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Updated: 31-Jul-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 9-11

Combining combat readiness
and compassion

Christopher Bellamy (1) argues that the best peacekeepers are also the best war-fighters and peacekeeping is anything but an activity for wimps.

Playground duty: some of the hardest, toughest fighting soldiers, such as the Royal Marines, excel in peace operations ( © Heather Kerr/War Child UK - 88Kb)

Many professional soldiers and professional armies have taken to the peace-support operations conducted over the past decade with enthusiasm and flexibility. Others remain reluctant to engage in them and still more reluctant to throw themselves into working closely with other agencies and the local populations, believing that soldiers must be warriors, exclusively, and that "peacekeeping is for wimps".

Experience of recent operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), Haiti, Kosovo and Sierra Leone suggests that peacekeeping is anything but an activity for wimps. Indeed, some of the hardest, toughest fighting soldiers in the world excel in peace-support operations and in helping cope with what are usually called "complex emergencies". Such operations require great flexibility and ingenuity in responding to unexpected developments and also need a strong human touch. Recent research carried out at Cranfield University indicates that local populations have most respect for peacekeepers who are also unmistakably professional soldiers, robust in their manner and wellequipped. However, if forces are too heavy-handed, or remain too remote from the local population out of concern for "force protection", they also lose respect — and effectiveness.

Most peace-support operations centre on complex emergencies — emergencies where human malice is combined with man-made or naturally induced hardship, or both. Armed forces are needed to create a secure environment in which peace can be rebuilt, but they are certainly not the only, or even the principal, actors. Once peace is made, much of the immediate task has more in common with the work of police than that of soldiers. Yet for many reasons — the cost of paying police and the difficulty of deploying them abroad for long periods — soldiers have to do the job. Longer-term tasks, including physical reconstruction, tracing prisoners and refugees, re-establishing healthcare, organising elections and punishing war criminals are the responsibility of other organisations.

The term peace-support operations embraces a wide spectrum of tasks. They comprise traditional peacekeeping — where there is an agreed peace to keep; what the British used to call wider peacekeeping, where the environment is highly volatile; peace-building — reconstructing society after conflict and returning it to normality; and peace enforcement — the termination of a conflict by force.

Peace-support operations in complex emergency situations are joint — they involve all services; they are combined — they involve many countries; and they are something else, a new adjective, integrated — involving many different agencies. These include armed forces, police, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), aid agencies, international organisations, government development agencies, private industry and other companies, and the media.

All peace-support operations now take place under a media spotlight. This phenomenon is rather like the weather — its reactions can generally be predicted, but not entirely. Moreover, in addition to reporting problems, media can play an important role in contributing to their solutions. Media are one of the key checks and balances in any democratic, market-based society and it is just such societies that peace-building operations strive to create as the best guarantee of peace. Assisting the development of free and independent media must therefore be a key element of peace-building.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the British officer who led NATO forces into Kosovo in June 1999, recently likened this kind of multi-faceted operation to a piece of rope. The rope is made up of many strands, and its breaking strain is far greater than the sum of all those individual strands. The problem is weaving the strands together and ensuring that no one strand becomes notably thicker than the others which would distort the rope, create strains within it and damage anything it rubbed against.

The need for this integrated approach is recognised not only in the field, but also at the highest levels of government. The UK government has recently instituted the "cross-cutting initiative", where three departments — the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development — all contribute to two budgets for conflict prevention one for Africa and one for the rest of the world, underlining the integrated nature of this task.

On the ground, meanwhile, one of the most intractable problems is the cultural difference between NGOs and military forces. Although ex-military people are well represented in many NGOs, some NGOs come from a religious, sometimes pacifist tradition and are naturally suspicious of the military. Conversely, some military personnel are wary of NGOs, sometimes seem exasperated by an apparent lack of coordination, and can be scathing — often unjustly — about the ability of NGO employees to live in the field.

The introduction of UN forces into Croatia and then Bosnia in 1992 provided one model for integrated peacesupport operations. The operation in Kosovo since 1999 provides another, far more complicated one. The essential reason for this is that in Kosovo — unlike Bosnia — there is no effective local government. It is, in effect, an international protectorate. Furthermore, there is, at present, no long-term end-state. In effect, the "state" is the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Nevertheless, much good practice has evolved between the civil and military organisations operating in Kosovo and much can be learned from this for future integrated operations.

About 200 NGOs currently operate in Kosovo. Coordinating their activities could be likened to "herding cats". Each has its own specific area of interest and expertise. Attempts by the military authorities to control and coordinate the work of NGOs are sometimes resented. Moreover, NGOs rely on their independence as a form of security. If they are seen to be too closely associated with an occupying military force, they risk becoming a target.

The first priority, therefore, is to break down the barriers to closer communication. In many cases, the use of different language and terminology further obscures understanding and this is compounded by different interpretations of the same terms of reference. In 1994, Norway hosted a conference involving some 45 countries and 25 NGOs, which developed guidelines for the use of military and civildefence assets in disaster relief, the so-called "Oslo Guidelines". Although designed for the slightly simpler world of natural-disaster relief, the guidelines have also been used by the United Nations in complex emergencies, notably East Timor and Kosovo. The "Oslo Guidelines" are now being reviewed by NATO's Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre to see if it is possible to create a similar document for the use of military and civil assets in complex humanitarian emergencies. NATO is also developing a civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) doctrine that could fulfil this purpose, although some NGOs might be suspicious of what might be considered a "NATO doctrine".

Turning military Combined Joint Task Forces into Combined Integrated Joint Task Forces, with NGOs on board, is unlikely to be an acceptable solution, as it would merely increase NGO fears of military dominance. In any peacekeeping or peace-building operation the supreme authority is likely to be some form of "High Representative" authorised by the United Nations, and it is at that level that the work of the international military, civil, NGO and commercial actors and local authorities should be woven together.

The diversity of the many actors can be a strength rather than a weakness. Although people naturally look for institutional and doctrinal ways of coordinating organisations and avoiding duplication, it is often personal relationships between people on the ground that really matter. It is believed that there is a pool of about 1,000 people shifting between one emergency-response theatre and another. If these people could be identified and trained together, that might further help coordination.

Communication between the military, international organisations, NGOs, local authorities and the media is clearly crucial in running an integrated peace-support operation efficiently. In the age of the camcorder and the internet, there is a particular need for 24-hour information to prevent hostile governments and local interest groups from conducting propaganda. The humanitarian relief community in Kosovo is already coordinating information. The Humanitarian Coordination Information Centre (HCIC) was developed in Kosovo to feed information to all organisations and agencies. It provides a "who's doing what, where, when" database, which is critical to efficient — and safe — operations. Military forces could become more involved in initiatives like the HCIC, perhaps through their CIMIC arm.

Identifying who is best for the job is also important. Military forces are often the first agency to be deployed and can do many things on their own. The construction of refugee camps in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2) by British forces is a case in point. Some agencies in Kosovo have a clearly defined channel for communication with KFOR. However, immediately after the occupation of Kosovo, NATO was seen as a party to the conflict and this necessitated a clear division between military and humanitarian tasks.

The experience of operations over the past decade suggests that forces only intended for peacekeeping and similar duties — a gendarmerie — are not well respected by the people with whom they have to interact. The most effective are trained and equipped as professional soldiers, but nevertheless interact with the local population. The US forces, with their strong emphasis on force protection and intimidating appearance sometimes appear to go too far the other way, and their remoteness from the locals may reduce their effectiveness in the peacekeeping role.

An example of how the toughest professional troops also excel at peacekeeping is provided by the Royal Marines, who have participated in the construction of many children's playgrounds as part of an attempt to rebuild children's lives and normality. One of the playgrounds was in danger of being vandalised by older youths. It was impossible to mount a continuous guard on the playground. But the marines, thinking laterally, came up with the idea of putting in a "hot line", so locals could call, anonymously, if trouble looked imminent. The manoeuvrist approach works in peacekeeping, as it does in war.

Sometimes inter-agency cooperation does not work as it should, with interesting results. The NGO, War Child UK, specialises in, among other things, building playgrounds for children. One of the first was built at the school for the deaf in Prizren in Kosovo soon after the Allied forces' arrival in 1999. Recently, the German component of KFOR decided to make a donation to the school and asked what the school needed. There seems to have been a breakdown in communication and the Germans arrived to build — a playground, on the other side of the school. A telephone call or two, or knowledge of what different NGOs did, might have prevented the duplication. So the school now has two playgrounds. That is very popular with the children but less so, perhaps, with the teachers who have to supervise two playgrounds on opposite sides of the school.

Peace-support and humanitarian operations are likely to be a principal task of NATO armed forces for the next generation. Indeed, past experience of post-conflict peacebuilding suggests that it will take at least a generation to create a sustainable end-state in Kosovo and other places. To ensure the success of existing peace-support operations, armed forces with the ethos and physique of war-fighting soldiers have to be recruited and trained. No-one else can be relied on if peacekeeping suddenly regresses into civil war, and studies have shown that no-one else gets the necessary respect from local people in the immediate aftermath of a bloody conflict. But such soldiers, well-disciplined — and that is the key — can be the best peacekeepers and take to that task enthusiastically. A partially trained gendarmerie, or an army trained only for peacekeeping-type duties, is unlikely to be effective. The warrior ethos must remain, but it must be imbued with flexibility and humanity, and a willingness to mix with the locals, even — as many great soldiers have done — to "go native". It is possible to combine combat readiness with compassion, and that is the challenge for many armed forces in the first quarter of the 21st century.

But soldiers will have to compromise with aid agencies and other NGOs, international organisations and other government departments and local officials. The scope of off icer and non-commissioned officer education must be widened to enable them to adapt to and cope with the eccentricities of other organisations. This is being done with staff courses, which are increasingly "joint", routinely devoting time to integrated operations and the work of NGOs. However, other organisations find it harder to adapt. Few other government organisations, never mind NGOs, can afford to release staff for lengthy training and education courses as the military can. The priority for NGOs, rightly, where donors'money is being used, is to get into the field and save or rebuild lives as quickly and efficiently as possible. It, therefore, falls to the military to be especially sensitive to NGO concerns and to develop the right relationship with them.

  1. Christopher Bellamy is professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom and author of several books, including Knights in White Armour: The New Art of War and Peace (Pimlico).
  2. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.