Washington Post
Infighting, poor intelligence plague US relief efforts

By Steven Mufson

Tuesday, May 9, 2000


Conflicting bureaucracies, poor intelligence and disputes with the United Nations and host countries have plagued U.S. responses to humanitarian disasters in recent years, an interagency report concluded.

The report, released after a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive, contained an unusually blunt assessment of U.S. errors in dealing with war refugees in Kosovo, Sudan and Afghanistan as well as with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Central America, calling leadership "less than coherent" on humanitarian assistance.

On Kosovo, the interagency group said, U.S. relief efforts were "constrained by intelligence deficiencies, especially as regards [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's war strategy and the numbers and calculations of internally displaced Kosovars." Despite assertions by the Clinton administration that the United States was prepared for an intense and lengthy military campaign, the report admitted that NATO was caught off guard and "suddenly found itself shouldering a massive humanitarian project."

The administration's report also blamed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which it said refused to replace key officials and underestimated the number of refugees who would pour out of Kosovo once bombing began.

"In the days leading up to the bombing, UNHCR did not accede to our appeals to prepare for a major refugee outflow far in excess of UNHCR's 50,000-person planning figure," the report said, though it added that "admittedly our proposed 300,000 figure still fell far short of eventual demand." Nearly a million ethnic Albanians eventually fled Kosovo.

The report also complained that "despite persistent U.S. demarches, UNHCR resisted both NATO's assumption of a major direct humanitarian assistance role and the replacement of UNHCR's Macedonia and Albania country directors with senior, seasoned personnel."

Karen AbuZayed, the UNHCR representative for the United States and Caribbean, said yesterday that she was angered by the criticism. By the time the war started, UNHCR had increased its refugee estimate to 100,000, a figure that appeared to satisfy U.S. officials, she said.

"Nobody knew how many there were going to be," she said. U.S. officials, she added, "were, like everyone else, pretty sure that there was either not going to be a bombing campaign or that it would be really short."

The report also used blunt language about Macedonia, one of the regional allies during the war. It complained of "Macedonia's intransigence" in dealing with refugees and said that the United States, because of security concerns, "did not engage the Macedonian government aggressively and early enough on how to address the impending humanitarian demands without compromising its national security." The report said the United States made no effort at senior levels to change Macedonia's inhospitable stance on refugees.

In general, the report said that U.S. humanitarian efforts suffer from "fragmentation" and that within the U.S. military, the State Department and the National Security Council, "humanitarian officers are viewed by senior policymakers as technical implementers and not as authorities who need to be present and heard when foreign policy is formulated."

The interagency group that wrote the report was co-chaired by Morton H. Halperin, director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and James Michel, counselor to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The review began in July 1999 and was concluded in December.

Bureaucratic confusion is complicated by the blurring of traditional refugee flows out of a country with the increasing problem of "internally displaced persons" who flee from war but remain within their country's borders, the report said. The State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration is responsible for helping refugees primarily through international organizations. U.S. AID and the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor deal with assistance to victims of natural disasters and to internally displaced persons.

"With the mixing of refugee and displaced populations in the Balkans and Timor, this traditional division has significantly eroded," the report said.

In the case of the Sudan, the report noted, humanitarian issues were not even considered in some key decisions. For example, the administration went ahead with bombing two sites in Khartoum in 1998 in retaliation for alleged Sudanese terrorism with little regard to the "potentially dangerous results" for relief workers and their programs. And this lack of humanitarian input in U.S. policy toward Khartoum persists despite the expenditure of $1 billion of U.S. tax dollars on humanitarian relief for Sudan.

In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the report said, "it was unclear which operational agency was managing the overall U.S. response." When the White House designated its deputy chief of staff, Maria Echaveste, as special coordinator, then-U.S. AID administrator Brian Atwood assumed she would take the lead. The lack of clarity led to "confusion" in managing the response, the report said.



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