PRT’s and the Civil-Military Blur

There’s been a lot of discussion of stabilization operations as part of the Army’s counterinsurgency posture lately, and of course the model around which consensus seems to be converging is that of the Provincial Reconstrution Teams. President Bush thinks they’re just swell, and in a video conference call with some teams operating in Afghanistan and Iraq today suggested that he wishes they’d been around when he was younger so he could have played hooky from a PRT instead of from the Texas Air Guard where he rode out the Vietnam War. (Okay, cheap shot, I know, but I couldn’t resist.)

To get a better sense of just what the PRT’s do, here’s the White House fact sheet on their operations in Afghanistan. Then consider this State Dept. effort to ramp up the Civilian Stabilization Initiative and the Civilian Reserve Corps, both of which will put integrate teams of civil experts into stabilization operations, sometimes independently but often, one can assume, in the context of military theaters of operation and the PRT structure.

Now the reason I bring this all up is that from the first time I heard about them, I’ve always felt a little ambivalent about the PRT’s. On the one hand, I was encouraged to see the U.S. military thinking in terms of alternative approaches to military hard power; on the other, I was a bit concerned about the military encroaching into what is very clearly the sphere of civil humanitarian workers. Obviously, many of today’s emerging humanitarian crises are taking place in regions where violence and lack of security make humanitarian relief efforts difficult or even impossible without the help of military intervention. And just as the military is showing flexibility in its approach to integrating civilian best practices into its operational posture, the civil sector should not cling to principles that hobble its effectiveness rather than improve it.

Nevertheless, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs just published their Civil-Military Guidelines & Reference for Complex Emergencies (.pdf) last week, and I thought it was worth linking to, if only to see how the other side of what used to be the “military-civil divide” sees things. It’s significant in being the first official codification of the new crisis management environment from a humanitarian institutional authority. Here’s a quick cut & paste job of some quotes that jumped out at me when I read it:

[P]ractical realities on the ground have gradually necessitated various forms of civil-military coordination for humanitarian operations.

These developments, together with cases of military interventions claimed to be for ‘humanitarian’ purposes, have led to an erosion of the separation between the humanitarian and the military space, and may threaten to blur the fundamental distinction between these two domains. It also raises significant concerns associated with the application of humanitarian principles and policies as well as operational issues. (p. 6)

The most important distinction to be drawn is whether the military group with which humanitarians are interacting is, has become, or is perceived to be a party to the conflict or not. (p. 7)

In any circumstances, however, it is important to maintain a clear separation between the roles of the military and humanitarian actors, by distinguishing their respective spheres of competence and responsibility. This approach is implicit in and builds on the principles of international humanitarian law, and is crucial to maintaining the independence of humanitarian action. The need for the humanitarians to maintain an actual and perceived distance from the military is especially important with regard to belligerent forces or representatives of an occupying power. . .

However, the emphasis on distinction should not be interpreted as a suggestion of noncoordination between humanitarian and military actors.(p. 9)

The decision to seek military-based security for humanitarian workers should be viewed as a last resort option when other staff security mechanisms are unavailable, inadequate or inappropriate. (p. 11)

Humanitarian agencies must avoid becoming dependent on resources or support provided by the military. . . Resources provided by the military are often only temporarily available and when higher priority military missions emerge, such support may be recalled at short notice and without any substitute support. (p. 12)

One must be aware that the military have different objectives, interests, schedules and priorities from the humanitarian community. Relief operations rendered by military forces could be conditional and could cease when the mission of the military forces changes, the unit moves or if the assisted population becomes uncooperative. Such action by the military can also be conducted primarily based on the needs and goals of the force and its mission, rather than the needs of the local population. (p. 16)

Relief operations carried out by military forces, even when the intention is purely ‘humanitarian,’ may jeopardize or seriously undermine the overall humanitarian efforts by non-military actors. The other parties to the conflict and the beneficiaries may neither be willing nor able to differentiate between assistance provided by the military and assistance provided by humanitarian agencies. This could have serious consequences for the ability to access certain areas and the safety of humanitarian staff, not to mention the long-term damage to the standing of humanitarian agencies in the region and in other crisis areas if humanitarian assistance is perceived as being selective and/or partial. Assistance provided by the military is susceptible to political influence and/or objectives and the criteria used in selecting the beneficiaries and determining their needs may differ from those held by humanitarian organizations. For these reasons, military forces should be strongly discouraged from playing the role of the humanitarian aid providers. Their role in relation to humanitarian actors should be limited to help create a secure operating environment that enables humanitarian action. (p. 17)

As you can see, there’s still a lot of ground to cover before we can even begin to call some of these issues resolved. In this, as in a lot of other aspects of foreign policy and military tactics, we’ve probably entered the case by case era, where no formal codification will stand up to the intricacies on the ground. But it’s something to think about in the gathering tide of PRT triumphalism.