Collateral Damage: Internationalized Counterinsurgency and Its Toll on Humanitarian Action
Introduction: Casualties of the new Proxy Wars
International humanitarian actors have reached the limits of their ability to secure themselves in the world’s most violent places. Over the past decade, aid agencies have increased their security awareness and improved their risk management, aid workers are better trained, and more resources are available for operational security than ever before; yet the number of major attacks on aid operations has tripled. Unlike soldiers, none of the 242 aid workers who were killed, kidnapped, or seriously wounded in 2010 had the benefit of military training or force protection. Most did not go to work with the explicit understanding that their mission was potentially fatal or that they were considered an enemy target. Nonetheless the statistics reveal that humanitarian aid has higher casualty rates most years than UN peacekeeping missions, and is among the deadliest of all civilian professions.
Violence against aid workers is, of course, nothing new. In conflict, aid resources make for attractive and relatively easy spoils, and, for those seeking a global platform, killing or kidnapping foreigners has always been an effective means to shock their way into the world’s attention. What does appear to be new, since researchers began tracking the incident data, is the dramatic rise and the simultaneous concentration of the attacks in a small number of conflict settings. Three quarters of all attacks on aid workers since 2006 took place in just five countries: Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Chad, with the steepest increases seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the attacks have been increasingly sophisticated and lethal, making use of heavy explosives, improved explosive devises (IEDs), and suicide bombing tactics previously unseen in attacks on aid workers. (Stoddard, Harmer, and DiDomenico 2009).
In some of these conflicts humanitarian action has become a proxy target for national insurgent movements—and for their international jihadist supporters engaged in asymmetric warfare against the US and the West. These “internationalized insurgencies” face correspondingly internationalized counterinsurgency campaigns in which the US and its allies support the national governments through military and/or political means. Gaining and maintaining secure access in these environments presents the most difficult challenge humanitarian actors have ever faced, and their task is made considerably harder by counterinsurgency tactics that employ the provision of aid—and at times the blocking of it—to achieve military ends.
This article looks at counterinsurgency doctrine as the tactical expression of the global stabilization strategy pursued by the United States and its allies, and the fundamental challenge it poses to neutral humanitarian action in these conflict settings. The undeniably Western origins and orientation of the international humanitarian endeavor exacerbate this challenge, and addressing this inherent weakness may hold one key to increasing secure access for neutral humanitarian action.
Post-Statist Warfare and Counterinsurgency Doctrine
As the sole remaining superpower, the United States maintains “overwhelming superiority” in conventional military power over other nation-states. However it is confronted in various parts of the non-Western world by what has been described as a “globalized insurgency,” comprised of two distinct but interlinked levels (Kilcullen 2009, p xiv). At the local/national level there are religious fundamentalist and traditionalist movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which reject the authority of weak and corrupt central governments, and seek to fend off what they see as the encroachment of modernization, threatening their cultural norms. At the international level are the international jihadists, notably Al Qaeda, that have aspirations for a global upheaval culminating in a new world Islamic order. With varying degrees of infiltration and control, the international movement finances, supports, and colludes with the local insurgencies to seize power in their countries and in so doing to challenge the hegemony of the United States and the West.
To meet this and other non-state threats (such as transnational organized crime), the United States government and its allies have engaged in a global campaign described in broad political terms as “stabilization” (Collinson, Elhawary, and Muggah 2010). More of a general approach than a specific strategy, the concept of stabilization is the attempt by the hegemonic power to shore up fragile states in order to maintain the world order and status quo of power relations. In the current theaters of the “global war on terror” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq) and the secondary areas of concern (Somalia), the stabilization effort is reflected in the practical application of counterinsurgency strategy.
Counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN, in US military parlance) is a highly complex operational model borrowing lessons from the past centuries’ imperial and colonial powers, and using unconventional means to pursue strategic ends. The primary focus of COIN is not on enemy forces (who can easily disperse, go underground and regroup later) but on local populations. Using a “hearts and minds” approach, COIN endeavors to protect and provide assistance and good governance to communities that will then, it is reasoned, have a stronger incentive to reject the insurgents, and even help to root them out and fight them off.
At its core, COIN is a struggle for the population’s support. The protection, welfare, and support of the people are vital to success. . . . Political, social, and economic programs are usually more valuable than conventional military operations in addressing the root causes of conflict and undermining an insurgency.COIN participants come from many backgrounds. They may include military personnel, diplomats, police, politicians, humanitarian aid workers, contractors, and local leaders (United States 2006) (Emphasis added).
In other words, in counterinsurgency doctrine the provision of aid is not merely supportive of the military strategy, but central to it. This would seem to negate the concept of separate “humanitarian space” and leave very little room for classical neutral humanitarian action. This would be the case even if the military and the independent aid agencies worked in strictly separate spheres of aid. For instance, even if the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and their for-profit contractors focused only on longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance while the “traditional” humanitarians stuck to critical relief aid, the insurgent forces have little incentive to make the distinction. Within these scenarios, the insurgents’ goal, naturally, is to effect the opposite of stabilization, in a protracted and indirect campaign: “The insurgent wins by avoiding defeat, creating disorder, maintaining a forcein-being challenged the government’s monopoly of authority, and preventing the population from cooperating with the government” (Kilcullen, 2009). By attacking the agents of stabilization they are striking a blow against the government and the international forces. If aid becomes a military activity then aid providers become a legitimate military target. And in truth, the lines between humanitarian, reconstruction, development assistance are rarely brightly drawn. Most of the major humanitarian agencies undertake a broad range of programming, from humanitarian to development, and often concurrently in the same setting.
A corollary to the problem of co-option of aid for political and military objectives is where humanitarian assistance is blocked from going into areas of insurgent control. Although the United States and coalition forces have no official boots on the ground in Somalia, these governments have achieved a de facto blocking of humanitarian assistance by defunding relief programs in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas of the south-central region. Ostensibly done for reasons of accountability and security (preventing diversions of aid by Al-Shabaab) the defunding has occurred not in conjunction with diversions, but rather in conjunction with increasing territorial gains by the insurgents.
It is arguable that this particular type of conflict context—i.e. the battlegrounds of “the global war on terror”—is fundamentally unfavorable for humanitarian action. Henry Dunant’s vision of inter-arma caritas was conceived to apply in interstate conflicts, as an agreement between similar state parties and their comparably matched armies. Never a simple endeavor to begin with, it surely becomes far more problematic in the borderless and asymmetrical conflicts of the post–Cold War, post-9/11 environments. However, similar doubts were expressed regarding the civil conflicts and violent state fragmentation that characterized the conflicts of the 1990s, and international humanitarian action did not cease. On the contrary, it strengthened significantly in numbers, capacity, and performance. Civilians still suffer and require assistance in these conflicts; the humanitarian imperative persists. The critical question for international humanitarianism is how to execute its mission effectively and securely in these environments.
The Humanitarian System’s Diversity Problem
International humanitarian actors perceive themselves as engaged in a global endeavor, applying universal precepts. While it is true that helping people in need is a universal human value, it is also true that the international humanitarian system as it exists today is manifestly Western in its origins and composition. The “Western-ness” of international humanitarian action is more than just a question of perception: The six largest NGOs—accounting for roughly 60 percent of the NGO staffing presence and 40 percent of the operational expenditure—are all based in Britain, France, or the United States. The next two largest tiers of NGOs, consisting of 23 organizations with overseas program budgets between $50 million and $250 million, are also (with just two exceptions) from North America and Western Europe. The same holds true for the 16 largest government donors, contributing over 90 percent of the official humanitarian contributions for emergencies: with the exception of Japan, it remains an all-Western club (Stoddard 2008). The contributions of the “non-traditional” or “non-OECD Development Assistance Committee” donor governments, while often among the first to arrive in the crisis contexts, are channeled predominantly in the form of bilateral, government-to-government assistance, and amount only to an estimated 12 percent of the total official aid (Harmer and Cotterrell, 2005). While some Gulf States and other non-Western countries are beginning to increase their contributions to the system, they still play a marginal donorship role in the organized system of donors and operational agencies. As far as the UN humanitarian agencies are concerned, they are inseparable, in the minds of many populations and belligerents, from the UN’s political role—as shaped by its predominantly Western permanent Security Council members. Finally, the quintessential humanitarian organization, the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (notwithstanding the addition of the Crescent emblem) is fundamentally a Swiss invention within the context of a Western nation-state system.
If the international humanitarian community is loath to admit that it is Western on its face, then it is in even deeper denial about the Western roots of its core tenants. There exists, of course, a universal value of compassion and helping others in need. The basic notion of empathy and the will to relieve suffering of others is common to all religions and societies, but the concept of a neutral entity having a protected presence amid conflicts to provide aid to civilians is not. Such a concept is in fact inseparable from a Western, secular conception of the nation-state system. It makes less sense in a worldview that does not hold religion, the state, and civil society to be separate spheres.
For all these reasons it should come as no surprise that the international humanitarian community is seen in these contexts as fully of a piece with the Western political and military agenda the insurgents are battling against. The humanitarian principles as expressed as a set of universal values or ideology not only fail to persuade the non-state belligerents, they also don’t always resonate with local actors and governments. Importantly, however, when practically applied as operational and negotiating tools, they seem to have continued usefulness for securing access for aid. A strong majority of respondents in a survey of national humanitarian aid workers in high-risk operational environments expressed the opinion that their security in the field was enhanced by their organizations’ adherence to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality in programming (Egeland, Harmer, and Stoddard, Forthcoming).
Forging Secure Access
This article does not attempt to assess whether or not COIN is effective in meeting its strategic objectives, nor does it express an opinion as to whether beneficiaries are better served by traditional humanitarian providers rather than in the framework of a military hearts and minds campaign. It has instead sought to illustrate (broadly and in brief) how and why traditional humanitarian action has become increasingly endangered in modern-day contexts of internationalized insurgency/counterinsurgency.
So what are the options for humanitarian actors seeking to remain operational in these environments? Antonio Donini and MSF’s Michiel Hoffman among others have urged a back-to-basics Dunantist humanitarian approach. This entails unequivocal separation and independence from military and political actors, and a pared down focus on only core humanitarian activities as opposed to development and stabilization-oriented programs (Donini 2010; Hoffman 2010). A recent study on high-risk humanitarian operations found certain evidence in field practice that supports this proposition. Most notably, that the ICRC, and increasingly MSF, have been able to operate more openly in more places than any other international humanitarian actor. This has been accomplished by making major institutional investments in its capacity to reach out to and negotiate with belligerents on all sides, and focusing on their core missions. Currently, other international NGOs lack comparable capacity for humanitarian negotiation, but to a lesser extent, some have also been able to gain and maintain secure access high risk in limited local settings. At least for these actors, more important than the type of programming undertaken seems to be the following four factors: 1) a demonstrated track record of programming benefitting the population; 2) localizing their programming by recruiting all staff directly from the community where programs are run; 3) deemphasizing their international brand (i.e., Western) identity both to avoid attracting unwanted attention and to enhance local acceptance; and 4) communicating actively and consistently with all relevant interlocutors among the community and parties to the conflict—stressing transparency with all, allegiance with none (Egeland, Harmer, and Stoddard, Forthcoming). Moreover, the more local the insurgents and the greater the hold they have over the territory in question, often the easier it is for humanitarian actors to negotiate safe access. Local insurgents tend to be less ideological and more practically oriented than their global jihadist supporters, realizing that once they gain ground they must adopt their own version of a hearts-and-minds strategy to build their legitimacy and retain the sympathy of the local population. They are thus more amenable to negotiating with traditional humanitarian providers, if they are convinced of their independence from the foreign forces, in order to be seen as allowing the provision of aid to the community.
Reemphasizing humanitarians’ impartiality and independence from political actors is right and necessary in these environments. However, “back to basics” must not be construed as remaining within the Western box that negatively defines international humanitarian action to much of the non-Western world. International organisations should strive instead to think beyond the boundaries of their traditional institutional culture and to reinterpret the humanitarian imperative more effectively for local audiences. This could include active efforts to diversify the international base of donors and implementing agencies, and to strategically devolve more operational capacity and responsibility for humanitarian action to local actors—as opposed to simply transferring the risk.
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