Militarization of Aid and its Implications for Colombia

By Ian King
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 5 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

The US has increasingly turned to using the military to administer humanitarian aid in recent years. This process has come under attack from many academics and foreign officials. Using action in Colombia from 1999 to present as a case study, this article evaluates the use of military vice civilian and NGO agencies to administer humanitarian aid. The article includes a suggested model of response to situations such as that found in Colombia today, where the military first has to maintain security, then transition over to civilian and NGO aid.

In recent years, both academics and officials have grown increasingly critical of the militarization of humanitarian aid, as witnessed in Colombia since 1999. This article considers the various organizations and politics underpinning US foreign policy and aims to clarify the reasoning behind the militarization of aid, focusing primarily on official reports from government agencies, as well as differing angles of criticism and support for the militarization of humanitarian aid.

In 1999, the United States bolstered its humanitarian aid commitment to Colombia by participating in President Andrés Pastrana’s “Plan Colombia.”1 Although this plan rose and fell with the State Department’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative, it left behind a significant military presence for security and training purposes.2

Critics of the militarization of aid, such as Chalmers Johnson and Amnesty International, often point to its potentially negative consequences as reasons to avoid it for humanitarian purposes. However, the actual decision to use the military is usually a short-term reaction to crisis with the aim of providing security and stability in the affected country. The real, longer-term problem stems from the lack of planning for the transition to aid from civilian agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).3

The Practical Need for Military Action

The involvement of any military force in response to crisis is viewed as a dramatic event and raises suspicions. However, according to a report from the RAND Corporation:

“The United States has historically provided assistance to the security forces of repressive, non-democratic countries that do not share its political ideals. This assistance is intended to improve their ability to deal with threats such as terrorism and perhaps to improve human rights. The security forces in these countries are not accountable to the public, and their activities and approaches are not transparent.”4

The US military’s ample resources and constant level of readiness give it greater capabilities for rapid deployment than any other entity in the government. Within hours of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, US Department of Defense (DOD) aircraft were in the area performing evacuations and delivering supplies, while the US Coast Guard Cutter Forward, arrived in Port-au-Prince to provide additional support.5

Fmr. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Meeting with Fmr. Colombian President Andres Pastrana

Fmr. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Meeting with Fmr. Colombian President Andres Pastrana

The military provided more medical care in Haiti than even the deployable teams from the Department of Health and Human Services. Military personnel performed over 1,000 surgeries in the two months following the earthquake, while the Health and Human Services deployable times performed 167. Military aircraft handled nearly every MEDEVAC case.

Coast Guard and Navy teams worked around the clock to restore the port facilities, and the Air Force reopened the local airport to allow more humanitarian flights to enter and leave the country.6 A month and a half later, an earthquake in Chile also prompted an immediate response from the US Air Force. Flying 17 humanitarian flights in one day with only two planes, the Air Force demonstrated a level of efficiency that no civilian agency or NGO is able to match.7

Bringing a peaceful solution to internal conflict requires a significant reduction in the threat of armed conflict.

When providing humanitarian aid in an underdeveloped country, internal security naturally becomes a concern, and sometimes foreign forces are necessary to provide “emergency justice” until the true process of nation-building can begin.8 In the case of Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerrilla organization, has become increasingly known for its kidnapping of key personnel.

Just recently, FARC released Corporal Josué Calvo, of the Colombian Army, in a deal brokered by the Red Cross and Brazilian military after Calvo had been in captivity for almost a year.9 In 2002, FARC captured Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate. She was released along with several members of the Colombian military and police forces in 2008, as well as three US defense contractors whose plan had been shot down in 2003.10

Bringing a peaceful solution to internal conflict requires a significant reduction in the threat of armed conflict. The mere presence of US forces in Colombia has made FARC and the right-wing paramilitaries such as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) much more complicit in negotiations.11

In addition to providing immediate security, one of the primary functions of the US military in Colombia has been to train the Colombian National Police and the Colombian Armed Forces. In accordance with various congressional authorizations, the “DOD provides counternarcotics foreign assistance to train, equip, and improve the counternarcotics capacity and capabilities of relevant agencies of foreign governments with its Counternarcotics Central Transfer account appropriations.”12

This assistance often involves transfer of equipment, including several aircraft sold and loaned to the Colombian National Police and the Colombian Armed Forces in support of counterdrug missions, evacuations, and the recovery of displaced persons. 13 This advance in Colombian knowledge can only come from the US military, as no other part of the US government has the ability to provide these resources or advanced training techniques to forces that need them.

Military training can include lessons on human rights practices as well as teaching respect for international law, both of which typically yield positive results.14 The US government can also provide incentives to follow its message of promoting democratic ideals by refusing assistance to governments known to engage in corruption. In 2005, the State Department denounced certain parts of the Colombian Armed Forces because of its known cooperation with corrupt rightwing paramilitary forces.15 This incentive to promote human rights stems from the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits the US government from working with known human rights violators without the expressed permission of the Secretary of State, who would only allow such actions when a clear effort is being made to correct the problem.16

Military action is not without detractors and critics. One such critic is Bruce Michael Bagley, whose writings decry the first Bush administration’s policy in Colombia. Although his writings are from several years ago, his ideas are still valid today. Bagley raised concerns over President George H.W. Bush’s plans to emphasize the military aspects of his plan to develop Colombia because of “evidence of [Colombian] military complicity in the drug trade and the trafficker-funded paramilitary groups.”17 In an official statement, Amnesty International echoed the same position for the current operations in Colombia, citing possible human rights violations due to the heavy military and counterdrug emphasis of Plan Colombia.18

Fmr. Secretary of State Colin Powell greeting Colombian Military personnel.

Fmr. Secretary of State Colin Powell greeting Colombian Military personnel.

Bagley also expresses concern about the legitimacy of former Columbian president Barco if the United States were to get too involved in supporting him. Instead he argues, “US policy should seek to strengthen the Colombian state’s institutional capacity to govern its national territory, to enforce the law, and to promote economic development.”19

Bagley is right to make this assertion, but these goals do not have to be exclusive or the antithesis of military action. Bagley’s plan for the ideal policy includes the majority of the goals for civilian and NGO aid but it does not account for the necessary security for those civilian and NGO workers to even do their job of promoting the transition back to Colombian control and bolstering the legitimacy of the Colombian government.

Another critic of militarization of humanitarian aid is Chalmers Johnson, who accuses the military of lacking accountability to the public and calls its presence in other countries a sign of imperialism. Johnson also takes issue with the military’s constant request for more technology and funding, even when DOD’s budget is already the largest in the federal government and the US military boasts most cutting-edge technology in the world.20

However, with the advent of irregular warfare, the constant increase in technology is paramount to overcoming the threat of nonstate actors that otherwise would never give up. Without the military to provide security and training, civilian and NGO workers continue in vain. There must be some sort of force in the country, and the US military is capable of being that force.

The Parallel Need for Transition and Planning

Ultimately, the goal of any humanitarian mission is to return a country’s government to a point at which it can effectively govern its own people. As Roy Godson of Georgetown University, said before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere:

“Unless foreign police organizations recognize and internalize what the rule of law means, what its key characteristics are, and why the rule of law is necessary to accomplish their mission, no amount of aid will get the job done.”21

The emphasis in Colombia and elsewhere should be placed on the restoration of legitimacy and authority rather than attempts to wipe out armed resistance groups. The people of Colombia need to know that their government can protect and provide for them. To do this requires economic development and governmental reform. In countries like Colombia, military involvement does not inherently hinder economic development. Rather, the problem lies in the planning and the process of administering aid via the military. As Flournoy and Pan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argue, “the international community must take a much more comprehensive approach to justice and reconciliation for the intervention to succeed” in places like Colombia.22

To start, any sort of military action, humanitarian or combat, needs planning and forethought that allow for some flexibility. There must be some sort of contingency plan to deal with the unforeseen circumstances of working against what is essentially an insurgency. As Philip Zelikow argues, “the ‘engineering’ task [of foreign policy] has seven parts: national interest, objectives, strategy, design, implementation, maintenance, and review.”23 Many contemporary policies, such as the current policy in Colombia, lack maintenance and review altogether. Instead, the standard operating procedures continue rigid and unchanged, regardless of the situation’s dynamic nature.

To even make a policy decision requires quite a process in and of itself, which is where Graham Allison’s bureaucratic politics and organizational process models are useful for explaining some of the undesirable effects. The possibility of human rights violations and the prospect of working with corrupt officials are not unique to military action. Because of the existing political system in the United States, these unintended consequences are always a possibility when trying to work with officials in a country like Colombia where rule of law is not always guaranteed.

Although standard operating procedures provide guidelines on how to conduct foreign policy, they do not allow the flexibility that situations like Colombia require. “Since procedures are ‘standard,’ they do not change quickly or easily…but because of standard procedures, organizational behavior in particular instances often appears unduly formalized, sluggish, or inappropriate.”24 As a result of the different political interests at the heart of every foreign policy issue, the result ends up to be nothing like any party involved desired, leading to overall disappointment with the process as well as the outcome. One example of bureaucratic politics is policy dictated by those who will ultimately not be involved in the implementation of the policy, such as the State Department’s directive calling for military action in Plan Colombia, instead of the decision being in the hands of DOD.25

In addition, actions are often beyond the control of any US official. For example, there is a long-standing belief among many members of the Colombian military that the right-wing paramilitaries can be an ally against the leftist guerrillas.26 Local officials may also carry out their own policies that get in the way of US policy, such as President Uribe’s 2007 plan to manually eradicate even more coca plantations, although the US emphasis had already begun to shift away from eradication as a way to combat production.27 Uribe’s actions in spite of US intentions are just one example of how the US development efforts never occur in a vacuum. There are always other stakeholders, including the country being developed.

When the transition from military to civilian development fails to occur, the problems of insurgency only worsens.

Neither civilian workers nor the military can legitimize the government. The US government has learned this lesson countless times, such as in Vietnam and Honduras. Although the level of action and violence in Honduras never reached that of Vietnam, many officials, including Air Force Major Bernard Harvey, draw comparisons between the two scenarios.

In a report, Harvey says that “the US military could not win the hearts and minds of the Honduran people for their government…to think otherwise would be a grave strategic mistake.”28 However, economic development can aid the government of any country with legitimacy problems by helping the government provide for its people, and civilian agencies and NGOs are much better suited to carry out that development.

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