After the Iraq war: planning the humanitarian response

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
6 March 2003


- The US military has pre-positioned non-food relief supplies for one million people in the region, and (with Iraq in mind) organised a new Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

- The International Rescue Committee and other humanitarian NGOs have been stymied by a fog of war-related contingencies, preventing them from being fully prepared for the impending crisis.

- Under international humanitarian law, the US as an occupying power will be responsible for providing food and medical supplies to victims of conflict.

- US Civil Affairs officers (military personnel providing humanitarian services) plan to enter Iraq from Kuwait some two to ten hours behind combat forces.

When President George W. Bush vowed in his January 2003 State of the Union message to bring food, medicine and freedom to the Iraqi people, he set an ambitious humanitarian action agenda after the likely war on Iraq.

A refugee catastrophe of significant, if not monumental, dimensions will require initial response capacities possessed only by western militaries. Extraordinary measures, such as the notoriously ineffective airdrops of food that were employed in Afghanistan, may be used to soften the images of desperation that are likely to appear on television screens in the west.

Military planners and political advisors to the US administration understand all too well that a humanitarian disaster could cost the support of an ambivalent American electorate as well as the lives of innocent civilians. This calculation applies as well to the daunting tasks associated with building a new state, imbued with law and order, responsive to its people, and economically prosperous. The scores of billions of dollars likely needed for post-war reconstruction, moreover, will dwarf the revenues anticipated from Iraq’s oil exports for the foreseeable future.

Yet, how these tasks are handled – providing food, medicine and freedom – will be a key measure of the success of any military campaign. Anything other than a demonstrable success will engender new hatreds in the region, enlarge the risk of terrorism, and fuel criticism in Europe and America.

This has prompted the US administration to pre-position non-food relief supplies for one million persons in the region, and (with Iraq in mind) to organise a new Pentagon Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

What are the tools available to decision-makers as they attempt to walk this policy tightrope? To begin to answer this question, we look at two institutional responses: a major American humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO), the International Rescue Committee (IRC); and the US Army Civil Affairs, the component of the military that will address humanitarian and nation-building activities in Iraq.

Humanitarian NGOs: a case study of the IRC

Humanitarian action is an imposing term for a bundle of largely mundane tasks associated with moving people and things to the places where humanitarian crises arise. The IRC, which grew out of a surreptitious effort in 1940 to rescue escapees from Nazi persecution in Europe, has evolved into a large, highly respected humanitarian corporation with a niche specialty – public health in refugee camps around the world. The IRC has received over $1 billion from the US government over the past decade, and has some 7,000 staff currently deployed worldwide.

IRC gained a toehold in northern Iraq in 2002 when it received a $1.4 million US State Department grant to work on public health issues in the northern territories controlled by the Kurdish factions. This forced the agency to choose sides, as working in the north effectively precludes an agreement with the current regime in Baghdad to work elsewhere.

In Iraq, the IRC and other humanitarian NGOs have been stymied by a fog of war-related contingencies, preventing them from being fully prepared for the impending crisis. What will be the precise needs in terms of aid? Will there be contamination from the use of biological or chemical weapons? Will there be camps for internally displaced persons, or will they be able to cross the border to seek asylum outside Iraq? These are only some of the unanswerable contingencies.

A threshold issue for IRC is whether the agency has the necessary expertise. Most of Iraq’s people live in cities. “A different kind of engineer will be needed,” says Gerry Martone, who directs emergency operations at the IRC. Work in Iraq may be more akin to restoring water and electrical services in a war-damaged Sarajevo than drilling wells in a rural refugee camp, the setting in which most humanitarian groups are schooled.

Moving people and things, the essence of humanitarian relief, requires money. The IRC receives grants and fees, mainly from the US government, to undertake specific activities. As a consequence, IRC management, early on, had to face the resource question.

To assist with emergency responses, the agency some years ago received a grant of $2 million from the Mellon foundation. This permits the agency to lean forward and take chances, and replenish the fund later. Iraq is considered a safe bet, and the IRC has begun to send staff to Jordan to participate in a new humanitarian NGO coordination office.

Preparing to address the civilian consequences of a war on Iraq presents dilemmas for relief groups. For some humanitarians, such preparations are considered tantamount to complicity in planning a war which they oppose tacitly if not explicitly.

NGOs are concerned about the need to preserve and enhance humanitarian space for themselves and fear “losing their souls” if they associate too closely with the US military. For others, not preparing is an indulgence in principle at the expense of being able to respond quickly to human needs. At the IRC there was a robust debate, but ultimately the agency decided to prepare. “Our country directors around the world heard a lot of concerns from other NGOs,” says Martone.

Political and security obstacles have severely limited the IRC’s efforts to get its plans off the ground. Assessments in advance of war can only be done in broad terms at present, but even these have not been possible because access to Iraq has been frustrated by delays in the granting of US government licences permitting travel to Iraq and Iran by agency personnel. Also, more generally, there has been only limited communication between the military, the United Nations (UN) and NGOs.

US Army Civil Affairs: serving humanitarian needs

If you think proactive, you think of the military. Will the US army be ready to take humanitarian action in Iraq? Arthur Helton posed this question to Joseph Collins, deputy assistant secretary for defense for stability operations, when they met on a snowy morning in late February at the Pentagon. Collins’ answer was an emphatic ‘yes’; the US government is devoting unprecedented attention to the prevention and mitigation of the humanitarian consequences of a war.

There is a good reason for the military to be prominent in the humanitarian sector: an effective response to humanitarian needs is an essential measure by which the success of any military campaign in Iraq will be judged. Under international humanitarian law, as the occupying power in Iraq, the US will be responsible for providing food and medical supplies to victims of conflict.

They will also be obliged to permit access for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN and NGOs to provide assistance. In addition, military offices assigned to the task will be a key component of an endeavour to ‘win the hearts and minds’ not only of the local population, but of world public opinion. Nothing short of winning the peace will win a war in Iraq.

US Army Civil Affairs is the component, largely drawn from army reserves, which will address humanitarian and recovery operations. To prepare for Iraq, the active duty 96th Civil Affairs battalion has been deployed, and about half of some 5,500 reservists are being called up. There are mechanisms in the reserves to match skills with recovery tasks, such as identifying civil engineers. Where Civil Affairs cannot do the work itself, it can serve as a general contractor, as it did in Sarajevo, in order to facilitate the repair and rehabilitation of public works.

US Civil Affairs officers plan to enter Iraq from Kuwait some two to ten hours behind combat forces. They will be followed by the largest-ever US Disaster Response Team (DART), 62 persons, deployed by USAID and the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Migration and Refugees.

This DART will act as the main civilian intermediary between the US military and humanitarian aid agencies in the early stages of the conflict, and will also prepare for the longer-term reconstruction effort to follow the war. In terms of method, DART will make assessments and contract for relief and recovery operations with NGOs.

But the US military will not be able to wait for the government contracting process to run its course. Once the military has achieved basic security, it will look around for civilian interlocutors upon which to devolve state-building responsibilities. Civil Affairs soldiers will find themselves once more plugging social gaps and providing basic services until NGOs and international organisations establish operations.

How this US-led effort will relate to broader international arrangements is yet to be determined. The UN may be able to enter Iraq shortly after the attack has begun. However, to date, the key UN agencies – especially the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) – have been severely constrained due to lack of information. While the UN’s formal position at present is not to engage with the US military while weapons inspections are still taking place, informal contacts have been made with the US Humanitarian Operations Centre in Kuwait.

The new post-conflict office at the Pentagon will be headed by retired Lt. General Jay M. Garner, who participated in Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. He will liase with a senior US civilian, not yet named, who will administer humanitarian operations, civil administration and reconstruction efforts.

Coordination with international agencies, NGOs and donor governments will be one of the office’s major responsibilities. The placement of the post-conflict office in the Pentagon has already engendered widespread concern that the effort will be seen in Iraq and in the region as too closely linked to the military.

Nevertheless, Civil Affairs is clearly a ‘growth industry’, in the words of one of the officers interviewed recently at the Pentagon. Military deployments in Haiti and the Balkans over the past decade have created a new portfolio of work for the US military. Afghanistan is just the most recent variant. Iraq is likely to be the next.

But one aspect has remained constant in these operations – the military and NGOs are in close proximity. The relationship can be tense. Different perspectives and functions guarantee some measure of disharmony. The military is task driven, and NGOs are concerned that if they are perceived as implementing US-led assistance and thereby becoming ‘sub-contractors’ of the US military, they compromise their neutrality and independence. This has been a central issue in many past humanitarian operations and, undoubtedly, these issues will be featured once more in Iraq. This dilemma prompted a familiar refrain by one IRC official: “We need new ways to manage these issues.”

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