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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.


Why warriors should not be compassionate

Published 15th April 2010 - 8 comments - 3195 views -

Marines are definitely warriors first,... [but] we’re equally as compassionate when we need to be, and this is a role that we’d like to show -- that compassionate warrior, reaching out with a helping hand for those who need it. We are very excited about this.

This cute quote comes from Marines' spokesman to the US Army Haiti Response Mission, but my article will not be about Haiti (and if you want to know why, wait till the last paragraph). This story is based specifically on Afghanistan, where numerous Western states still – no end in sight – contribute to the multinational forces, ISAF, including my home country, Poland, currently with 2,600 helmets. But the problem goes beyond Afghanistan.

Each snotty kid in Berlin, Rome or Prague knows why our boys are out there: to make the world more safe. That’s why they have to kill bad guys, push good guys up, and nothing but smile at the red flowers all around. But that’s not enough. To achieve stability we need stick along with a carrot. So we give schools, water-supplies and hospitals, just to be sure that Afghans stay on the light side of the force.

In 2004/05 first NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) were set up, with a goal to deliver development aid to the Afghan people. They are made up of a mix of civilian reconstruction experts and soldiers, but in principle this is a military enterprise. Unlike Afghanistan itself, PRTs thrive. There are 27 of them now, mostly run by Americans, but also by Turks, Canadians, Germans, Lithuanians, Estonians and Czechs.

And by Poles. At present our Defense Ministry is in the course of enlarging the Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan from 150 to 180 members. In 2009 – I look into an official communique – the Polish team finalized more than a dozen projects for civilian population in Ghazni province, including reconstruction of roads, orphanages and health clinics, plus drilling lots of new wells.

What’s wrong with that? Ask anyone around if the military should contribute to reconstruction of Afghanistan and deliver aid to the poor Afghan women – hardly anyone will be against. To prove your granma is wrong, here are the bullets, all made by experts who worked in Afghanistan:


1. In comparison with NGOs, soldiers have little experience in aid and reconstruction, and usually poor sense of local specifics. The specialists from PRTs spend in Afghanistan 3-6 months, so when they manage to learn something, it’s time to go home. - Soldiers distribute free medicines in the villages, making the veterinarians, who traditionally sell drugs, bankrupt. So the docs leave, and the villagers stay without any medical help – says Anna Minkiewicz, who spent in Afghanistan 5 years. What more, the military-distributed medicines often are off the local Health Ministry's drug list.

Another example: – Near Herat various NGO’s have been long studying what are the chances of replacing poppy cultivation with saffron, without risk of poisoning water sources – says Minkiewicz. – When the military found out about this project, at once – without any consultation – started giving away saffron bulbs and bags of fertilizers to the farmers, who had no idea what to do with this gift.

2.  Coalition forces use aid as a tool for achieving military goals. In 2004 have been distributing leaflets demanding that people "pass on any information related to Taliban and Al-Qaeda" saying that this is necessary "in order to have a continuation of the provision of humanitarian aid." The leaflets included a picture of an Afghan girl carrying a bag of wheat.

"The deliberate linking of humanitarian aid with military objectives destroys the meaning of humanitarianism” said Nelke Manders, then Head of Mission Afghanistan for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). “It will result, in the end, in the neediest Afghans not getting badly needed aid - and those providing aid being targeted." This is exactly what happens.

3. Military "aid" endanger the recipients. To the Taliban, a kite with large, visible ISAF logo is an indisputable proof of kids’ and their parents’ collaboration with enemy. Another classic example: PRT decides to build a school – a school for girls of course. Next day the school is on fire and the villagers expect militia's revenge. The Afghans are between a devil and a deep blue sea: if they reject soldiers’ gifts, they may suspect them of being Taliban allies.

4. Army engagement in aid and reconstruction put in danger civilian humanitarian workers. Afghans are not able to distinguish between the two, since soldiers with shovels blur the border between military and civilian spheres. NGOs workers are often perceived as US government agents and spies.

5. Growing military engagement in ODA sucks out resources from NGOs – both draw form the same basket, and this is a basket with hard bottom. Not long ago I wrote that Polish government cuts aid to Africa. Why Africa, not Afghanistan? No one will say this aloud, but the answer is obvious: flow of aid follows the army. This is the case with most of the developed countries, enough to look at statistics: Afghanistan is now major ODA recipient, earlier it was Iraq. And there is one more trend: Polish FM funds for NGO projects in Afghanistan are drying up, but not for military “aid” projects.

I could put a couple of more points, but instead you may read critique of PRTs activity (with some constructive suggestions) by UN official in Afghanistan, Mark Ward, at January conference in Prague.

Finally, I still think the army may have positive role in responding to emergency situations, like Haiti earthquake. There was a lot of criticism of the fact that Marines, formerly known of invasions of Haiti to secure US interests, "took over the country again". Well, we don’t know what would happen if they would not. How many more lives would be lost? UN was in a mess and there was a state of total chaos. However if we talk of long term aid policy, not emergency – guys in uniforms should stick to their military tasks.

Image: Katarzyna RybiƄska


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 15th April 2010:

    Great post, as always smile

    I think the biggest reasons soldiers should not involve in distributing aid is that it blurs the lines between comabatants and non-combatants, a line that it crucial to keep. The Talibans commit a crime if the target red cross workers, but a legal military act if they target soldiers… so how are we to judge the situation if they target soldiers that do civil work?

    By the way, I read somewhere in Swedish, that the aim of the war in Afghanistan might be to keep it going. As long as there is a war there, that will tie down the resources of groups like Al Qaida, resources that they would otherwise use for terror attacks in the west… It is just a theory,  but it doesn’t sound very far fetched.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 15th April 2010:

    Hi Daniel. This is popular and more or less correct theory. I have another, simple one: the war must go on because can’t be won. And there is something in American psyche that prevents them from admitting defeat. But let’s the American speak. I asked this question to ret. USAF colonel William Astor and this is what he told me (bit long but worth reading):

    “Perhaps the root of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.  Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved.  Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter—and often exacerbate—are not amenable to being solved with money and troops.  Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face.  So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves.  After which, sadly, we tend to search for scapegoats.  Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of dollars and troops.

    The way out, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the great German-American philosopher, who critiqued our war in Vietnam, is to recognize that we’re committing excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  Only when we recognize this fact will we find our way out.”

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 15th April 2010:

    That’s worth reading. I guess it is the problem with being a superpower… all empires are drawn into wars that they neither can lose, nor win.

  • Johan Knols on 16th April 2010:

    Great post Robert!
    The issue at hand is a very difficult one. And although I think that you are right in a lot of ways, I am asking myself the question: What is the alternative?
    If PRT’s would not include soldiers, which civilian in his right mind would want to go to Afghanistan to help ‘rebuild’ the country?

  • Bart Knols on 16th April 2010:

    Excellent writing - thought provoking, thanks. I am happy to read this blog, as Anna Minkiewicz used to live in the village next to where I lived in rural Zambia! I did not know that she worked in Afghanistan…

  • Robert Stefanicki on 16th April 2010:

    Thanks, guys.
    @Johan: Civilians are ready to go, but they are losing competition with the army. Each year Foreign Ministry calls for development projects and NGOs present their offers. Some of them are accepted, other rejected on the ground of shortage of funds. The problem is that part of funds allocated for NGOs is shrinking, while the part for Defense Ministry projects is growing.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 19th April 2010:

    A piece of update: fresh article on the subject appeared on respected OpenDemocracy website, saying that “Militaries continue to treat conflict scenarios as existing outside the rule of law; all civilians are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Humanitarian actors, however, do not make such value judgements…” There are some more good points.

  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Apologies, might be a bit shocking for some, but worth watching: (Wikileaks video)

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