Sunday, March 23, 2008

Marine Corps Humanitarian Task Forces

The need for military capabilities other than the perceived essential task of warfighting is evident - indeed it has been central to e.g. what the Marine Corps and the US Army have been doing in practice since at least the mid 19th century.
This is something that the Navy and Marine Corps has always done,. LeFevre said, "and now we’re planning doing it."
Indeed, the Marine Corps is now counting on putting together battalion size humanitarian task forces (from
Marines and sailors are not diplomats and they can’t make foreign policy. But at sea and in foreign ports they can and have practiced a kind of diplomacy that has benefited the United States in peace and war.

And now the Corps is incorporating those kinds of missions into its mission planning with the creation of Security Cooperation Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, built around the standard infantry-battalion unit but tweaked to emphasize humanitarian aid, medical and civil operations. (...) As envisioned, the new MAGTFs sometimes would be deployed for emergencies, and sometimes when there is no urgency but where its presence can do good and generate good will for the United States, said Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations, during a discussion on strategic engagement and maritime diplomacy March 19 at the annual Sea Air Space Exposition in Washington, D.C. The SC MAGTF would be manned and equipped to carry out anything from military training of foreign forces to humanitarian, civil and medical operations, he said.

These kinds of missions have paid diplomatic and strategic dividends in the past, Natonski argued, including in the period building up for the invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and, later, Iraq. Rear Adm. Michael LeFevre, director of military personnel, plans and policy division, said the cooperation the U.S. got for staging or moving forces through a number of Middle Eastern countries near or bordering those countries was due in part of relationships built between the sea services’ leadership and senior officials in the various governments.

On general level, this is both a welcome development as the US military is the only organization with global reach and since it therefore always gets these kinds of assignments (in disaster response e.g.) it makes sense to formalize what has for a long time been part of tasking. Moreover, the Barcelona Report (pdf) called for the development of humanitarian brigades in the European context, aimed at fulfilling somewhat comparable tasks - an example of the sense of utility. Of course, these were envisaged more like deployable PRTs with large constituent of civilians. But as these have been in short supply and less forthcoming in e.g. Afghanistan - and as the military, as said, will always be the organization of last resort - then it makes sense to plan for what will inevitably come their way anyway.

Of course, there's in principle and in operational terms a huge difference between preparing for disaster response and fighting a counterinsurgency campaign. But a the strategic level, it seems of obvious importance that the US military has a continuous experience with warfighting in the context of everything else - to borrow Tom Barnett's term - and so an institutionalized understanding of the strategic connection between military operations and the political situation to which they pertain.

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