Remarks by Colonel James Robinson at the Defense Seminar 2012
August 10, 2012, Colombo
Good morning. My name is Colonel James Robinson, and I am the Chief of the International Engagement Branch for United States Army Pacific, headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii. Thank you for the opportunity to address this seminar, share some of the US Army’s experiences over the past decade in the post-conflict phase of operations, and offer some thoughts that may be of immediate relevance.
While the US Army is quite adept at conducting combat operations, we have grappled with post conflict phases of operations over our most recent period of conflict. There are many variables that factor into combat, but the post-conflict phase introduces a vastly more complex environment for soldiers largely trained to close with and destroy the enemy. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that in some conflicts there may be no clear delineation between combat and post-conflict phases, with many units fighting enemy forces, providing immediate aid to civilians, and enhancing civil capacity near simultaneously. Our operations often take place around and amongst civilian populations who must be protected and provided for, even as we are fighting enemy forces. Protecting the population includes not only complying with the law of armed conflict, but also consistently respecting and protecting the human rights and basic dignities of the populations we serve. Failure to treat civilians with respect risks alienating the population and re-animating old or new grievances that can give rise to renewed conflict. Protecting and providing for civilian populations is also a mission the Army cannot do alone, as many of the skills and expertise required to effectively govern civilian populations reside outside of those our Army has in large quantities.
This is the first lesson I’d like to speak about, the need to engage legitimate authorities as early as possible. In our experience the engagement of legitimate civilian authorities includes working with civilian authorities both within our own government, and, more importantly, outside of it – with local experts. In Iraq we found that though civil infrastructure had existed, it was in shambles due to years of conflict, corruption, and sanctions. In Afghanistan we found almost no infrastructure at all, which brought even more serious challenges that over 10 years of involvement we’ve only just begun to address.
In Iraq we were able to bring in expertise and investment that provided a catalyst for the Iraqis to begin to find solutions on their own. We began by searching for expertise from within our government to advise and assist Iraqi authorities in almost all aspects of civil administration and government. This included expertise in water and sewage, power, the legal system, and health care. The intent of our efforts was to build the capacity of Iraqi authorities to administer their own systems, which they have largely been able to accomplish. But of course mistakes were made and there were gaps in what we were able to provide.
In Afghanistan we have largely been working to help cultivate effective government authorities and services that have never existed, especially at the national level. This puts a particular strain on the civilian population who are vulnerable not only to the warring parties, but as a result of the lack of governance.
Through these lessons we built a corps of U.S. civilian experts who are now well placed to respond to other contingencies. We also greatly enhanced our coordination within our own government agencies, especially between the Departments of State and Defense. Secretary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke jointly on several occasions on the need to more fully integrate our diplomatic, developmental, and national defense efforts. Government agencies simply must work in concert to achieve maximum effectiveness, especially in situations where resources are limited.
Security of civilian experts and the population they serve is always a concern. Our troops became de facto civil authorities in many cases and had to perform duties they had little preparation for or experience in, especially during the initial stages of the conflict. However, even when our troops were the primary authority, our goal was always to seek ways to bolster local civil authorities, which in Iraq often involved a complex mixture of political representatives and tribal leaders. It must be said that many times we were also fighting against elements within these very same tribal, ethnic and political groups. Eventually, with much effort, we reached a point where Iraqi tribal leaders largely calculated that it was better to begin to work with us rather than against us. The use of force should always be the last resort. Although the presence of force can result in a political discussion, the dialogue must move beyond the need for the presence or use of force.
This brings up an interesting facet of our experiences, that of building up local security forces. In the US we do not have a national police force to draw on. We do, however, have some experience in building the capacity of military forces throughout our history, especially through Army Special Forces, whose primary mission has been to work closely with foreign armies to build them into a competent security force, and have been able to draw from the experience of our coalition partners, many of whom have national police forces. We undertook a massive effort in Iraq to train the Iraqi Army, and a similar one is underway in Afghanistan today. We also recognized the necessity of building the capacity of police forces, for I think you will agree that police forces should be the frontline force providing security and civil order to the local population. In Iraq and Afghanistan we sent teams of advisors to build the capacity of local police forces. These teams were modeled after Special Forces teams and by necessity were drawn from the conventional Army. They lived with their counterparts and provided mentorship, training, and often a boost of confidence during hard times. The U.S. Army trainers reinforced principles of human rights and led by example, making clear that respect for human rights is a critical element of effective policing.
Building security forces is a complex task that includes material and personnel resourcing, not to mention building the trust and confidence of the local population. The most effective way of achieving this is providing a competent and well trained force that is seen as fair and impartial. One example of the difficulties achieving this comes from the Iraqi province of Kirkuk, where the Arab and Kurdish populations converge, not to mention a sizable minority of ethnic Turkomen. Kirkuk is an oil-rich province that is highly coveted by the Kurdish population from the north and the Arab-dominated central government. The police force in Kirkuk consists mostly of Kurds, while the central government stationed an Army division there consisting mostly of Arabs. However, both forces undertook efforts in 2009 to diversify, with the Army division appointing a Kurdish assistant commander and several units of Kurdish soldiers. Likewise the police force recruited Arabs and Turkomen. The Army and police even began to conduct joint checkpoints and patrols, facilitated by US forces. A key initial challenge in these joint efforts was the language barrier among the several groups working together, but through genuine collegial effort and deliberate language training programs, this challenge was overcome. The result was a more unified effort and enhanced communication, which led to dividends in not only mission success, but in simply understanding one another better as cultures and peoples. Ultimately, this served to show the population that the army and police were looking after the security of the citizens of Kirkuk, not after the interests of the governments in Baghdad or Kurdistan. The example shows how we have found that the population is best protected by a force that reflects its makeup, which is why the US Army, from top to bottom, is made up of personnel from every walk of life in the United States, of every color, creed, background, religion, and gender – and most importantly, all have the opportunity to succeed and excel.
The US Army’s recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated challenges in initially understanding the cultural, political, and social complexitiesof the operating environment. At the outset, we may not have the language and cultural skills to engage the local population beyond providing for basic need such as food, water, sanitation, and health care. This can often slow not only the distribution of immediate aid, but also makes it difficult to develop durable solutions that are acceptable and sustainable by the local population. Understanding is key, and the Army benefited from the expertise provided by other U.S. government agencies, as well as other academic and civilian experts.
Our efforts to build the capacity of government and civil authorities has not been perfect in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have learned many hard lessons along the way, and the people have suffered immeasurable hardships. While during military engagement there are jobs that only a soldier can do, this is not a justification for prolonged military action. It is important to hand responsibility over to civilian authorities as soon as possible. Otherwise, the military’s mission can begin to become confused and the civilian population will begin to resent and chafe at the military’s presence. Prolonged military occupations are almost never successful, and often breed the very conditions of conflict and resentment that led to the initial confrontation.
Finally, before closing, I want to make one last overarching point that encapsulates the themes discussed here today -- the critical importance of imbuing military culture with respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. Acting within these principles and obligations is a core element of military professionalism and international legitimacy. Failure to do so can compromise a military’s reputation and effectiveness. This means that if a military conducts itself outside these principles and obligations, there has to be a meaningful process for having its conduct examined, and for holding those who commit transgressions to account. As the U.S. Army has seen first hand through our engagements in the past decade, accountability isn’t just a way of meeting international obligations—it helps build public trust in a military and ultimately makes both military and civilian components of a government more effective at maintaining durable peace and security.
This is why the United States ensures these principles are embedded not only in our own military ethos, but in our cooperative engagements with foreign militaries. Some of you in the audience have benefited from attending courses through our International Military Education and Training program during the course of your career. I hope you would agree they are incredibly useful for imparting technical skills and values, as well as building networks of professionals.
One way my government emphasizes the principles I’ve just discussed – the role of legitimate civilian governance, representative armed forces, and human rights – is through our requirement, stemming from a provision of U.S. law known as the Leahy Amendment, to vet all program candidates to ensure they have not been implicated in gross violations of human rights. This may seem an onerous process to some, but it is grounded in our fundamental conviction that legitimacy and effectiveness are inextricably linked to upholding these universal principles of human rights.
The United States holds its own military to the highest ethical and legal standards. As I have discussed, we have striven over the past decade to hold ourselves accountable, to apply lessons learned and continuously improve in our engagements with foreign populations, governments and militaries. We expect nothing less of our friends, partners and allies.
Thank you for your attention today.