A partnership of HuffPost and the

Military Still Fumbling Humanitarian Projects

The U.S. military has been conducting development-like activities in Africa regularly since the Pentagon stood up the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2002 - and we're still building white elephants.

Today the Government Accountability Agency released a report evaluating CJTF-HOA's activities, finding that though most of its activities revolved around "civil affairs projects such as community medical care and bridge construction," the command doesn't evaluate the effects of these programs.  Its rapid personnel turnover rate, at times as little as 4 months, lead to cultural missteps, and difficulties tracking projects.

Recently CJTF-HOA discovered they had previously built a school only to lose track of it, now finding that it had fallen into disrepair.  On another occasion a well had been constructed but the local community hadn't been trained to maintain it.  CJTF-HOA has now added to its internal program nomination form a description of who will maintain the project in the long-term.  Again, CJTF-HOA has been stationed in Djibouti since 2003.

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has had responsibility for CJTF-HOA since October 2008 when it was transferred from U.S. Central Command.  AFRICOM's broader responsibility is for long-term security engagement in Africa, with a special focus on conflict and crisis prevention.

Many analysts are hopeful that the AFRICOM model of preventive engagement will be the wave of the future.  By arming partner nations and training them to conduct counterterrorism operations in their own backyard, the U.S. hopes to avoid a repeat of the expensive and drawn out entanglement in Afghanistan.  Simultaneously the U.S. provides development and humanitarian assistance to ease resentment against the U.S., and shore up the legitimacy of the partner nation's government, ultimately making for greater stability and less human suffering.

Yemen - itself within CJTF-HOA's area of operations - has recently been highlighted as a target for this kind of engagement following revelations of the underwear bomber's training there.  This indirect approach, called irregular warfare, isn't just for counterterrorism though.  The Navy is also seeking to secure the Gulf of Guinea from smugglers and pirates through its Africa Partnership Station program.  Given the U.S. can expect 20% of its oil imports from the region by 2020, there are clear national interests at stake.

It's an attractive prospect, wedding together humanitarian and national security concerns, creating a potential bipartisan space in foreign policy.  This is the dominant model for the future among national security elites.

Others analysts, most recently Tom Ricks, have begun to question how realistic this ostensibly cheap and legitimate approach really is.

Three key questions:

1) Given our current economic crisis will continuous global engagement be politically sustainable in the U.S.?  This year the Senate Budget Committee cut the Obama Administration's request for the International Affairs Budget by $4 billion.  It is unclear whether or not a State and Foreign Operations funding bill will even make it to the floor of the House of Representatives before November.

2) How dependable can partner/client states like Yemen be?  We've nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and we can't get Karzai to run a clean election, much less reduce corruption among his own allies. 

3) Can the DOD and State Department institutionally adapt to the requirements of irregular warfare?  The DOD has shown an amazing capacity to learn and adapt to counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, but hasn't been entirely willing to change personnel practices to meet the needs even of those conflicts, much less for other regions where cultural knowledge is important.  I'll leave aside discussion of State's challenges, and the question of roles and missions, for another time.

The DOD has shown the ability to change, but it took the pressure of two wars and an exceptionally skilled Secretary of Defense to drive it.  It remains to be seen whether or not the exigencies of irregular warfare in places the Philippines, Indonesia, the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa will be sufficient to drive the Pentagon to get irregular warfare right.

If the Pentagon can't get it right, a crumbling schoolhouse may become an excellent metaphor for U.S. stabilization efforts world-wide.