Center for Strategic Communication

US Soldiers in Rajan Kala, AfghanistanThe Code of Laws of the United States of America, or United States Code (U.S.C.), is the legislative backbone of the US, providing for the form, function, duties, and responsibilities of the Federal Government.  Several titles of the U.S.C. specifically address matters of National Security.  U.S.C. Title 10 governs the form, function, and activities of US Armed Forces, including its authorization to provide humanitarian and other assistance.

Chapter 20 of Title 10 authorizes US Armed Forces to provide humanitarian assistance under the proscription of the Secretary of Defense if it promotes the security interests of both the US and the nation in which operations are being conducted and the “specific operational readiness skills” of those participating in the activities.  Several caveats prevent US Armed Forces from providing assistance if it duplicates efforts by other agents of the US Government, the recipients are engaged in military or paramilitary operations, the Secretary of State has not sanctioned the assistance, or the resources have not been explicitly designated for such use.

While the U.S.C. is explicit in regards to the provision of humanitarian assistance under Title 10, the intersection of US military operations and humanitarian assistance – the “militarization of aid” – is growing as a contentious issue in dialogues concerning security and development operations around the world.

The definition of humanitarian assistance is broad, ranging from medical care to the construction of transportation systems, and includes several specific activities such as clearing landmines or providing emergency transportation of persons and supplies.  Such assistance can be and historically has been provided independent of military force.  More recently, however, US military actors have sought partnerships with their humanitarian counterparts due to the latter’s skills in effectively administering humanitarian assistance and in order to provide security.  While a secure environment is preferred, it is not requisite for humanitarian organizations to gain access and conduct operations: Doctors Without Borders operated continuously in Afghanistan from the nation’s occupation by Russia in the 1980’s through Taliban rule.

The debate on the militarization of aid is polarized between two competing arguments.  The ongoing dialogue addresses concerns specifically arising from situations in which a foreign military force, such as the US, administers aid to local populations, such as in Afghanistan.

Claim 1: Military assistance is a necessary component of humanitarian assistance in areas lacking the security, infrastructure, and resources requisite for effective aid administration.

Military forces excel in emergency contingency planning and resource allocation.  These abilities are critical assets to humanitarian operations as disasters tend develop suddenly in unpredictable threat environments.  As military involvement in humanitarian operations increases, the US is working to establish even more prescient approaches to these efforts. In combat zones and areas of armed conflict, military involvement will always be required, predicated on the existing security environments and available resources.

Claim 2: Military involvement in the administration of humanitarian assistance politicizes the aid agenda, decreases aid effectiveness, and adversely impacts perceptions of the intent behind the aid.

Foreign military operations are driven by governmental strategy, which may or may not align with the humanitarian needs of a given population.  The humanitarian aid agenda is needs-based, apolitical, and neutral in its operations. This neutrality is jeopardized by subjecting humanitarian operations to military administration, which is inherently political in structure and function.

Secondly, the military lacks the soft skills, cultural familiarity, and established footholds necessary to work effectively in humanitarian assistance.  Without the ability to engage in person-to-person (as opposed to a military-civilian) relationships, armed forces are unable to establish the local trust and ownership required to effectively administer humanitarian assistance without compromising perceptions.  Finally, in combat zones or hostile areas, a particular security challenge arises in which aid workers themselves may become targets of violence due to their association with military elements.

Both sides of the aid militarization argument have legitimate and well-founded claims.  While Chapter 20 defines the US Armed Forces’ role in humanitarian operations, its tenets frequently become obscured in environments where humanitarian assistance is required.  Though part of this problem may be attributed to the differences in target environments, it also results from confusion over the explicit role of US Armed Forces in reconstruction and humanitarian efforts.   Understanding Title 10 and the debate on the militarization of aid is fundamental to the US’ ability to develop an approach that blends the planning and logistics abilities of its Armed Forces with the soft skills and knowledge of aid workers.


To read more about the U.S. Code Titles 10, 22, and 50, and how they serve to protect our National Security, please see ASP’s fact sheet here.