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In the heat of the Kenyan summer just a few miles north of the equator, a U.S. Navy Seabee detachment was working around the clock, digging a hole into the parched red clay earth. The place: a speck of a hamlet called Shidley. The mission: to provide deep, freshwater wells for marginalized nomadic communities.
Few humanitarian activities in this remote part of the world are as important as providing clean drinking water for people and their livestock. In Shidley, water is life and American sailors had come ashore to find it. Between February and June 2007, these dedicated Seabees drilled two wells. The first, in a town called Rhea, struck brackish water and was unusable. The second, at Shidley, was still being explored after weeks of futile results.
Engineers from the Kenyan army, dispatched to help the Americans find water for their countrymen, had abandoned hope that the Shidley well would be productive. From the shade of their field tent, they watched as the Seabees kept digging in the baking sun. While the Kenyans were concerned about the expense of drilling a “dry” hole, money was no object for the Americans. As the leader of the Seabee detachment said, “We’ll keep drilling ‘til we run out of steel.”
Indeed, during those five months, American taxpayers spent $250,000 on two wells that did not work. By contrast, an underground well dug by civilian humanitarian agencies typically costs around $10,000. Even if the Shidley well proved to be operational, it would only provide water for some 20 nomadic families. The rest who had been present when the well-digging operation began had long since moved on, resigned to find their water elsewhere as they had done for generations.
If viewed strictly from a humanitarian perspective, the Seabee well-drilling work in northeastern Kenya would appear to be a noble waste, an exercise in spending more money than necessary to help fewer people than otherwise possible. Yet this humanitarian mission also had a less than obvious, strategic objective. The area where the Seabees were operating is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis. Clan ties run deep among them and transcend sovereign borders from Kenya across to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia.
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 hearts and minds with an ear to the ground is the new American way of war.
Like the Shidley water project, civilian assistance activities led by the U.S. military are proliferating in number, scope, and complexity around the world. They can be found in active warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and in more peaceful environments such as Honduras and Tanzania. The upshot: Significant aspects of U.S. military doctrine, training, organization, and operations are changing in dramatic ways to support this mission.
The increasing involvement of the U.S. armed forces in addressing the basic human needs of civilians abroad represents one of the most profound changes in U.S. strategic thought and practice in at least a generation. The Pentagon is recognizing that conventional “kinetic” military operations, which utilize armed force through direct action to kill or capture the enemy, have limited utility in countering the threats posed by militant extremism. Therefore, they are searching for—and finding—“non-kinetic” options other than the use of force to tackle the non-violent components of pressing security problems, both in and out of warzones.
This may seem like an appropriate approach to America’s new security challenges in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it is not without controversy. The increasing involvement of the U.S. military in civilian assistance activities has launched a contentious debate about the role of the military in global development, and the relevance of global development to American national security. Non-governmental organizations argue that the “militarization” of development assistance threatens to undermine the moral imperatives of poverty reduction, the neutral provision of emergency relief, and the security of civilian aid workers in the field.
Non-military government agencies, most prominently the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, have demonstrated a complex ambivalence about the subject. Even as their bureaucracies have changed to accommodate the military’s growing role in providing assistance, some rank-and-file staff at USAID have argued that the military’s programs do not constitute “real development” work, while a vocal minority of foreign service officers in the State Department have protested their deployment to promote political reconciliation in active warzones as hazardous assignments inappropriate for professional diplomats.
Although the Pentagon is not of one mind on this issue, many Defense Department officials argue that these criticisms from NGOs and other parts of the government are overblown, and that these non-kinetic operations have the dual benefit of helping people in need while serving American interests, which is something that both the military, other government agencies, and the NGO community should welcome. The Pentagon has called on the State Department and the USAID to undertake more activities in direct support of American national security objectives, even as these agencies counter that their ability is constrained by years of chronic under-funding and staff reductions.
The Role of the U.S. Military in Development Work
The growing debate about the role of the military in development efforts points to two central questions: Should the United States view aiding civilians abroad as a critical element of its security? And if so, what is the best way for the United States to perform development missions in support of its national security objectives?
The physical threats to the United States in the 21st century are of such complexity that they defy solution by force of arms alone. Neither the struggle to overcome drought triggered by climate change nor the defeat of predatory ideologies can be won by waging conventional wars. Addressing the basic needs of individuals in developing countries, and helping their governments be more responsive and effective, are critical strategic capabilities necessary for the United States to protect itself and its allies around the globe.
Helping civilians abroad to improve their lives strengthens American security in three important ways. First, it supports long-term stability by improving the economic prospects of developing countries, decreasing the likelihood of violent conflict fueled by economic hardship or extremist ideologies that can spread in such an environment. Second, it strengthens America’s moral leadership in the world by increasing its reputation as a benevolent power, improving our ability to persuade other nations to support our foreign policy objectives. Finally, it serves immediate security objectives by channeling assistance to groups of people abroad that may harbor threats to the United States—diversifying the approaches available to combat the enemies of the country and its interests.
Each of these assistance missions—promoting stability, serving morality, and enhancing security—is crucially important to the United States in this changing strategic environment. The strategic purpose of assistance is increasingly clear, yet the method of providing it matters as well.
Assistance that is offered by civilians as a means of fighting poverty is viewed differently than is aid provided by uniformed military units fighting against global terrorist networks. To those on the receiving end, traditional development assistance provided by civilian agencies is a manifestation of our collective interests, and of an American commitment to improve the lives of others. But assistance to civilians delivered by the U.S. military may be seen as undertaken in pursuit of America’s national interests. The civilian-led method is largely in pursuit of a development objective, while the military-led method seeks a security aim. Though both of these methods serve at least one of the three principal missions of promoting stability, serving morality, and enhancing security, the delivery of assistance must be pursued in a way that supports all three missions rather than privileging one over the other, even inadvertently.
Despite its traditional task of fighting and winning wars, the military has an important role to play as a development actor. Its focus on countering threats to the United States makes it well-suited to performing development activities linked directly to security objectives, both in combat zones and in more permissive environments. Yet the security mission of development cannot be separated from efforts to fight poverty, with ancillary benefits for promoting stability and strengthening America’s moral leadership in the world.
Recent developments dramatically expanding the Defense Department’s activities in the development sphere without a rigorous strategic framework to guide it, and a robust civilian capacity to complement it, threaten to undermine the effectiveness of the entire development enterprise. Therefore, a successful civil-military approach to the strategic use of development assistance must have at least five critical elements:
- National consensus on the role and importance of development assistance
- Adoption of a National Development Strategy
- Capacity to perform both fundamental and instrumental development assistance tasks in support of both short- and long-term goals
- Dispersal of development expertise in civilian agencies and the military, including at senior levels
- Coherent and effective methodology for measuring the success of strategic development assistance
This paper develops a set of policy recommendations for all five of these critical elements based on a detailed examination of current development assistance programs run by the U.S. military, alongside in-depth analysis of the role of the U.S. military in sustainable security programs that feature U.S. government and U.S. military development professionals. The key to understanding humanity as a weapon of war, however, starts with an understanding of the concept of sustainable security in our post-9/11 security environment. To this we now turn.
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The Full Series
- In Search of Sustainable Security: Linking National Security, Human Security, and Collective Security to Protect America and Our World, by Gayle Smith
- Humanity as a Weapon of War: The Role of the Military in Global Development, by Reuben E. Brigety II
- The Cost of Reaction: The Long-Term Costs of Short-Term Cures, by Andrew Sweet and Natalie Ondiak
- The Price of Prevention: Getting Ahead of Global Crises, by Gayle E. Smith and Andrew Sweet
- Swords and Ploughshares: Sustainable Security in Afghanistan Requires Sweeping U.S. Policy Overhaul, by Reuben E. Brigety II