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Authors: Nathan Hodge

Armed Humanitarians

BOOK: Armed Humanitarians
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Armed Humanitarians

The Rise of the Nation Builders




Title Page


Prologue: Port-au-Prince, February 2010

Part I: Winning the War, Losing the Peace

1.  Absolute Beginners

2.  The PowerPoint Warrior

3.  “Beat 'em Up and Go Home”

4.  The Other War

5.  Cash as a Weapon

Part II: History Lessons

6.  The Phoenix Rises

7.  The Accidental Counterinsurgents

Part III: Theory into Practice

8.  Wingtips on the Ground

9.  Kalashnikovs for Hire

10. Peace Corps on Steroids

11. Windshield Ethnographers

12. Obama's War

Conclusion: Foreign Policy Out of Balance



Select Bibliography

Note on the Author

By the same Author


For Sharon



February 2010

The Super Stallion shuddered to a halt, and the flight engineer signaled for me to follow. I stepped from the rear ramp, and hot exhaust from the giant CH-53 helicopter washed over me as I walked across the landing zone. I surrendered my helmet and float coat to the crewman, shouldered my rucksack, and followed my fellow passenger, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, to the rear gate of the U.S. embassy, Port-au-Prince.

We picked our way across the landing zone. A few paratroopers of the Eighty-second Airborne Division in soft patrol caps and wraparound shades were guarding the dusty, trash-strewn field. One of the soldiers, sucking impassively on his CamelBak canteen, waved us through to the embassy motor pool. The CH-53 then lifted off, the turbine engines briefly drowning out the jackhammer of the diesel generators inside the compound.

A Winnebago-sized truck with the logo of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was parked behind the high gates, its satellite antenna pointed skyward. Near another outbuilding, military cots were arranged in neat rows, complete with sleeping bags and mosquito netting. Crates of electronic equipment and medical gear were stacked on the gravel. On the inner lawn of the embassy, near a lap pool, was a small encampment where someone had pitched several pup tents, plus a few family-sized shelters. It looked as though someone had raided an outdoors store and dumped the contents on the embassy grounds.

The compound was swarming with uniforms. Some were familiar: Marines in dusty digital-pattern camouflage, Navy personnel in crisp blue utility suits, Army soldiers in combat fatigues. Some were a bit more exotic: Foreign Service officers in Patagonia hiking boots, contractors in 5.11 tactical gear, members of the National Disaster Management Agency in matching blue shirts, khaki cargo pants, and floppy-brimmed hats. Everyone seemed to be moving with brisk purpose.

Just a few weeks earlier, on January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake had struck Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The disaster killed over 200,000 Haitians and left the country without a functioning government. Official buildings were demolished, the local police force was paralyzed, and Haiti's splendid presidential palace, completed during the U.S. military occupation in the early twentieth century, was left in ruins. The quake also had decapitated MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Hedi Annabi, the Tunisian diplomat who served as special representative of the Secretary-General and as head of the UN mission, was killed, along with his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa of Brazil. Dozens of international peacekeepers, police advisors, and civilian UN staffers died in the collapse of their headquarters.

The seismic shock had knocked out the control tower at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport and collapsed the north pier of the main port, cutting Port-au-Prince off from the outside world. Within hours of the disaster, however, the airport was up and running: A team from the U.S. Air Force's Twenty-third Special Tactics Squadron, 720th Special Tactics Group, had flown in to take over air traffic control so that search-and-rescue teams and medical aid could arrive. Within five days of the disaster, the Air Force had directed over six hundred takeoffs and landings on an airstrip that usually saw fewer than half a dozen flights a day.
The place was now crowded with canvas tents that served as an improvised headquarters for flight operations. Reinforcements arrived quickly. Days after the quake, soldiers of the Eighty-second Airborne Division's First Squadron, Seventy-third Cavalry Regiment began deploying to Haiti. They set up camp at an abandoned country club near the U.S. embassy.

In the weeks following the disaster, the U.S. force in Haiti and off the coast kept growing. Less than a week after the quake, fourteen hundred U.S. troops were on the ground, with another five thousand offshore. By the end of January, just over two weeks after the disaster, the Haiti earthquake relief mission involved twenty thousand U.S. military personnel, twenty-four ships, and more than 120 aircraft. It was an impressive military surge, but the U.S. mission involved an alphabet soup of civilian agencies as well. The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, sent a Disaster Assistance Response Team for an initial assessment, mobilized search-and-rescue teams from around the country, and held emergency planning meetings with private relief groups and aid contractors. USAID, an autonomous federal agency indirectly overseen by the secretary of state, was designated as the lead agency for organizing the U.S. earthquake relief effort. A crisis-response team from the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization was on the scene as well.

The U.S. embassy had become the nerve center for a giant, quasi-military expedition, far removed from the world of traditional diplomacy. Everything here was “expeditionary,” from the Meals-Ready-to-Eat rations and lukewarm bottled water to the bottled bug spray and droning generators. The embassy looked as though it was preparing for a siege: On the street outside, Marines in camouflage uniforms and boonie hats guarded the main entrance with M16 rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, and M249 light machine guns. A perimeter made of wooden traffic barriers and tape marked off an outer perimeter, while Haitians patiently queued up under the relentless midday sun for emergency visas. The scene represented a curious merger between military force and humanitarian aid, a blurring of the traditional lines of development work, diplomacy, and national defense. This was the new face of American foreign policy: armed humanitarianism.

The 2010 Haiti relief mission was a response to a natural disaster, but the massive military operation—and many of its distinct features—grew directly out of the experience gained in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That spring, as the military began a phased withdrawal from Haiti, Army Major General Simeon Trombitas, the commander of Joint Task Force–Haiti, told me that the humanitarian operation, which placed unprecedented emphasis on openness and information sharing with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civilian relief agencies, had been shaped by the lessons of combat. “Due to all of our services' experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, and working with the populations there, and with other agencies, we've developed great relationships working with our own other government agencies and NGOs,” he said. “Here we've fine-tuned that, because they are the ones with the assets that deal directly with the people, and we can enhance what they do.”

Still, it was striking to see how completely the military had embraced the humanitarian mission. Shortly after the quake, U.S. Southern Command, the military headquarters overseeing Haiti relief, had set up an online portal for sharing maps, satellite imagery, and other time-sensitive data with civilian aid groups. Within hours of the disaster, the Pentagon released footage of earthquake damage that had been collected by an RQ-4 Global Hawk, a pilotless spy plane. It was an unusual move. Ordinarily, access to images collected by the high-flying drone would be tightly restricted. But the Defense Department declassified the pictures as part of a larger push to share information with nongovernmental organizations and relief groups.

On the ground, the hierarchical, secrecy-bound military adopted a surprising mantra of trust and collaboration. En route to Haiti, I overnighted on the Navy amphibious ship USS
, where I chatted briefly with a Navy Civil Affairs officer, who enthusiastically described how he was working with charities like Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières. “We're trying to get to the NGOs and IOs [international organizations] and see how they operate,” he told me. “We see what portals they use, how they operate. The attitude is, we know what we do, but we can learn from them.”

The Haiti mission showed the extent to which the military had absorbed the principles of “soft power.” In fact, that kind of collaboration with civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations had become almost second nature. Although the Haiti mission was purely humanitarian, the U.S. military saw it as part of the same problem set they encountered in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “Foreign disaster relief is counterinsurgency, only no one is shooting at you (yet),” wrote Army Major Kelly Webster, chief of plans and regimental executive officer for the Second Brigade Combat Team, Eighty-second Airborne Division, shortly after the relief mission. “Making the mental switch from the former to the latter did not require a major paradigm shift.”

In other words, that paradigm shift had already occurred. A year and a half earlier, in late 2008, Linton Wells, a former Pentagon chief information officer, told me how he had pushed for military commanders to collaborate more freely with NGOs and aid groups, and not just for disaster response. Haiti, then, was more than an opportunity for the U.S. military to hone its humanitarian skills. It was a chance to prepare for a new kind of warfare, where the traditional lines between development, diplomacy, and military action were blurred. The challenge, Wells later told me in an e-mail, was to “figure out how to institutionalize the approach for the long haul in Haiti, ensure these capabilities (and other prototypes) get fielded rapidly in the next contingency, wherever it may be, and apply comparable approaches to support stabilization and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and to other theaters. Lessons learned from Haiti already are being developed.”

I had first met Wells in early October 2008, when he was escorting reporters and officials around a technology demonstration in the Pentagon's central courtyard. The scene in many respects mirrored what I saw at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince a year and a half later: A crew of fleece-clad twenty-somethings had erected a hexayurt, the cheap, eco-friendly shelter designed for refugee camps and rock festivals; two young tech-slackers dressed like roadies for a Seattle band circa 1991 were tethering an inflatable satellite dish to the lawn; a ponytailed man in a baseball cap plugged his MacBook into a nearby portable solar-power generator. It looked as though the hippies were invading the place, or so it might have seemed to the Pentagon bureaucrats who retreated to the courtyard to sip Diet Coke, smoke cigarettes, or hunt for cell phone reception.

This, however, was not a prank. It was officially sanctioned by the Defense Department. A colonel with a Special Forces tab inspected a rice cooker powered by a solar mirror; a two-star Army general appraised the hexayurt; Defense Department civilian employees wearing white Pentagon access badges peered at a portable water-purification unit. The demonstration, called STAR-TIDES (for Sustainable Technologies, Accelerated Research—Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support), was organized to showcase new, low-cost tools for humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and postwar reconstruction. The Naval Postgraduate School had chipped in forty thousand dollars to fund the effort; the Joint Capability Technology Demonstrations Office, part of the Pentagon's Rapid Fielding Directorate, had provided another sixty thousand dollars.

BOOK: Armed Humanitarians
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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