U-TAPAO, Thailand — The U.S. Marine general leaned across the table in the briefing room and told his staff and subordinate commanders: “We are in an era of complex contingencies. In this operation, there will not be a military phase and then a humanitarian phase. They have to be done together.”
Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson, commanding the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, Japan, left no doubt in anyone’s mind of the difficulties ahead.
“What we are embarked on here,” he said, “is to negotiate issues for which there is no doctrine.”
The Marines were recently deployed to this Thai air base from which U.S. B-52 bombers flew sorties over Vietnam three decades ago to take part in an annual war game known as Cobra Gold.
Officers from Thailand, Singapore and the United States were required to devise an operation that would expel an invader, set up a buffer zone and restore order to a strife-ridden land.
In this third task, they were confronted with unfamiliar troubles that bore striking parallels to those in Iraq, which was to work with civilian agencies to relieve the human suffering that is the consequence of war. That task continues to baffle U.S., British, and Australian forces in and around Baghdad.
Six weeks after President Bush declared victory, a breakdown in law and order continues; the flow of water and electricity is half of what is needed; and American soldiers are being ambushed daily.
A report from the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance in Honolulu said warning signs had arisen from increases in diarrhea, cholera, dysentery and typhoid even though there have been “no major outbreaks of disease.”
In the Cobra Gold command post exercise, the joint task force commanded by Vice Adm. Somjai Watanaothin of Thailand was confronted with 10 camps holding 750,000 starving, sick, and poorly sheltered refugees or displaced people, some of them along routes over which the task force planned to attack.
Commanders had three options: move the camps, plow through them or go around.
Initially, military planners sought to move the camps. When civilians in a humanitarian operations center pointed out the resulting logistic and security problems, the planners prepared to send the forces around the camps, with some breaking off to provide security to the displaced people.
In a planning meeting, Peter Leentjes, a retired Canadian colonel with extensive experience in humanitarian operations, said, “We would like the humanitarian organizations to move right behind the military forces so that we can render assistance in the camps right away.”
Gen. Gregson nodded his head in agreement, saying the combined task force “is thoroughly engaged in this issue.”
In another instance, the civilians urged Gen. Gregson, nominally second in command of the joint task force, to post Marines as police officers, but he demurred, saying “Military people are not law-enforcement people.”
When pressed, he elaborated: “The problem is using third-party people in the middle of a conflict when they don’t speak the language, don’t know the area, are unfamiliar with the customs and are not responsible to a local authority.”
“Our people would be pulled in two directions,” he said, referring to their training as warriors employing violence to win battles and their lack of training as police officers using restraint to keep order.
“This does not make for good law enforcement,” he said. “That has been proven in Iraq, where soldiers have been pressed into service as cops, duty for which they have not been trained.”