that Afghans can no longer discern an impartial doctor or businessman from one who then turns over private information about patients and beneficiaries to the US authorities. Here’s an important study on the PRTs by the Wilson School.
Proponents of the civil-military effort soon countered this resistance when the war came to Iraq by arguing that by simultaneously conducting raids against insurgents while offering peaceful community members job opportunities and social service projects in Anbar and Diyala, Iraq, that they were wooing the less-radical insurgents away from box one and into box two. The “Sunni Awakening,” when many insurgents changed sides is heralded as the great success of the civil-military strategy and it was developed further in Afghanistan. But many people on the ground believe that it’s a dangerous mixed bag. While the civil-military effort tends to woo economic fighters who see that they can live under a US/NATO occupation as long as they have income, it further infuriates the radicals who see the effort as a colonial hypocrisy. The result, as in Anbar and Diyala, is fewer insurgents and less frontline combat but an incredible increase in large, unpredictable terror attacks.
Many of the aid workers I’ve known and worked with who got their start in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Somalia, Sudan, El Salvador, or Biafra, as well as most of the New York and Paris aid agencies tend to believe in aid worker “impartiality”. True, no one can ever be completely impartial in conflict, but – and Gaza may be the best example of this – local populations have long been sophisticated enough to separate the aid workers on US contracts from the Pentagon given that there was a physical separation. For this reason and for the greater security impartiality may offer civilian aid workers, many of this group wish to reform, if not undo, the civil-military enterprise.
As for me, I got my start in the military, but then I joined the International Rescue Committee as a civilian aid worker and quickly came to understand why one wouldn’t want to be wearing a USAID patch when a US bomber blows the Hell out of a nearby village. I later got a chance to see the civil-military efforts work on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all this, I’ve come to the conclusion that for the greater success of aid programs and to prevent the further radicalization of extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Somalia, USAID and the Pentagon need to get a divorce. (Keep in mind this is a separate debate from that on aid worker security and military contractors.)
The Pentagon would do well to help deliver people and products in arenas of peace, but at the height of war I don’t want my local staff shot to death, aid projects frozen, simply because the insurgents spotted them hitching a ride with the US Army. When the new head of USAID takes office, I believe those of us who feel this way should make a concerted effort to petition for this reform, or at least to open the debate back up again. And I think Change, along with agency heads, might be a better vehicle for this than Interaction. Agree? Disagree? Let the debate begin.
[Photo: US military preparing to deliver humanitarian aid in Basra, Iraq, US Army / Maurice A Galloway]