Military Action: The Beginning, Not the End

by Major Jodi Vittori, PhD*
U.S. Air Force

A review of The Impossible Mandate? Military Preparedness, the Responsibility to Protect and Modern Peace Operations by Victoria K. Holt and Tobias S. Berkman. New York: The Stimson Center, 2006. 227pp.

“Send in the Troops!” is a common plea one hears when unspeakable acts of violence such as genocide and ethnic cleansing take place. Even now, as the Sudanese government has expelled crucial humanitarian organizations helping the myriad of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Darfur conflict, many voices rise again to call for protection of those civilians targeted by their own government—to be obtained by means of physical force, if necessary. Indeed, once much of the public hears that some troops will be sent, the mere act of ordering military force seems to appease the collective conscience, as if it meant the solution of the problem.

But as Victoria Holt and Tobias Berkman have expertly pointed out in the 2006 Stimson Center manuscript The Impossible Mandate, sending in the troops represents only the beginning of a commitment and not the solution of the problem in and of itself. What is needed is a discussion of how to operationalize the deployment of military forces under intergovernmental organization (IGO) auspices or “coalitions of the willing” in missions where the primary goal is to protect civilian populations. First comes the question of what “protecting civilians” actually means? Within the military establishment, this has generally indicated the respect of international law in regards to the treatment of civilians in time of war and perhaps the natural outcome of the war following the defeat of an enemy. However, the broader international community has a myriad of other definitions including providing “humanitarian space” for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to work, deterring attacks on populations within a larger mission, or explicitly preventing genocide and extensive human rights violations.

The entire concept of using military force as part of humanitarian operations is rather new. The first modern peacekeeping-like operation under the mandate of the United Nations was set up to facilitate the epilogue of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. As the report notes, since that time, similar deployments have grown in scope and number, especially with the end of the Cold War. So-called traditional peacekeeping missions have consisted of lightly armed forces sent to monitor peace agreements where both parties have concurred to accept such a presence. However, beginning in the 1990s, what has been termed “peace enforcement” began to predominate, in which states sent forces, usually under the auspices of an IGO, in order to coerce the warring parties to cease operations or at least provide some level of respite and sanctuary to the civilians stuck in the crossfire.

In 2005, the scope of humanitarian operations again increased when the United Nations endorsed the concept of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P). This is fundamentally different from traditional peace operations as it straddles the spectrum of conflict between ordinary peacekeeping and full-blown warfare. Originally, all peacekeeping operations were only at the discretion of the host state, with few exceptions, and that state was considered the responsible party for civilians. With the advent of R2P, there has been widespread acceptance that governments have a formal responsibility to protect their civilian populations, and if they cannot or will not do so—as in the case of the most egregious human rights violations—then the international community holds the responsibility to trump sovereignty and protect those populations.

As the authors note, IGOs and states are not necessarily required to support military action—in fact, all facets of IGO and state power are to be used, including the diplomatic and economic assets. However, given the extremely dire situations in which R2P comes to bear, it is only natural that coercive action be called on to disarm warring parties, protect civilians, and set the conditions for conflict resolution. Hence, military contingents must actively take sides and fight the offending actors. This is to be accomplished using the minimum force necessary and maintaining the protection of civilians as the primary goal.

In addition to determining what the overall mission goals of such operations, the actual implementation must take place. States must be willing to donate troops, especially challenging in situations where no obvious national interest is involved. As Holt and Berkman note, these troops must be given appropriate authorities and Rules of Engagement that outline their specific tasks and the circumstances under which force may be used. Specifying the overall mandate and mission goal is particularly important, as tasks can include anything from establishing safe passage of convoys to mine clearing, and from conducting law enforcement activities—like protecting and patrolling refugee camps, enforcing curfews, or preventing looting—to nation building activities, such as training local security forces. Ideally, highly qualified, skilled, and well-resourced troops would be provided for such operations. However, as this important report notes, no IGO or state has created explicit doctrine on conducting operations for R2P. And while there are a few countries with the doctrine and capacity for some form of humanitarian operations, such as the US, Great Britain, and other EU countries, they are also the most overstretched in deploying their troops overseas. In short, once sending in the troops has been authorized, which troops will be sent, with what resources, and under what authorities and capacities to act is hard to define. Whom will these forces be protecting? And against whom? When may they use force to do so? Holt and Berkman do an excellent job of specifying that these are the very questions that must be asked before any such operation, and so far, most countries and their military forces have been left to “make it up on the fly.” Such lack of clear direction, at a minimum, means that actual forces and mandates will not meet expectations, and in the worst case, is a prescription for disaster.

And yet, now is an excellent time for the very complexities highlighted by the authors to become part of the discourse within the US national security establishment, and the Department of Defense in particular. This is because the military is undergoing a significant shift in overall defense doctrine. Previously, under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there was an emphasis on creating a lighter military that would rely less on overwhelming numbers and more on stealth, rapid response, precision weaponry, and accurate intelligence and information technology. The result was that military doctrine and planning tended to focus on state-on-state warfare, rather than on aspects of asymmetric warfare, humanitarian operations, or nation building.

Under current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, while the importance of traditional warfare and a technological edge has certainly not gone away, there is a growing recognition that the US must balance forces across the spectrum of conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan are important examples in which advanced technology and overwhelming intelligence have been indeed important, but have coexisted with high numbers of troops capable to secure and hold territory and often acting more like law enforcement than standard military forces. With this comes the need for an evolving doctrine, which has gained its greatest popular recognition in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual published in 2006. Based on classical counterinsurgency lessons learned, this publication highlights the importance of securing the population and building government legitimacy in order to ultimately defeat an insurgency. According to this doctrine, as Secretary Gates has highlighted, additional troops and new weaponry—less technological, cheaper, and more in line with counter-insurgency requirements—will receive priority.

Granted, establishing and following a counter-insurgency doctrine, along with the acknowledgment that resource scarcity, global climate change, and the declining world economy are likely to require more “low intensity conflict” military operations, is hardly the same as specifically creating doctrine, forces, and training for implementing R2P. However, forces resourced and prepared for such “non-traditional” actions are inherently prepared for R2P operations. Additionally, the US security establishment’s recognition that non-traditional operations may be just as important to national security as traditional ones means that R2P will more likely receive a sympathetic hearing. As such, Holt and Berkman are posing the right questions when they ask what “send in the troops” means exactly, and their questions will grow in importance for the 21st Century US military.


* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, the US Government or any other of its agencies.

Jodi Vittori is a US Air Force officer. She has served throughout the world, including in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Republic of Korea, and is currently the Officer in Charge of the Political-Military branch of the Air Force Intelligence Analysis Agency.She graduated from the Josef Korbel School at the University of Denver in 2008 with a PhD in International Relations and specializes in Security Studies, especially violent non-state actors.

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