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If not the U.S., then who? Biden team says talk of US troop deployment to Haiti ‘premature’

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Inflation Reduction Act in the State Dining Room at the White House on Thursday, July 28, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Ever since the assassination of Haiti’s president last summer, the Biden administration has been planning for the possibility of the country’s potential collapse.

The Department of Homeland Security has quietly readied for an unprecedented flow of refugees across the Florida Straits. And the Pentagon has gamed out what it would do if heavily armed gangs took control of the country’s seaports and fuel depots, triggering a grave humanitarian and security crisis.

In each of its planning exercises, the U.S. military is never leading the effort to take back Haitian territory — and it is never going it alone. A global coalition, organized and backed by Washington, would lead the way.

Now, the predicament U.S. officials have long planned for has arrived. The Haitian government and the United Nations secretary-general are pleading for international military intervention as the country spins out of control, with powerful armed gangs blocking access to key roads, ports and the main fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince.

They are calling for a rapid-reaction armed force that would establish humanitarian corridors in Haiti, facilitating the distribution of fuel, water and critical medical supplies to thwart a growing outbreak of deadly waterborne cholera.

Yet it is unclear whether the U.S. contingency planning will hold up, with neither Washington — nor the international partners it planned to rely on — expressing any willingness to commit troops to the mission.

“The president of the United States, the vice president, the secretary of state are very focused on Haiti. We are focused on avoiding mistakes of the past,” a senior administration official said on Wednesday. “But right now, really, the focus is on the humanitarian and the health security situation, immediate measures that we are taking to hold those accountable that are behind a lot of the gang and security activity.”

“It’s premature to start thinking whether the United States is going to have a physical presence inside of Haiti,” the official added.

Foreign policy experts and diplomats in the region say the United States is one of the few countries with the logistical capacity, weaponry and combat experience to rapidly respond. But with critical midterm elections in the U.S. less than a month away, and the Biden administration’s demonstrated aversion to intervening overseas with boots on the ground, some U.S. policy watchers are wondering if the administration has the will to send troops into Haiti.

No real enthusiasm

Days before the Haitian request for intervention, Biden administration officials were debating what would qualify as a “threshold” moment on the ground that would demand a shift in U.S. policy. Officials acknowledged the status quo is unsustainable, and are growing especially alarmed by the cholera outbreak. But the internal debate revealed there is little appetite for U.S. military intervention as the administration works through alternatives.

“There doesn’t seem to be any real enthusiasm for sending in an international force, and it hasn’t helped that criticism inside and outside Haiti has made it easy to simply defer,” said Keith Mines, director of the Latin America program at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington.

On Sunday, Haitian activists protested in front of the White House saying they oppose foreign intervention and demanding that the U.S. withdraw its support for Prime Minister Ariel Henry. In Haiti, critics of Henry have also taken the same anti-intervention stance, while others trapped in the ongoing desperate situation, including exasperated police officers, are asking when will the troops arrive.

With the gang-led blockade now entering its fifth week, Haitians continue to be held hostage by the lack of fuel, drinking water and food as anti-government protests and looting continue. Many Haitians, unable to send their children to school or find food in markets and forced to go through barricades, live in fear the situation will continue to worsen as more gangs attack other ports and police stations.

“The situation is dire,” said Ret. U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, who served as chief of the Doral-based U.S. Southern Command and has continued to follow the situation in Haiti since his retirement in October 2021. “There needs to be some type of immediate action.”

Faller, who says he has no contact with Southcom, said the response needs to be international in scope, with a long-term commitment to helping stabilize a volatile Haiti.

If there is one lesson he learned through deployments to the Caribbean nation — in November 2019 when the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort visited Port-au-Prince, and in August 2021 when U.S. troops led a post-earthquake humanitarian response — it’s the power a U.S. uniform wields. In both instances, there was rare calm after months of protests and gang violence.

“The presence of uniforms, professional military in support of U.S. aid and international efforts was a deterrent to the gang activity,” Faller said. “The concern I would have now is if the gangs have escalated to such a violent level where they have taken over key facilities, logistics and infrastructure, would that be sufficient?”

Faller acknowledges there are no easy options when it comes to helping bring stability to Haiti: “It’s going to be hard, long and costly, but considering the alternative, it’s the right thing to do. Any commitment must be generational.”

In addition to the United States, the European Union and the 15-member Caribbean Community are also studying the request for an armed force. The United States and Mexico have asked that a U.N. Security Council meeting on the problem in Haiti, previously scheduled for Oct. 21, now take place Monday to discuss the request along with support for a U.S. proposal to sanction Haitian gangs and those who support them.

“We are working to determine how we can hold accountable those responsible for the violence, and increase our support to help address Haiti’s fuel shortage and security constraints, as well, that are disrupting the flow of humanitarian assistance aimed at halting the spread of cholera,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

The administration’s highest priority is ensuring that vital humanitarian assistance reaches Haitians facing hospital and school closures and increased hunger due to the crisis, she said.

If not the U.S., then who?

According to President Joe Biden’s national security strategy released on Wednesday, the administration hopes to “mobilize the international community to help restore security” for the Haitian people.

“The scale of the challenge I believe has now reached the point where only the United States would have the logistical and operational capacity to support something of the kind required,” said Mines of the U.S. Institute for Peace. “Some countries could play a key role, but I can’t see how they would be able to operate independent” of U.S. logistical support.

Since the 1990s there have been several foreign interventions in Haiti, with the U.S., joined by Canada and France, leading the way ahead of a multinational force. The last U.N. stabilization mission had a sizable Latin American contingent, with Chile and Brazil taking the lead after the U.S. stepped back.

So far, France has not said anything publicly about Haiti’s request for troops, and analysts say they do not see Canada leading a force without the U.S. Meanwhile, Brazil is in the middle of a presidential runoff election and current President Jair Bolsonaro has not shown the interest in Haiti that the country demonstrated during the 2003-10 presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his challenger.

“The question is, who else is going to go in?” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “Brazil was the most likely candidate. And obviously, you have this huge amount of uncertainty about Brazil’s capacity and willingness. And so who else will be fielding a force? I don’t see Canada going alone without the U.S. and I don’t see the U.S. going.”

Felbab-Brown said Biden has shown he doesn’t want to engage in protracted wars, demonstrated by the withdrawal of U.S. military ground troops from Afghanistan last year and his refusal to send troops to evacuate Americans in Ukraine. She doesn’t see the U.S. involvement going beyond contributing intelligence and perhaps some logistical assistance.

“It might be that the pressure will return very strongly onto the United States to field the force as the humanitarian situation continues to be so dire, as the gangs are so out of control, and maybe the Biden administration would at that point make a very different judgment on his priorities and posture,” Felbab-Brown said.

But Haiti is neither Afghanistan nor Ukraine. The U.S. carries considerable sway in the Caribbean country when it comes to security. Since last year, the U.S. has provided more than $171 million in humanitarian assistance, according to the White House, and allocated more than $90 million in security assistance over the past 18 months.

While U.S. officials don’t choose the country’s police chief, they do exercise considerable veto power with Haiti’s leadership when they strongly disagree with a choice and have been known to block Haitian government attempts to allocate security equipment to the country’s nearly nonexistent armed forces, which the U.S. pushed to dissolve after a coup in 1991.

If the current crisis has demonstrated anything, it is that despite two massive U.N. peacekeeping missions, from 1993-96 and again from 2004-07, Haiti’s national police force is not yet capable on its own of bringing security to the country.

Gang negotiations, paramilitary forces

Mines and Felbab-Brown said if no country steps up to help Haiti, there are other options. One is to negotiate with the gangs, which so far has not worked, and the other is to use private armed contractors. The latter might be a hard sell in Haiti, where 18 former Colombian soldiers are currently jailed in connection to last year’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

“Just because contractors under certain circumstances, without good supervision and leadership, under a very sketchy mandate, were involved in the events of last July, doesn’t mean there is no scenario in which contract trainers and advisors, properly supervised and led, couldn’t make a difference and help to anchor a Haitian force that could help to re-establish order,” Mines said.

Mines, a former diplomat and special forces officer, said “this work is fairly well-documented by now, and retired police and military officers have been at the heart of many effective units in Haiti for decades.”

Felbab-Brown said while hiring contractors may be the only alternative if a multilateral force cannot be put together, it is a very “fraught option with very unhappy side effects.”

“They often suppress one form of insecurity and become new sources of insecurities themselves,” she said.

Felbab-Brown said while there are private security contractors capable of training police, to be successful against armed gangs they will need combat authorization. And even after that, there is a question of how to address the larger security issues.

“It’s a very bleak picture and I just don’t see what country is going to be willing to essentially take over the wardship of Haiti for the next three years,” she said.


© 2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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