Friday, July 18, 2008

“We’ll keep drilling ‘til we run out of steel."

As part of EPIC's continued interest in sustainable development in Iraq, I attended a panel discussion on Dr. Reuben Brigety’s report, Humanity as a Weapon of War at the Center for American Progress. I was delighted to hear the panelist’s views, and to hear open discourse on the topic of humanitarian efforts and roles.

Shidley, Kenya, June 2007: The U.S. Armed Forces come across a settlement of 100 families near the border of Somalia. Anticipating an influx of Somali refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland, the Pentagon sends in the Navy's Seabees to help the settlement secure a source of clean water.

Five months of drilling, one quarter of a million dollars, and two failed wells later: U.S. Navy Seabees finally cease attempts to drill for water. The first attempt brought up brackish, undrinkable water, the second attempt never actually reached water. By then, only twenty of the settlement's residents remained. Given that the residents were members of a nomadic tribe, it turns out that the settlement was only temporary.

“By contrast, an underground well dug by civilian humanitarian agencies typically costs around $10,000,” reports Dr. Reuben Brigety, Director of the Sustainable Security Program at the Center for American Progress, in his new report, Humanity as a Weapon of War. The report investigates the role of the US military in humanitarian actions overseas.

Attempts by the military to reach into the humanitarian sector, such as the wells in Kenya, is a prime example of the blurred role of the Armed Forces and State Department which surrounds the debate over American foreign policy. Increasingly, the military's role in providing security goes hand in hand with development assistance.

The United States is working towards “sustainable security” as part of its long term plan for security success in countries that could potentially, or have previously, posed a threat to the United States. Security though sustainability is becoming a real part of the discourse on long-term peace building operations abroad.

"With chaos inside Somalia threatening the stability of the region and enabling the rise of extremism, using U.S. military assets to perform a humanitarian mission serves a dual purpose. It shows the face of American compassion to a skeptical population while also giving the military an eye on activity in the area. Winning ears and minds with an ear to the ground is the new American way of war.”

The Navy’s plan to drill for water in Kenya had a ring of benevolence, but in reality, resulted in utter failure. Have we witnessed a failure such as this before, and exactly what should the role of Armed Forces be in the larger context of United State’s humanitarian role overseas? Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development says that, while the USAID welcomes the logistical support of the Armed Forces and Department of Defense, the role of the Armed Forces in humanitarian actions overseas is, at most, a support role, and should remain as such.

The world has seen what happens when the United States Armed Forces suddenly acquires the broad mandate of "nation builder" without adequate preparation, experience or expertise. In 2003, EPIC Director Erik Gustafson questioned President Bush’s decision to put the Pentagon in charge of rebuilding Iraq instead of the State Department, or the United Nations who boasts “widely recognized international legitimacy in relief and reconstruction, extensive resources and expertise and a long history of working with Iraqi civil servants and NGOs.”

In the article, Gustafson argues that nation-building efforts led by the Pentagon will not help the United States or Iraq. Rather, "It will more likely become a lightning rod for Iraqi and international cynicism, fuel doubts about U.S. motives, deepen rifts with our allies, infuriate the Arab World, feed terrorism and further destabilize the Middle East."

Be it wells in Kenya, or the infrastructure of a country of 26 million [Iraq], the United States Armed Forces are not specialized in rebuilding, planning, or methods to work with local civilians to move that population towards security. Sometimes the military is the only presence in a devastated area, and the only resource available to attend to humanitarian crises, but this is a far cry from its normal function. Difficult situations can become rapidly more problematic when handled by those who are far from their designated positions.

Photo Caption: A Navy poster encouraging skilled laborers to join the Seabees as part of the war effort. Library of Congress

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