Best Defense

Haiti watch (III): A role for retired Special Forces?

On the morning of yet another big aftershock in Haiti, our correspondent Bob Maguire mediates on news reports that perhaps 400,000 homeless Haitians will be moved into tent camps. Or maybe a million: By Robert Maguire Best Defense Haiti correspondent In 1994/95, following the US-led, UN-sponsored intervention that restored elected government to Haiti after three ...

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

On the morning of yet another big aftershock in Haiti, our correspondent Bob Maguire mediates on news reports that perhaps 400,000 homeless Haitians will be moved into tent camps. Or maybe a million:

By Robert Maguire

Best Defense Haiti correspondent

In 1994/95, following the US-led, UN-sponsored intervention that restored elected government to Haiti after three years of rapacious rule by the Haitian military and its allies, US Special Forces played a critical role throughout the Haitian countryside in restoring order and assisting local officials move forward with the always enormous task of providing services to citizens at the local and municipal levels. Much was written about this, but I recall it most clearly through a documentary produced by CNN called "Guardian Warriors." I recall from that documentary — which I recorded on a VRC (it was that long ago) and is now stowed away somewhere on video tape — that small Special Forces units around Haiti were playing a very positive role in this regard — working with mayors; interfacing with local populations; providing technical and resource assistance. These men (I do not recall seeing any women) were portrayed as sensitive to local people and their culture and were finding ways to work within existing paradigms — even broken ones. They were also very welcome by the local populations with which they worked.

Today word is coming out of Haiti that the Haitian government is planning to move people now literally camped out on the streets and in various open spaces within the limits of Port-au-Prince to displaced persons camps that will be established on outskirts of the city. It seems we are talking about tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Without doubt, providing for these earthquake victims to ensure that they have more sanitary and organized places to stay is a good move. Not only will it assist with the delivery of supplies that provide relief and assistance, but this should provide, one hopes, shelters that will keep people dry when it rains. Have you  noted that since the quake it has not rained in Port-au-Prince? At least the timing of the quake was during dry season — imagine how suffering would be compounded had it been raining over the past week. But that situation will not stand much longer, as rains, perhaps heavy ones, must inevitably fall.

Hopefully, these emergency settlements will not become permanent places of poor, displaced people yet again packed upon each other in places that offer limited opportunities for improved lives over the long term. As written in a previous post, one of the potential positives coming out of the quake is the prospect for a more decentralized Haiti — with fewer people living in the capital city and more investment in services and economic development outside of PAP- – in the rural area and smaller cities that exist throughout Haiti and have been largely neglected in past decades.

Tens of thousands, if not more, city dwellers have been leading an exodus out of the city toward the countryside in recent days. Hopefully, as Haitians increasingly flee the destruction, death and nightmares of Port-au-Prince — something we continue to see in increasing numbers — we and Haitian authorities can catch up with and get ahead of this curve. Catching up with this curve, as suggested previously, could – indeed, should – come in the form of organized structures that can welcome the displaced people back home and provide them opportunities (alongside those already in these impoverished decentralized locations) to engage in programs of public works to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure, restore the damaged environment, provide the framework for a disaster response mechanism, and provide people with wages, a sense of dignity through work, and greater ownership in the future or their own country. The mechanism for all of this will be a Haitian variant of New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Work Progress Administration — that helped lift the US out of joblessness and depression, and helped to rebuild our nation at that time.

This is where the reflection on the prior role of the Special Forces comes in. The envisaged public works program — a "Haitian Civic Service Corps" — will require structure. It will require leadership that can impose a regime of ‘tough love’ much as occurred during the New Deal, when members of the US Forestry Service apparently played a key role in making sure that program participants showed up on time, became a disciplined work force, and got the job done. Haiti does not have much of a forestry service that can perform this role. Indeed, Haiti is going to require assistance in standing this kind of program and in managing it. Might some of those members of the US Special Forces who served in Haiti in the mid-1990’s be interested in returning to Haiti to play a role in helping to build a new and decentralized country? Might they work alongside Haitian counterparts to help provide the tough-love discipline required?

I have worked on this idea of a national civic service with well-placed Haitian authorities even before the quake. They are keen on the idea. Yesterday, I had an opportunity to discuss the idea with a senior official in the Obama administration. There is considerable interest in it. Might there be interest from among ‘our guys’ who have been to Haiti; know and respect the country and its people; and are willing to try to make a difference in this time of Haiti’s greatest need and, yet, perhaps of its greatest opportunity.

Meanwhile, here is an interesting website that is compiling information on needs and incidents in Haiti.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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