US army manual details plan to co-opt NGOs

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An Afghan civilian looks on as a US soldier patrols the streets in Ghazni on May 19, 2013. (Photo: AFP)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Saturday, June 28, 2014

In the never-ending era of the Global War on Terrorism, with its insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, the thin line between military and humanitarian objectives has exceedingly been blurred – both sectors have found themselves aligned, at times uncomfortably so for humanitarian workers. Last month, the release of an updated US army field manual that outlines the Americans’ doctrine for counter-insurgency continues that trend.

On May 13, a US army field manual titled, “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies,” was published and released to the public domain. In sum, the 200-page document is a handbook for various parts of the US army and marine corps, including the US National Guard and the Army Reserves, on how the fight against insurgencies is being conducted, with topics that range from legal considerations, to notes on understanding culture, and general explanations of the framework underlying counter-insurgency security operations. The manual was first established under former US General David Petraeus, during his time commanding the occupation of Iraq between 2007-2008, and updated every four to six years to show the progression of American counter-insurgency strategies.

Amongst the many fascinating pieces of information that shed light on the mindset and tactics that drive the American war machine are sections that discuss the role of humanitarian NGOs in a manner that presents them as a vital cog – or in the document's own words as part of “comprehensive efforts” – in achieving military objections within the murky arena of asymmetric warfare.

At face-value the language used appears vague and benign, yet when deconstructed and understood in the context of counter-insurgency, the implications are significant.

In one of the first parts of the document that notes the involvement of NGOs, section 1-47, under the headline “Comprehensive Effort,” it states:

A comprehensive effort, at a minimum, incorporates all the capabilities of U.S. and host-nation governments, and may include intergovernmental and regional organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address the root causes of the insurgency, in conjunction with military operations aimed at the insurgents themselves.

It adds that these agencies, such as multinational forces, corporations and contractors, UN and international organizations, business interests, and NGOs, are all utilized in one way or another, depending on their capabilities and level of influences, to further military strategies.

In another sub-section titled “Nongovernment Organizations,” the document notes that “NGOs may carry out their work with a very different frame of reference from that of the government,” and “rather than perceiving their organization as supporting the overall US or multinational stabilization effort, they may view the situation from the perspective of the victims of conflict, regardless of their affiliation with belligerent parties.”

This part is telling, albeit in an implicit way. It acknowledges the likelihood of a contradiction between US “stabilization efforts” and that of the needs and “perspective of the victims of conflict,” a difference that certain NGOs consider. Sub-textually, this is presented as an unfortunate circumstance.

The following paragraph is even more startling under this context.

It states: “While NGOs sometimes choose to coordinate their activities with the US government for security, policy, or funding, often they are reluctant for fear of being associated with the government’s political goals in conflict. This creates a natural but often unavoidable tension in the relationship.”

In other words, US military strategists view NGOs’ decision to work with the US to be based on how others view the political goals in a conflict. The fact that there is a possibility, a tiny inkling, that reluctance to working with the US stems from the fact that US policies violate international law and norms, or clash with the inherent ideology and policies of NGOs is not considered.

The US military’s culture of co-optation

“The way in which it frames the use of NGOs, and specifically humanitarian action, as part of a US military strategy is shameless,” Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis department for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told Al-Akhbar.

“A 'comprehensive approach' stated and used by the American military – and many militaries in different ways – has been going on for a long time, and is used to essentially co-opt non-military activities to service military agendas,” he added.

The culture of “co-opting” non-military activities by the American military, as Whittall put it, radically accelerated in the post-9/11 period, exemplified by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell's infamous statement in October 2001 on the role of NGOs after the invasion of Afghanistan.

“I am serious about making sure we have the best relationship with the NGOs who are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team. We are all committed to the same, singular purpose to help every man and woman in need, who is hungry, who is without hope, to help every one of them fill a belly, get a roof over their heads, educate their children, have hope,” Powell said at the time.

The “we” in Powell’s statement is, of course, in relation to the US military apparatus and the NGO industry’s work in Afghanistan. It is presented as a unified aim, where the “civilized” society has arrived to the poor, wretched masses of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, to save them from their own shortcomings.

The recent US army field manual's discussions of NGOs is a continuation of that logic.

In this day and age of asymmetric warfare, it is not simply about winning battles through arms. Tools such as financial aid or health services are seen more and more as means for “stabilization” – or to use a tired cliché, “winning the hearts and minds” of a local population – in the face of military resistance to occupation and invasion.

This act places various humanitarian nongovernment organizations in a bind. For many parts of the world, humanitarian NGOs, particularly those from Western states, are perceived negatively, often painted as a willing or unwilling extension of Western conspiratorial agendas and ideologies. The co-option by the US military and others of these groups only works to reassert those beliefs. And at times they can be very true, with dangerous consequences for NGO workers and even the people they are trying to help.

“Our concern is more of the actual cooperation that might exist between organizations and the US military – whether it appears as such or not. This is because to deliver medical or other humanitarian assistance in a conflict zone, for MSF by definition excludes any collaboration with the parties of the conflict for two simple reasons,” Whittall explained.

“Firstly, collaboration with a military party makes your staff and the patients they treat a target for the opposing side. Secondly, any kind of collaboration would make our medical action a part of a military strategy, which files in the face of the most basic medical ethics where the need of the patient alone dictates the actions of the medical staff.”

A notable example of a major backlash towards the dissolution of humanitarian work and security agendas is that of the exploitation by American intelligence organizations of polio vaccinations in Pakistan to garner intelligence on security threats and potential targets, including Osama bin Laden. While the US government recently announced an end to this policy, the damage was already done – numerous Pakistani doctors have been targeted and assassinated, and insurgency groups actively denied populations access to these services out of fear, which in turn allowed polio to flourish in areas in which it believed to have been virtually eliminated.

“Throughout this manual the relationship between NGOs and US counterinsurgency operations is described as a relation based on 'unity of purpose' and NGOs are even referred to as 'unified action partners.' The purpose of a counterinsurgency is to obtain a military defeat of an enemy. The purpose of a humanitarian agency is to provide life-saving assistance to anyone, regardless of political or military affiliations, affected by conflict (or natural disaster). There is no unity of purpose in these two objectives, and portraying them as such demonstrates an ill-informed and distorted approach to the notion of humanitarian action,” the MSF official argued.

NGOs’ “da'wa to liberalism”

There have been many discussions, often heated, about delineating the roles between humanitarian and military organizations. At fleeting moments, there would be a public clash between the interests of the US military and that of the various humanitarian organizations trying to do their work in conflict zones, and attempts have been made to negotiate guidelines that would distinguish the various parties and their aims.

But, what of the inherent ideologies that underline both entities?

In a 2004 essay, titled “With or Against? Humanitarian Agencies and Coalition Counter-Insurgency,” for “Refugee Survey Quarterly” published under Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University's Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Dr. Hugo Slim argued that humanitarian agencies need to come to terms with, and clarify, their liberal ideological foundations, that is linked, shaped, and shared by military and security agencies that they tend to criticize.

Slim wrote:

“Islamist attack and Coalition embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq have pointed something out which many multi-mandate agencies have felt it necessary to obscure. That is – quite simply – that most secular liberal agencies that travel the world to help those suffering in war-torn societies are not simply humanitarian agencies. Like any individual and any human institution they may and must do humanitarian acts but, in contrast to ICRC, they are much more than classical humanitarian agencies. They have a clear liberal vision for society. To use an Islamic term, they represent a liberal call – a da'wa to liberalism.”

Ultimately, a natural blind-spot emerges for humanitarian organizations. They become subtly or blatantly aligned to the rhetoric and aims of an American military agenda, which is routinely draped in liberal garments. The rhetoric of democracy, secularism, and human rights is commonly evoked in the realm of warfare, because of its alluring sensibilities, and often justifies the worst forms of brutality, violence, and repression.

Moreover, as both military and humanitarian sectors tap into the same ideological pool, the same criticisms usual directed towards the US military establishment can be applicable for humanitarian NGOs. Issues of double standards, self-censorship of abuses by Western groups or groups aligned with Western interests, or even simple resignation of the mechanisms of co-option under the pretext of political pragmatic are examples that are relevant and cannot be ignored.

Slim concludes by writing, “[I]t is unwise to pretend that such agencies have nothing in common with the Coalition's objectives and method in its counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being precise about where one agrees and where one differs is likely to make for better operations and more influential discussion than trying to obscure any common morality by draping oneself in an apparently value-free humanitarian cloak.”

The statement is a challenge to these entities. It demands that humanitarian organizations be brutally and critically honest about why they exist and why they do what they do. It also urges a grander public debate by and about these NGOs, rather than merely shrugging aside voluntary or involuntary alliance with military organizations, especially as these relationships have strikingly become the norm.

Vastly more pressing, however, is that the statement also outlines that the belief within the humanitarian sphere that the “liberal vision of society” is the best vision for every and all societies. That is problematic. Not only is that belief a modern refashioning of the historical “civilizing mission” prominent under the era of empire and colonialism, which wreaked havoc for much of the world, the assumption is also rife with arrogance and self-entitlement in its attempt to solely preside over how the “other” should live their lives and shape their societies.

This is especially perilous when these ideas and actions are defined by subjective experience of the few without taking into account the experiences and voices of parties that are or will be directly effected. The end result is various forms of oppression and continual blow-back, resulting in more conflict and instability, with the general population paying the highest price.

Even then, while there has been numerous criticisms of other humanitarian organizations who have worked and been affiliated with certain governments in the world, for example the denouncement of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and its choice to work with the Syrian regime, there has been less efforts in actively, and publicly challenging the links between the US government and military with prominent international humanitarian organizations by these organizations, the media, and more.

“The problem with the US is that they have the means to incorporate [NGOs] in a much more comprehensive way, and they have the financial resources. In the case of the US they are both huge humanitarian donors and they are the most active in terms of incorporating that into their foreign policy and military action – which is why we don’t take their funding. Others do it, but the US does it in a more extensive way,” Whittall opined.

As more wars arise in the future, followed by an army of humanitarian workers, the belief that humanitarianism and militarism are part of the same sides of the coin will linger. It will continue to do so as long as the humanitarian community does not adapt to these rapidly developing times.

Al-Akhbar attempted to contact a number of other humanitarian organizations, such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and USAID, for comment on the topic, but all have either declined, were unable to comment, or have yet to respond at the time of this writing.

Comments

This essay is weak at the most vital point: what is the philosophy under which, say, Mr. Whitall of MSF, operates? He says, "The purpose of a humanitarian agency is to provide life-saving assistance to anyone, regardless of political or military affiliations, affected by conflict (or natural disaster)." So any bullet wound demands and deserves dressing. Is that a liberal stance, a devotion to the person as the basic unit of society?
Then the essayist puts his own position out. "Vastly more pressing, however, is that the statement [by Slim] also outlines that the belief within the humanitarian sphere that the 'liberal vision of society' is the best vision for every and all societies. That is problematic. Not only is that belief a modern refashioning of the historical 'civilizing mission' prominent under the era of empire and colonialism, which wreaked havoc for much of the world, the assumption is also rife with arrogance and self-entitlement in its attempt to solely preside over how the 'other' should live their lives and shape their societies.

"This is especially perilous when these ideas and actions are defined by subjective experience of the few without taking into account the experiences and voices of parties that are or will be directly effected. The end result is various forms of oppression and continual blow-back, resulting in more conflict and instability, with the general population paying the highest price."
Is the essayist saying that, if, say, women are held hostage by a local regime and the NATO/NGO coalition seeks to free the women, and fail, as they always seem to, then the women will be hurt worse by the local regime as punishment for trying to escape their ill-treatment, and the Westerners will be responsible for that increase?
Anti-liberalism is associated in modern social science with racism, an apology for cruelty as being natural for some "ideologies". That is to say, this essayist assumes as the basic constituent of society what is called an "ideology".
At heart, this is a critique of knowledge, a claim that nobody knows anything but one's own ideology. Now that view need not be tolerant, either. It might justify violence as readily as non-intervention, by the simple device of claiming no way of knowing either way, who is right or wrong, so do what you want.
So the proper conflict is between liberalism and religion, the latter defined as the belief that there is right and wrong. Can religion be liberal, that is, based on the individual person as the basic element of society, or must religion always be ideological and thus above critique?
"There is no compulsion in religion" is a worthy representative of a rejection of such relativism and non-personalism (to coin a term).
How does lending aid to somone in distress escape "subjective experience of the few without taking into account the experiences and voices of parties that are or will be directly effected"? If you see a bullet wound, does that automatically entitle the victim to medical care right then and there?
"In all the circumstances" must be the caveat to any theory of practical ethics. If the wounded person is busy executing prisoners, your job as intervener might be to increase the person's number of bullet wounds.

Beg the question that I have been asking myself for years. Are the NGOs and their personnel legitimate targets?

" ...or to use a tired cliché, “winning the hearts and minds” of a local population ."

I believe that the phrase is biblical-used in the King James version of the Bible. But I have very little bible knowledge.
It was used, in 1830, by William Cobbett writing about the "Captain Swing" riots in rural England.

Thanks and that's why Putin threw them out of Russia.

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