- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

It is time to start bringing our troops home from Haiti. The earthquake is over; order is restored; the star-studded benefit songs have been recorded. When the emergency ends and reconstruction begins, the mission should be handed off to other government departments, and the fighting forces should depart.

The U.S. military is the world’s humanitarian cavalry, an emergency force that appears after disaster strikes, bringing food, medicine and hope. American forces have done a splendid job in Haiti, working alongside troops from other countries and those under U.N. command. They have kept the crisis from becoming a much greater catastrophe and given the Haitian government the breathing space it needed to assess the situation and begin reconstruction efforts.

Our military is facing severe manpower strains, balancing a drawdown in Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said current forces are sufficient for these missions but that given the Haiti wild card, the Army does not have the “flexibility that we need.” It would be difficult to deal with additional contingencies while the mission in Haiti continues.

The forces deployed to Haiti were diverted from training, deployment or recuperation from battle. The leathernecks of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit had only been back stateside from Iraq a month before they were taken away from their families and sent to the Caribbean. The 24th MEU and 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team had finished counterinsurgency training and were expected to be part of the surge in Afghanistan. These units have served admirably in relieving the suffering of the Haitian people, but sometime soon, they have to get back to their regular assignments.

Relief operations are generally short-duration missions. Operation Sea Angel - the response to a cyclone that devastated Bangladesh in 1991, killing nearly 140,000 and leaving more homeless than Haiti’s entire population - lasted about a month. Most of the efforts in Operation Unified Assistance, the response to the December 2004 tsunami that ravaged countries in Southeast Asia, took place in January 2005.

The Pentagon’s Joint Doctrine for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance notes that “termination of operations must be considered from the outset of planning” and “normally, military forces operate in the initial stages of disaster relief to fill immediate gaps in assistance.” When these gaps are filled, other government agencies assume the bulk of the responsibility because humanitarian assistance is “largely a civilian endeavor.” The military’s responsibility is to get in, render assistance and get out as quickly as possible.

Some have compared the operation in Haiti - both positively and negatively - to the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the most important difference between the two situations is that Katrina was a disaster that struck the United States and U.S. citizens. America does not owe Haiti the same degree of commitment.

The United States has a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, and the president has set a date for beginning the drawdown in Afghanistan. It would be prudent to set an end date for the military mission to Haiti. Otherwise, it risks becoming an open-ended operation, a burden on the force, on families and ultimately on American national security.

The metric for success in humanitarian assistance operations is to leave while the people are still applauding. The longer U.S. forces stay in-country, the more likely something will happen to stop the applause and start the recriminations. Brazilian troops acting under the auspices of the United Nations tear-gassed a mob of Haitians seeking food aid; the outcry had those been American troops would be reverberating around the world already. The United States military has done its job in Haiti. It’s time to declare victory and leave.