Bombing and arms supply are not humanitarian relief.

Talbisseh is one of the locations hit by Russian planes AFP. (

As Russian airstrikes ripple through Syria,  American politicians on both the right and left will take advantage of this opportunity to say that Obama’s inaction shows weakness and that what Syrian refugees need is more US involvement. Republican presidential candidates, who support sending ten thousand troops into Syria and bombing Iran on the first day in office, will likely flaunt themselves as big, strong, powerful leaders who will make Putin cower as they “bomb the Terrorists back into the seventh century.” Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, has already lamented the fact that we didn’t do a better job arming Syrian rebels and overthrowing the al-Assad regime.

Many Americans seem to be under the false impression that military action is some kind of humanitarian force for good. Somehow arming radical Islamists and dropping bombs on civilians will stop the flow of refugees. In reality, destabilization and bombing campaigns create millions of refugees. [Estimated number of displaced Afghans: 3,700,000]

Maybe we can learn something by looking at the historical record. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan the CIA armed the Mujahideen during a covert mission code named Operation Cyclone. One of the young men who went to help and receive training from the Mujahideen, which means “Freedom Fighters,” was named Osama Bin Laden. One of the main groups the CIA used to funnel arms and finance to the Mujihadeen was the Pakistani intelligence service the ISI. From the link:

“The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also began funding the Afghan resistance in 1979.  Accepted doctrine was that America would not overtly reveal its hand in a proxy war with the Soviets, and therefore the CIA worked through its ally Pakistan.  Zia insisted that Islamabad would decide who in Afghanistan received American aid, and the arbiters of this policy ultimately became Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported Zia’s dictatorship.  As the war progressed and as US and the Saudi Arabia led Arab funding for the mujahideen skyrocketed, the Pakistani government and the ISI gained enormous influence in Afghan affairs.”

At the time of Osama Bin Laden’s extrajudicial execution at a compound less than two miles from Pakistan’s Military Academy, the New York Times reported that ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.

While I understand that profiting off weapons sales (sometimes to both sides of a conflict) is an addictive routine for the United States, maybe it makes sense for the country to be more careful which militants it arms and supports. Remember, people in Syria and the Middle East generally don’t like America. Something about multiple decade long occupations, bombing seven predominantly Muslim countries, and support for dictators in the region doesn’t make people want to cheer for the American flag while eating a McRib. Although it hurts my little heart as an American that some people don’t like me, it’s something I should keep in mind when my government wants to supply lethal weapons and training to a group of people I’m completely unfamiliar with.

The executive director of Doctors Without Borders specifically outlines why Humanitarian NGOs must not ally with the military saying:

“There is a fundamental incompatibility between waging a war (using military or other means, including distribution of relief supplies) and conducting humanitarian action. It is simply not possible for a government or military to have the unconditional ambition of only providing humanitarian action. Our objectives are thus fundamentally different from those of the military, and this remains true in light of some current views of war. In recent wars waged by Western powers, defeat of the enemy is not the only objective or rationale put forward for taking military action.Military forces also aim to restore peace, democratic political order and economic development. These goals put a premium on non-combat tools such as relief assistance, which has come to be seen as essential for success in reaching a military campaign’s overall objective and helping to garner or maintain support for the war itself. Relief operations in combat have propaganda and public relations aspects, both in the theater of operations and at home, in helping to depict the overall mission as having an altruistic or humanitarian motive.”

And researchers at Harvard have likewise critiqued the installation of a retired general to lead postwar humanitarian reconstruction in Iraq saying:

“Under a military-controlled relief effort, humanitarian assistance can easily become a tool of war. Hostile forces might see aid workers as easy targets and allies of the occupying force. Moreover, the neediest Iraqis may never receive assistance if their needs don’t match the Pentagon’s political goals. The reconstruction effort is likely to lack international legitimacy and financial support. In Iraq, the US use of humanitarian aid as a political asset threatens the efficiency and equity of aid operations. The Pentagon, overruling the Department of State, has asserted the right to organize postwar reconstruction in Iraq. It created an Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that will have the military imprimatur on every aspect of rebuilding—from political institutions to the food aid Iraqis receive.”

Humanitarian missions, like the one currently underway in Syria, are incompatible with the United States military. Sticking your guns and bombs in a sovereign foreign country is not a defensive action. After airstrikes and regime change in Libya, the country was left in disaster and is also currently experiencing a refugee crisis. The military as a tool has a single purpose: kill the enemy. This is logical when a foreign government is attacking your country. During that period of time, killing the enemy seems rational (a justification that confuses American people). But when the political establishment is calling on Congress to aid Syrian refugees, the last thing the country should be considering is carrying out more home destroying bombing missions or empowering maniacs to foment violent revolution. This literally has the exact opposite effect on people living in the region, causing them to flee the violence at much higher rates.

Let’s end with a thought experiment:
Try to imagine that your home country is engulfed in a civil war, and that conflicting power factions are vying for control of the government. It is difficult to find access to food and water during the chaos, and you are worried for the safety of your family. In what situation can you imagine yourself saying: “Well, things are pretty bad here in my once beautiful homeland. Hopefully Russia and/or America will start flying planes over my head, dropping explosives on those Evil, Stupid-Faced, Bad Guy Terrorist Men.”

21 Comments on "Bombing and arms supply are not humanitarian relief."

  1. Hi there, Tyson –

    Saw your link to this post at The Intercept and thought I’d check it out. Very nice piece. I especially like that Harvard quote and you’re pointing out the difference between defending your country and I guess you might say, offensive uses of military force.

    what makes me really shake my head is the reaction to the migrant/refugee (whatever term one cares to use)crisis. The West certainly helped to create the horrible conditions making those people flee —- and then there’s a big resistance on some parts to letting them in… my heart breaks for those people.

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