Keeping the peace

Military and relief officials are learning how to work together to move a country from war to peace.

Operation Desert Shield. Desert Storm. Provide Comfort.

Most Americans remember the code names for the first two phases of the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, but not the third. Yet as war with Iraq looms once again, it is crucial to recall that after the Desert Shield buildup and the Desert Storm offensive, there came an operation to "provide comfort" to Iraqi Kurds. When the first President Bush sent troops into northern Iraq to protect, feed, and shelter Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's postwar reprisals, he set a precedent for the use of U.S. forces in messy humanitarian missions. That precedent shaped the policy of Bush's Democratic successor in Haiti and the Balkans during the 1990s, and of the second President Bush, his son, in Afghanistan today-and, maybe a few months from now, in Iraq.

The problem of cleaning up after a war transcends party. Pundits often equate Democrats with idealistic intervention and Republicans with pragmatic realpolitik. But the post-Cold War world seems to suck in the White Houses of both parties. The first Bush's clean military victory in the Gulf War led to a commitment in northern Iraq that, in the form of no-fly-zone patrols, continues to this day. President Clinton's reluctance to engage in Bosnia gave way to a peacekeeping mission that overflowed both its narrow, security-only mandate and its one-year limit. And the younger Bush's campaign promises to roll back commitments abroad yielded, after 9/11, to American airplanes dropping both bombs and food on Afghanistan, where the U.S. is now deploying additional troops not just to hunt al Qaeda but to stabilize the country.

"In today's world ... the military aspects of a problem, and the humanitarian aspects of a problem, are wrapped together like a pretzel, and it's awfully difficult to unravel," said Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations (called "peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs" until a few months ago).

"We often find ourselves today in situations where, on the cusp of a military operation, we're also putting ourselves in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. It was true in Afghanistan, and if anything happens in Iraq, it will be true there, too."

The bad news is that an abiding ambivalence underlies-and undermines-American efforts to stabilize war-torn countries. This ambivalence divides the Army, whose secretary is now considering disbanding its unique Peacekeeping Institute, even as the service's unofficial voice, the Association of the United States Army, is co-sponsoring a major study on "Post-Conflict Reconstruction."

And this ambivalence permeates both parties. "The one thing that hasn't changed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration is, we want to do foreign policy on the cheap," fumed Ralph Peters, an iconoclastic ex-Army intelligence officer turned analyst and author. "We're trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap. [Likewise,] Bosnia and Kosovo are not making progress; they're stagnating. And we can't afford that in Iraq."

The good news is that at least some lessons have been learned from past mistakes, albeit not enough of them. Starting with Operation Provide Comfort in 1991, the military, civilian agencies, and private relief groups-usually called nongovernmental organizations or NGOs-have accumulated a dozen years' experience in how to work together to move a country across the blurry boundary from war to peace. Progress has definitely been uneven. But progress there has been nonetheless.

"A lot of folks met in either northern Iraq or Somalia ... for the first time, and many of those relationships between NGOs and the military have continued since then," said Chris Seiple, a former Marine Corps captain who now works for a religious freedom group called the Institute for Global Engagement. Aid groups feared compromising their political neutrality and their independence by working too closely with the military, but they came to realize that, in a war zone, they could not get anywhere or help anyone without troops to keep them safe. The military was nervous about the ad hoc, nonhierarchical NGOs, but it came to realize that the aid workers, with their years of experience in a given region, could offer an invaluable ear-to-the-ground understanding of what was really going on.

The relationship deepened in Bosnia. The original plan carefully limited the military's mission to providing security, with relief and rebuilding left to a separate civilian authority. But the military, with its superior resources, organization, and logistics, got in place far faster, only to find that the unsettled problems of reconstruction threatened the shaky peace it was there to keep. Junior officers got drawn into acting as mediators between local ethnic factions. To prevent conflict in the bitterly contested Brcko region, for example, the local U.S. commander, Lt. Col. Tony Cucolo, not only guided NGOs toward an equitable division of aid between Muslims and Serbs, he also imposed a freeze on rival rebuilding programs in disputed territory.

The military and the nongovernment aid workers built on these relationships in the wake of the Kosovo war. And in the rapid run-up to Afghanistan, the U.S. Central Command took a historic step: It invited NGOs, United Nations agencies, and civilian departments of the U.S. government to send representatives to its Tampa, Fla., headquarters. Soon, a trailer park of temporary offices covered the command's parking lot. It was "groundbreaking," said one U.S. officer involved in Afghanistan. "There was a real sense, we've got to all get on the same sheet of music." Yet in the end, the same officer said, "Afghanistan was a step backwards."

Both soldiers and aid workers interviewed spoke of their frustration over efforts in Afghanistan. The delicate consensus of the 1990s-the military does security, NGOs do relief-broke down. Before, the mission of U.S. troops on the ground had been to keep the peace. In Afghanistan, they were waging war. As a result, aid groups say, the military did little to provide security for humanitarian workers (or for ordinary Afghans for that matter), and much of the country was left lawless. At the same time, they complain, the military's "civil-affairs" units, under-resourced but eager to put a benign face on the U.S. presence, conducted small-scale relief work of their own-air-dropping food here, rebuilding a school there-that did little to improve the situation but much to confuse it.

In fact, although relief work was sharply restricted during the Taliban's stormy rule of Afghanistan, it was done under "a more secure environment," said retired Ambassador Jim Bishop, who now works on civil-military issues for the NGO coalition known as InterAction. Under the new, U.S.-backed regime, he said, "there have been incidents where NGO personnel have been injured, raped. And when the military started engaging in retail humanitarian activities, dressed indistinguishably from humanitarian workers except for pistols bulging out of their pockets, that further compromised the independence of NGOs and put them at risk, as Afghans began to assume the NGOs were military personnel."

In Afghanistan, the military has stopped its airdrops and put its plainclothes reconstruction teams back in uniform. But the underlying dilemma-how to fight and help a country at the same time-will grow only sharper in Iraq.

"NGOs and the United Nations don't want to look like they're working hand in hand with the U.S. military," said Ken Bacon, a Pentagon spokesman under Clinton and now the president of Refugees International. On its side, the military is naturally reluctant to bring aid groups into its planning. "I'd call it the dialogue of the deaf, but that's too kind a description because there is no dialogue," said Bacon, just days before U.S. officials finally began initial talks with relief groups.

"Unless we can get in and start talking to the military ... it's impossible to see how NGOs would be able to prepare themselves for quick action in Iraq."

It is understandable that any administration would be leery of discussing its war plans with outside groups. But at least the U.S. government should be talking to itself. In fact, however, the cultural divide between the U.S. military and U.S. civilian government agencies can loom as large as that between government and NGOs-and some informed observers fear this gulf is not being bridged.

Such bureaucratic gaps can be dangerous for all parties on the ground in a country at war. Misunderstandings between agencies in Somalia let the situation there spiral out of control, culminating in the killings of 18 U.S. soldiers in a 1993 ambush. Later that year the USS Harlan County, trying to land advisers to implement an accord in Haiti, was turned back by a mob of hired thugs. The chastened Clinton administration resolved to get the next time right. The National Security Council brought together senior officials (mostly assistant secretaries) from a range of agencies to consult on the shape of the Haiti operation as a whole, while assigning each one clear responsibility for a particular problem: establishing security to the Pentagon, lining up allies to the State Department, reforming the police to Justice, rebuilding the economy to Commerce. The resulting plan was detailed and comprehensive, yet still flexible enough that President Clinton could turn an invasion around in midair when the Haitian junta backed down and allowed U.S. forces to enter peacefully.

The coordination for Haiti became the model, embodied in a document called Presidential Decision Directive 56. Admittedly, "PDD-56 never quite worked the way I wanted it to," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who helped write the doctrine while a Pentagon staffer and then saw it truncated in the Balkans. But at least there was a plan for how to plan. Said Col. George Oliver, director of the Army's Peacekeeping Institute: It "was only a partial step forward, but it was a big step-sort of like the first step on the moon."

In February 2001, the newly inaugurated Bush administration effectively revoked the Clinton directive. Whereas Clinton had formalized coordination and centralized control through the National Security Council, Bush prefers a looser process that relies on his powerful (and sometimes competing) Cabinet secretaries, such as Defense's Donald Rumsfeld and State's Colin L. Powell. And the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, Collins said, involves not one but three "reconstruction coordinators"-a general, a diplomat, and Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim.

"This administration is incredibly ad hoc in how it goes about planning for things, which is an enormous frustration to the petty bureaucrats that actually make the system work," said one official with long interagency experience. But despite the formal revocation of the old process, he added, "the veterans inside the bureaucracy are plugging ahead and doing strategic planning as though there has been no stoppage."

In theory, there is a sharp break between Bush and Clinton. In practice, the last administration never fully followed the doctrine it devised, and this one has not fully abandoned it. As Collins emphasized, "There's a tremendous amount of continuity."

The challenge facing the Bush administration is not to sweep away the legacy of its predecessor but to build on it, improve it, and adapt it. The interventions of the past dozen years have been difficult and often flawed, not least in Afghanistan. Soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers, however, have learned vital lessons about cooperation. In Iraq, Washington does not have to repeat its past problems. And with the stakes so high, it cannot afford to.