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AFRICOM’s Ebola response and the militarization of humanitarian aid

- September 25, 2014

President Obama announced last week an expanded U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The lion’s share of personnel assisting in the response comes from the U.S. military – an estimated 3,000 troops will be deployed to the region. Leading the effort will be Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commander of the U.S. Army Africa, part of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Since at least early August, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is out of control. Their latest update reports 2,811 people have died of Ebola of the 5,864 reported cases in the past nine months of the West African outbreak. Nearly all of these cases are in the three most heavily affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released Tuesday worst-case scenario estimates projecting that Ebola could potentially infect 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January. On the same day, the WHO’s Ebola Response team released more conservative projections, which still estimate 20,000 people will have been infected by early November.

Is a largely military response appropriate for a public health epidemic?

Many humanitarian actors are concerned about the militarization of aid in a variety of global contextssome note that the presence of militaries in humanitarian crises can make humanitarian aid actors seem to favor one side of a conflict. Doing so violates two of the basic principles of ethical humanitarian aid: neutrality and impartiality.  In general, aid agencies are supposed to help any civilian who needs it without regard for their ethnicity, religion, or the “side” they might support in a conflict, and most work hard to avoid even the appearance of favoring one side over another. Introducing a country’s military into a crisis can make it difficult for aid actors to appear neutral and impartial. In a worst case scenario, this can put aid workers’ lives at risk.

In the current West African Ebola outbreak, however, concerns about non-neutrality have been trumped by the need for immediate action. The AFRICOM deployment comes in response to a direct request for assistance from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose government’s capacity to respond has been far outmatched by the virus thus far. Her request came after calls for military (or “military-like”) response from the WHO and Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF). The MSF request is particularly startling; the agency is stridently (and often controversially) committed to humanitarian neutrality. If even MSF requests military help to get needed supplies and personnel to the field, the situation is dire.

There is no question that the United States military has logistics capabilities that far outstrip those of any humanitarian aid agency worldwide. It can transport needed supplies, build treatment and isolation facilities, and train health workers more quickly and at a greater scale than anyone else. But is AFRICOM in particular up to the task?

What is AFRICOM, and what does AFRICOM do?

AFRICOM represents America’s largest military presence on the ground in Africa. AFRICOM was formed in 2007 to consolidate U.S. military operations on the African continent, which had previously been under three separate commands. AFRICOM has grown in both scope and capacity since then.  Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany – yes, AFRICOM is headquartered in Europe, not Africa – AFRICOM draws personnel from the Defense  Department’s civilian staff and all four U.S. military branches.

AFRICOM’s mission is to “build defense capabilities, respond to crisis, and deter and defeat transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity. AFRICOM’s website shows the range of activities in which it is engaged, including familiarizing troops in host nations with fundamental military skills, providing humanitarian assistance like HIV/AIDS prevention, and assisting with counter-narcotics work.

In 2013, Malawian historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza wrote about the increased militarization of U.S. policy toward Africa and the critical – and growing – role of AFRICOM in the larger policies of the US war on terror, saying that AFRICOM “represent[s] a growing recognition among U.S. policymakers on Africa’s growing economic and geopolitical importance.”

What is AFRICOM’s experience with/preparation for responding to a public health emergency?

This is the first, large-scale operation AFRICOM has undertaken with what might be called a purely humanitarian purpose. While it has engaged in efforts like hosting HIV/AIDS prevention training in the past, those efforts are very small compared to the $750 million expected to be spent by the U.S. to fight Ebola in West Africa. There is no comparable operation of this scale or scope in AFRICOM’s history.
The last time U.S. military forces engaged in a large-scale humanitarian operation in Africa was the Somalia intervention of the early 1990s. Originally intended to be an operation to help get food aid to Somali civilians, that operation, which began under President George H.W. Bush and continued under President Bill Clinton’s administration, quickly turned into a combat operation very unlike what its proponents had envisioned. American involvement in Somalia ended almost immediately after the “Black Hawk Down” incident of October 1993 in which 18 American military personnel were killed in Mogadishu.

There is no question that the American military learned about the perils of militarized humanitarian intervention from the experience in Somalia. The situation in West Africa is very different, however, and there are few reasons to expect the type and level of  “mission creep” that we saw in Somalia. U.S. forces will not be entering an active civil war as they were in Somalia, and they will have the full support of governments in the countries in which they operate.  The murder of eight public health workers and journalists who were raising awareness about Ebola last week and Tuesday’s attack on a Red Cross burial team in Guinea are worrying signs for health workers in the region, but they appear to be isolated incidents.  While the public health system and overall state institutions in Liberia are weak, they have not collapsed, as was the case with the Somali state in 1992.

Will there be critical voices?

There are two related concerns with AFRICOM’s leading the U.S. response to Ebola in West Africa. Both raise questions about whether we will have critical perspectives of AFRICOM’s mission.

First, it is unlikely there will be critical views expressed locally in the countries to which AFRICOM will be deployed, particularly in Liberia. In a 2010 study, political scientist Carl LeVan analyzed African news reports and showed support for AFRICOM was related to foreign aid dependence: countries with higher economic growth and lower dependence on foreign aid were more critical of AFRICOM.  In the context of an epidemic outbreak that is sufficiently out of control that an autonomous (albeit poorly resourced) government is asking for military assistance, we should not expect much public criticism of AFRICOM’s response from Liberian officials. With crackdowns on media houses in Liberia during the current state of emergency, it is unlikely the media will have room to be critical of the AFRICOM-led mission either. This means it will be difficult for outside observers to know what ordinary Liberians think of the intervention.

Second, the rhetoric framing the U.S. response to Ebola as an issue of national security – and deploying a military force to respond – raises the likelihood that the activities undertaken in the response effort could be largely obscured from those ordinary citizens. Security responses by nature are not meant to be transparent, and the necessity of protecting Ebola containment facilities and health care personnel means that there will be few ways for ordinary Liberians to know exactly what is going on as facilities are constructed and put into use. There’s no reason to believe that AFRICOM has ulterior motives for this humanitarian intervention, but without transparency in their humanitarian efforts, it will be challenging for the public – and American taxpayers – to judge the effectiveness of the response.

Ryan McDaniel is a senior studying government at Smith College. Ryan spent the summer of 2014 as an intern for the Monkey Cage blog, supported by the Praxis program at Smith College.