Journal Archive > 2002 > April

Let's not intertwine humanitarian and military missions

U.S. military and intelligence's use of humanitarian aid as both a cover and a psychological warfare tool in Afghanistan not only endangers aid workers' lives, but also undermines America's perception in the region and brings into question Washington's understanding of, and commitment to, relief efforts.

Armed American troops and intelligence officers have, according to western relief personnel in Afghanistan, been posing as relief workers, including direct involvement in relief services in southeastern Afghanistan. In at least one instance, sources stated that Special Forces personnel were handing out forged business cards using NGO logos downloaded from the Internet. Despite arguments that such action gives U.S. soldiers and paramilitaries an advantage or serves to further relief efforts while winning hearts and minds, a closer analysis shows otherwise.

Relations between humanitarian organizations and the military traditionally have been a mix of admiration, suspicion and misunderstanding. The U.S. military often perceives humanitarians as being ineffective or as being in the way, while humanitarians often criticize the military for either not doing enough or doing too much in the quest for security. Humanitarian-military relations has become of even greater concern given the rising politicization of humanitarian aid, with western nations' use of relief as a substitute for the sustained political and security engagement needed to create real change.

Soldiers and paramilitary personnel dressed in civilian clothes, armed with weapons as well as false identification, are directly connecting NGO personnel and their work to the conflict. While using such a cover may work initially, those opposed to American military efforts will soon realize the deception and target anyone affiliated with a relief organization, real or not.

Humanitarians, in Afghanistan long before America's war and to remain long after the United States departs, rely on trust-building with local communities and a neutrality based on the view that all civilian victims are eligible for aid, regardless of their ethnic, religious or political leanings. These workers, western and Afghan, are unarmed and daily face the threat of crime, kidnap and death by bandits. While the presence of armed U.S. personnel may deter in the short term, soldiers and intelligence operators are inherently not neutral and tend to polarize the communities within which they operate.

Upon their departure, warlords once deterred will likely return to target the unarmed humanitarians and the communities they serve, with the local population left to wonder why the American protectors are no longer protecting.

Afghanistan has long lived under the gun, with groups of armed men sometimes killing, some times assisting, local communities while playing off rival groups in an effort to win power over local drug production and other economic resources. By confusing the military and humanitarian space, the United States is promoting the image that progress and safety are only possible through arms and espionage, ensuring the warlord mythology that has seen thousands killed and millions displaced.

That is not to say that American soldiers cannot play a positive role. Their ability to win respect as combat-effective units willing to face the enemy and risk their lives alongside Afghan comrades is critical. Second, and more important in the long term, is their ability to set an example of professional military conduct within the ranks as well as toward prisoners and civilians. This does not require encroachment on the humanitarian space, but adherence to the military mission.

In addition to endangering lives, American attempts to hijack humanitarian relief and use it as a psychological tool forget the key ingredient for changing perceptions—successful relief efforts that lead to better lives. With the unwillingness, and admittedly inappropriateness, of widespread American involvement in aiding Afghan society beyond financial and material support, the key to success is the empowerment of professional humanitarians. This does not mean that Washington should not advise or influence relief efforts when it perceives things going awry, especially given the history of financial waste, inefficiencies and corruption-supporting practices of multiple NGOs and UN departments. However, such influence should not be aimed at wrapping aid in Old Glory or propagating the Afghan gun culture. Afghanistan must be assisted in a culturally informed way that mitigates violence and promotes stability through community inter-dependence and respect.

Military humanitarianism is a myth. Let the military and intelligence agencies focus on their mission—rooting out Al Qaeda while helping create a secure environment for the Afghan people. Washington must understand that success in Afghanistan—and elsewhere—is unattainable without the ability of humanitarians to maintain a principled separation from western military action. American policies will, absent a vision that addresses the link between U.S. national interests in mitigating terrorism and the promotion of unbiased and culturally attuned relief, propagate the systemic nature of extremism and give anti-Americanism yet another boost. Hopefully these lessons will not require a mass killing of aid workers for someone to listen.

John D. Moore is a M.A.L.D. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a security and management consultant for NGOs and private sector interests operating in Southwest Asia. This piece is reprinted from The Fletcher Ledger, the online journal of Fletcher students (