Civilian Surge for Afghanistan -- New Strategy Needs New Coordination     Print Email

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has committed the Obama administration firmly to closer civil-military cooperation on development and humanitarian aid as a key component of the new U.S.-led “surge” in Afghanistan. (Watch her press conference in Kabul here.) In this initiative, she has outspoken support from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has voiced his conviction the Pentagon needs to operate in tandem with “soft power.” The two cabinet secretaries’ ability to see eye-to-eye is a change from recent eras in Washington when inter-agency conflict over policy dogged U.S. operations in combat theaters, including Iraq.

In their joint support for a combined strategy, both cabinet officers share two caveats about operations in Afghanistan. One is that the mission will not be allowed to develop into full-blown “nation-building:” instead, the effort will be targeted on selected areas in order to fit limited resources and relatively short calendars. The idea is to use selected cities and other localities to create examples of how Afghans can benefit if they cooperate with the NATO mission (and resist the Taliban). The second caveat is that the Obama administration wants to avoid acting unilaterally and so the European allies are called upon to play a crucial role on both the civilian and military fronts.

In the days since President Barack Obama announced the U.S. strategy of the new surge, both conditions seem to finding initial acceptance. After a NATO defense ministers meeting in early December, the total number of extra troops pledged by allies was approaching 7,000 – with more pledges potentially to come in January, notably from France and Germany. Some of these “soldiers” will actually be doing “civilian” work – training, teaching and building – under the protection of combat troops.

This approach will require new levels of cooperation between the military commanders and the civilian administrators. Ms Clinton has already made it clear that she does not want a “civilian czar” for Afghanistan who would operate on a par with the top U.S. general there. But the actual workings of the arrangement will require some institutional innovations, many of which are discussed in a book of articles published jointly by Global Public Policy Institute and the Center for Transatlantic Relations entitled "Humanitarian Assistance: Improving U.S.-European Cooperation."

Crucially, the book says, Europe is a significant donor that simply cannot be ignored by U.S. policymakers if they are to succeed in improving standards of humanitarian help. In one chapter, “Emergency Response and Preparedness as a Common Challenge for the EU and the U.S.,” Julia Steets argues that it is up to the U.S. and the EU to make joint changes that will avoid a rising death toll among civilians that will undermine the security plan.

In a larger sense, the two sides of the Atlantic have already emerged as the major sources of humanitarian relief for victims of armed conflict and natural disasters, which may get worse as a result of climate change. Both the European Union and the United States have been central figures in the provision of aid: in 2006, the combined government contributions of the EU and the U.S. accounting for $9.2 billion of the worldwide total of $14.2 billion in assistance. These efforts have had a measurable impact. Despite a growing number of disasters affecting a growing number of people, global death tolls have declined sharply from levels in the 1960s during the immediate post-colonial conflicts in Africa and Asia. 

Even so, ideological contradictions hamper transatlantic efforts, with the U.S. inclined toward pragmatism while EU officials often push positions based on political principles. Divergences of that sort played in nightmarish terms during the unfolding stages of Bosnia’s civil war.  Furthermore, a field once dominated by the Red Cross is now crowded with public, private, civil, military and humanitarian aid groups of all stripes jockeying to assert themselves. Only a common official view on the part of the governments involved can bring effectiveness and security in this sphere, the book argues.

In a chapter entitled “Complex Emergencies: Disasters, Civil-Military Relations, and Transatlantic Cooperation,” Jean-Luc Marret tackles one such specific issue: retaining neutrality when humanitarian agencies try to operate in the midst of military campaigns. In such situations, military personnel are invaluable for providing security and transportation, but the armed forces’ goals often contradict a longstanding humanitarian principle of neutrality that makes non-governmental agencies want to avoid serving the military aims of any side in an armed conflict. Although governments officially respect the principle of impartiality for humanitarian organizations, the need for military security in many cases of modern warfare poses problems for Western governments in deciding how much access to grant these NGO’s in afflicted areas. Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} Marret’s work underscores a previous European Affairs article on the same issue.

Due to the differences in type among humanitarian crises (some involve human rights violations, others are transnational, etc), the line between humanitarian assistance and civil security can often blur, exacerbating tensions between civil and military personnel. And when civilians and soldiers are one and the same, cut-and-dried policies may be very hard to apply in practice, Marret notes. Another problem is that military and civilian humanitarian workers come from very different institutional environments: the military is led by commanders while humanitarian workers are tied to specific agencies, often with different goals and almost always with different methods. One suggested improvement would be joint training to build understanding, trust and relationships between civilian volunteers and military officers. It would also mean that information and procedures could be more consistent among everyone on the ground. In addition, U.S.-EU joint training exercises would allow European and American soldiers and aid workers to work together on simulated disasters and build skills in the process.

Since Mrs. Clinton’s November speech in Kabul, officials on both sides of the Atlantic have attempted to rectify some of the main transatlantic structural dysfunctions. Communications networks about impending disasters exist in both the U.S. and the EU – respectively, the National Emergency Communication Plan [NECP] and the Monitoring and Information Center [MIC]. But coordination of these networks has been negligeable and needs to be improved quickly so that humanitarian groups on both sides of the Atlantic can share “intelligence” sooner and better, the book concluded. 

Overall the U.S. and the EU need to adapt to the changing arena of humanitarian aid by working more closely together. Paradoxically, the relative weaknesses of EU action in some areas could result in increased cooperation with the U.S. as EU officials turn to Washington for help in boosting their own civil response capacity.