In a key briefing to Congress on 13 March, General William “Kip” Ward, head of the US Command for Africa, AFRICOM, devoted only 15 seconds of his four-and-a-half minute opening remarks to a possible humanitarian role.
Focusing instead on military training, security and counter-terrorism, his remarks came in sharp contrast to a year ago when officials announced that the command would concentrate on humanitarian assistance, alarming many aid agencies, which were concerned that US military involvement in humanitarian aid would undermine their neutrality.
Ward told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee: "Our forces also support humanitarian efforts. US military programmes complement the US Agency for International Development [USAID]." US forces had also conducted de-mining activities and promoted HIV/AIDS awareness programmes in African militaries, he said.
Even with the switch in focus, however, many NGOs remain wary of AFRICOM’s potential humanitarian dimension. Linda Poteat, director for disaster responses at InterAction, a US-based coalition of non-profit organisations, said she was still waiting to hear what the mandate was, noting that the command's mission statements had still not been issued.
InterAction’s president for humanitarian policy and practice, Jim Bishop, has had extensive discussions with US officials on AFRICOM’s mandate. Last month, he said AFRICOM continued to assert that it was going to be engaged in activities that were more appropriately the responsibility of civilian branches of the US government and NGOs. "The face America should present to those who are in need of economic development and humanitarian assistance should be of an aid worker with a baseball cap, not a soldier or marine with a helmet," he told IRIN, after a formal discussion on the militarisation of aid with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February.
Shift of emphasis
J Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Programme for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and co-author of a recent CSIS report on AFRICOM, said there had been a change of emphasis. "They haven’t walked away from the notion that, certainly on public health and emergency relief matters, the US military has some special capacities that can be brought to bear.
"What they’re tiptoeing around is … they don’t want to be seen as seeking in any way to displace or usurp civilian agencies that carry out humanitarian or development work. They want to refocus a lot of their energies on the kind of bilateral security partnerships that they do best, their core business," he added.
Ever since AFRICOM was launched as a separate US military command for a continent that had previously been divided between the European, Central and Pacific commands, it has raised concern over the emphasis put on its humanitarian and developmental dimensions. It has more diplomats and aid experts than other headquarters.
Last month, Ambassador Mary Yates, deputy to AFRICOM’s Commander for Civil-Military activities, told IRIN the new structure was more concerned with planning for operations and logistics at headquarters. "We’re changing our own structure because we believe this new paradigm will help us be more effective and efficient on the continent," she said, adding that misunderstandings may have arisen during the initial stages of planning.
"We definitely are going to be in a supporting role with humanitarian and developmental initiatives that are already [under way] on the continent," she noted, but she stressed that most development work is done through USAID and NGO partners. "We would just continue supporting what they are already doing," she said.
As a scenario for humanitarian intervention, Yates cited natural disasters, when civilian officers with expertise at headquarters can make operational and logistics planning more effective. The US military has a long history of humanitarian assistance in such cases, as with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
As an example of other interventions, she mentioned a US Navy ship’s providing medical treatment to 2,000 people a day in Ghana, hoping that such programmes could be expanded, with staff from the Health and Human Services Department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention being seconded to AFRICOM.
Ward referred to the project at the Committee hearing, noting that the NGO Project Hope "had been a part of the exercise when we’ve gone in and worked with a host nation in addressing their medical capacity requirements", describing this as "a blending of soft power with what we do".
Project Hope sees US military help as a hand to be seized but for other NGOs this “blending of soft power” is precisely the concern, as it can lead to local misperceptions as to humanitarian and military roles.
InterAction’s Bishop thinks AFRICOM should engage in humanitarian response "only when they are the provider of last resort and refraining from engaging in development activities. We think they have a supporting role to play when it comes to humanitarian assistance. We don’t see any supporting role for them in development assistance. It’s not their business, they have no comparative advantages, they have very little expertise," he said.
Following Ward's remarks, Morrison of CSIS said the command might be able to offer unique services in a disaster setting. "If you’re talking about situations that are urgent and acute and require very rapid response under unstable circumstances, the military has special capacities and NGOs will recognise that and will benefit from the speed and the sort of security blanket that comes with these kinds of operations," he said.
"I think what they don’t want to see is the military taking on a lead role under more stable circumstances when civilian agencies should be definitely in the lead … I think it really comes down to the question of what are the broad circumstances in which they’ll be operating and what kind of partnerships will they be taking on," he said.