Are Troops Best Suited for Post-Combat Civilian Duties?
“You’re still building schools and delivering babies even though there’s a war going on,” said Col. Margaret Bond, an Army Reserve lawyer and former Staff Judge Advocate for the 352nd Civil Affairs Command.
Conflict and post-conflict phases of war, which were once separate, are melding together, she said.
The Army once snubbed the business of nation-building. Reconstruction
and economic development duties were considered the purview of the State Department or non-governmental aid organizations, known as NGOs.
Bond said current conflicts have demonstrated that the military is sometimes more capable of nation building than civilian NGOs, because it can negotiate dangerous areas where civilians can’t go.
“In some circumstances, nation building is impeded unless soldiers are doing it,” Bond said.
If insurgents, for example, cut a neighborhood’s electricity by knocking down power lines, U.S. troops might bring in a generator, she said. Typically NGO workers would do that but only if they can be sure that they are not going to be fired on, she said. And unlike the military, civilian agencies are unable to deploy as rapidly to troubled regions.
Most NGOs don’t have the means to quickly reach civilians trapped in war zones, she said. “Every day people have to have food, shelter and clothing … They need hospitals, schools, transportation and economic interaction.”
NGO supply lines are often fragile, unless they are using military transportation, Bond said. If an NGO uses its own transport and warehousing, for example, it often has to contract the hauling out to locals. Many are forced to pay bribes to get their goods through. But the amount of food, water, and medical supplies often dwindles down to
little or nothing once it reaches its destination, she said. “All of these items are valuable on black markets,” Bond said.
Tapping the military for humanitarian missions would ensure a faster response, Bond said. Troops could land in prison for refusing an order, whereas civilians have the right to decline tasks they deem too risky. Or they could be barred by their agencies from entering certain conflict zones considered too dangerous. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the chief arm of the State Department in disseminating U.S. aid, hires scores of private
contractors to implement its programs. But those added layers of bureaucracy can slow response to crises, Bond said.
The military can also bring in medics to conduct limited medical operations at local clinics. “It wins a lot of hearts and minds when you are taking care of babies,” Bond said. And if there is a need for supplies where bullets are whizzing by, the military could arrive there infinitely faster than a civilian organization, she said. Helicopters
can reach places that most commercial airplanes can’t, and can return fire. Military communications use longer-range terrestrial radios and satellite based communications with more bandwidth than most civilian
agencies have available, Bond said.
But there are risks associated with employing troops in non-combat duties, said Dave Tretler, professor of strategy at the National War College. Deploying soldiers for anything but war fighting could invite unexpected backlash, he said.
“You are Joe Civilian, and you’ve got armed troops in your neighborhood doing developmental things,” he explains. “Now your reaction might be ‘well isn’t that nice … But your reaction also might be ‘well, damn.
Here’s just another manifestation of this other country’s ability to come in with force and do to us whatever they choose.’”
Under such circumstances, you have got the makings of an insurgency, Tretler said.
“We tend to think of this as ‘why wouldn’t these people see this as just another sign of American good will?” Some undoubtedly do. Others do not, Tretler said.
The more the military tries to improve developing world conditions, the more the military becomes the face of the United States, Tretler said. “Historically, as the world is confronted with a single power that appears to have a larger and more pervasive military face, the more resistant the world becomes to that,” Tretler said.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently expressed concern that the military is increasingly involved in activities once handled by civilian organizations.
“This has led to concern among many organizations…about what’s seen as a creeping ‘militarization’ of some aspects of America’s foreign policy,” he said. “This is not an entirely unreasonable sentiment,” he