Genocide Prevention for Dummies

A new handbook aims to teach the U.S. military the do's and don'ts of humanitarian intervention.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his March 28 speech on Libya, justified the international intervention by raising the specter of "a massacre" in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which he said "would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." It isn’t the first time an American president has employed U.S. power to stop senseless killing. But despite the prominent role humanitarian intervention plays in U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never had a blueprint for responding to potential mass atrocities — until now.

As the U.N. Security Council resolution imposing the no-fly zone makes clear, it’s not only Obama who has been moved by fears of a modern-day genocide. "Look back to Rwanda: fail. Look back at Darfur: fail. Look back at the Balkans: partial fail," Kevin Rudd, Australia’s foreign minister and former prime minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation soon before the decisive March 17 vote, as he made his appeal for international intervention in Libya to prevent what he called "large-scale butchery of Libyan civilians."

But as the Obama administration recently discovered, conjuring military might to vanquish evildoers, while noble, is not exactly a straightforward business. The Libya intervention continues to be challenged by ill-defined goals and ambiguous rules of engagement, not to mention intracoalition squabbling over leadership of the mission once the United States steps back.

That’s where the Mass Atrocity Response Operation (MARO) Project comes in. A joint endeavor of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, the project recently released a handbook of considerations vital for effective military strategy for intervention into mass atrocities and genocide.

This body of hypothetical situations soldiers may encounter on the ground attempts to give life to rhetoric that can easily go limp in times of crisis. The guide attempts to provide the military with specific strategies for responding to a wide range of potential developments that it will encounter in volatile situations.

By providing a range of military options at the ready, the concept could help add a layer of legitimacy to interventions, such as the one unfolding in Libya, its planners say. "Currently there isn’t anything official to help commanders, planners, or policymakers think through the operational challenges of how the military could prevent or stop mass atrocity," said Sally Chin, the project’s director. "We hope that this advance thinking will not only make any potential response more effective, but given the complexities of responding to mass atrocities once they are ongoing, it will also help politicians better appreciate the value of preventive efforts."

The 160-page handbook, which is agnostic about the merits of intervention decided at the political level, is designed to help military officers respond to the sort of questions that frequently present themselves during humanitarian interventions. "How do you distinguish civilians from combatants?" said Chin, listing off some of the common challenges. "What happens if those groups who were victims become perpetrators? How much responsibility do the interveners have for the future well-being of the civilians they have saved? What happens if a MARO metastasizes into a different kind of operation such as a civil war? What are some of the potentially negative second- and third-order effects of the intervention?"

The handbook does not attempt to provide cookie-cutter answers for every foreign intervention. "What we try to do in the handbook is have 70 percent solutions and templates. If on short notice a force is told to get ready to go to this country to intervene to stop mass atrocities, then we have the planning frameworks and sets of assumptions and intelligence — things to look for and likely tasks that would have to be accomplished," explained Dwight Raymond, a doctrine and concept analyst at the U.S. Army War College. "The planners could then take what we’ve got in the handbook and then tweak them to meet the particular circumstances."

One scenario, for example, envisions a military force beginning a campaign to stave off attacks against civilians with a defensive collage of land and sea patrols, and by collecting intelligence on atrocities through feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles. The handbook then imagines what would happen if the conflict escalates and MARO forces are ordered to go on the offensive, cutting enemy supply lines and introducing ground troops into a country. It notes that if such an intervention "unleashes centrifugal forces," causing an unexpected collapse of the government, the forces must be prepared to set the conditions for long-term stabilization of the country — likely including prosecuting war criminals and supporting a transitional government.

Libya, however, offers a gripping example of how real-world scenarios are rarely as cut and dried as theory, Raymond notes. Arguably, Libya does not rise to the level of the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda, he said, highlighting the difficulty of drawing clear lines between ethnic cleansing and tactics that are simply repressive. "I think that terminology problem is a very real one," he said.

The MARO blueprint attempts to boil down the lessons from decades of military interventions into a handful of digestible approaches. One particular approach, known as "partner enabling," has particular resonance for the current international intervention in Libya. This strategy refers to the practice of using special operations forces and air assets to bolster an indigenous force — in the case of Libya, the rebels based in the country’s east. The MARO handbook warns, however, that partner enabling means that the intervening powers can lose control to a poorly trained force that could, through misconduct, undo the gains of the intervention.

The MARO plan, though not yet woven into official military code, recently received a four-paragraph mention in the Army’s operational concept, the overarching statement of its military doctrine. The brief passage acknowledged the Army’s obligation to prepare for the domino effects inherent in such missions and recognized the need to cooperate with nongovernmental groups, such as academia and think tanks, to better understand the early warning signs of atrocities. Although this is an important first step toward integrating MARO into military thinking, the pared-down reference still remains devoid of any specifics for operational forces in need of actionable guidance.

Even as the Libyan rebels try to seize additional territory from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, their own disorganization — and Qaddafi’s well-documented brutality — make it all but certain that Libya will face any number of challenges before the country regains a measure of stability. The rebels’ lack of training and lack of command structure make those who possess weapons more dangerous and Qaddafi’s armed supporters more able to terrorize the population, said Fred Abrahams, special advisor to Human Rights Watch. "In other words, [creating] a plausible deniability for any violations by armed supporters," he concluded.

It will be a long time before Libyan civilians are out of danger. But as international forces attempt to end the bloodshed in Libya and define their evolving role in the country, the world is reminded once again that a little bit of planning can be decisive in prolonging a war or creating the foundations for future stability. MARO just might be the start.

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