Iraq: Unready - The view from Kuwait

Larry Thompson is presently in Kuwait assessing humanitarian preparations for the war in Iraq.
Three kinds of people run toward wars. Soldiers --- there are 150,000 U.S., UK and other foreign troops in Kuwait; journalists --- 1,200 in Kuwait, and counting; and representatives of international humanitarian aid organizations --- a tiny handful, probably about thirty.

The absence of the humanitarians in Kuwait raises the question as to how ready the U.S. government, its allies, the UN agencies, and non-governmental aid organizations are to respond to a potential humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Kuwait is the springboard for the invasion of Iraq. Kuwait is one of the countries from which humanitarian aid to Iraq will flow and to which Iraqi refugees from the war will flee. Where, therefore, are the humanitarians?

The U.S. government says that it is prepared to deal with the humanitarian problems resulting from an invasion of Iraq. A Humanitarian Operations Center has been established in Kuwait; U.S. army Civil Operations teams will enter Iraq on the heels of combat troops. Sixty U.S. civilian emergency relief personnel --- a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) --- will follow the soldiers to assess the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people in areas that have been liberated from the control of Saddam Hussein.

At that point the outlook gets a bit murky. Who is going to meet the humanitarian needs --- food, water, sanitation, restoration of utilities and public service, shelter, protection, and establishment of public order --- identified as urgent by the Civil Operations and the DART people? If the invasion of Iraq goes quickly and smoothly with a minimum of disruption in people's lives, the relief agencies can handle the job. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is preparing in Kuwait for 50,000 refugees; the World Food Program has enough food in the region to feed two million people for one month; other UN agencies, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are building up. The Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society has substantial resources also, but it is primarily a volunteer organization.

But if the invasion goes poorly, slowly, or there is massive displacement of people and destruction of infrastructure in Iraq, the task may be beyond the humanitarians in Kuwait and the region. There is a need to continue to build up humanitarian organizations in the region, including international non-governmental organizations --- the foot soldiers of aid efforts --- which are virtually non-existent in Kuwait. (Only one international NGO, Mercy Corps International, is now registered to operate in Kuwait. Several others have requested registration.) NGOs are also rare in Iraq and most will pull out if war begins. The situation is somewhat better in Jordan where international NGOs are arriving in sizeable numbers. The NGOs established themselves in Jordan first because the environment in Kuwait was uncertain and some of them wished to maintain a distance between themselves and the U.S. military in Kuwait. With Kuwait now NGO-friendly, more NGOs will likely arrive shortly.

The most immediate and difficult humanitarian problem of all following an invasion of Kuwait may be the maintenance of public order in areas controlled by the U.S. military. In the two months after the last Gulf War in 1991, an estimated 35,000 people died in Iraq due to violence among ethnic groups and political factions and at the hands of Iraqi government forces re-taking control of dissident areas of southern Iraq. There is every expectation that revenge killing, violent political strife, and the rise of warlords could occur this time in the wake of a U.S. invasion. A lack of public order could stymie humanitarian operations and limit the access of aid agencies to needy people.

The U.S. government announced on February 24 that the U.S. military would not take a lead role in humanitarian relief activities. The role of the military is "to facilitate early secure access, to create a humanitarian space, to provide information for U.S. civilian teams --- civilian relief agencies --- to fulfill their humanitarian mandates." But the present limited capacity on the part of aid agencies and NGOs means that the military forces invading Iraq may be required to shoulder more of the humanitarian responsibilities than they may be capable of efficiently implementing.

One issue is money. Neither UN agencies nor NGOs generally have the financial resources that would permit them to make large expenditures for contingency planning and stockpiling of humanitarian goods. UNHCR is said to have borrowed $16 million to prepare for a possible humanitarian emergency in Iraq. That is money that ultimately will have to be deducted from other worthy humanitarian programs in other countries if it is not replaced. Belying their rhetoric about leaving the task of humanitarian relief to humanitarian agencies, neither the U.S. nor the UK governments have thus far come forward with the level of financing that would make it possible for the humanitarians to prepare to do their job.

The assumption is that, when the war begins, the financial spigot will run wide open. But humanitarians --- like the military, which has been preparing for war this region for more than six months --- need time to prepare. A last minute call to action may find the aid agencies under-staffed and under-resourced to address a humanitarian crisis. The first victims of such a failure would be the people of Iraq, millions of whom are at risk if the infrastructure of the UN supervised oil for food program which feeds them is destroyed in a war or if UN estimates of two million displaced persons prove to be correct. Other victims would include the taxpayers of the U.S. and UK because a humanitarian program run by their military forces would be vastly more expensive than one run by NGOs.

It is past time for the U.S. government to stop speaking in generalities and, if war is truly intended in Iraq, to providing the resources that will be needed to address the humanitarian consequences of a war. Those consequences are likely to be more complex than can be solved by simply handing out a food packet. The expertise of international aid agencies and non-governmental agencies is needed.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • The U.S. and other donors support a large and immediate expansion of UN relief agencies and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East. Several hundred additional relief workers and several tens of millions of dollars are needed to ensure that humanitarian problems resulting from a conflict in Iraq can be adequately addressed.

  • If they have not already done so, the U.S., UK, and their partners make plans to maintain public order in the wake of a military invasion and thereby make it possible for humanitarian aid agencies to operate.