Haiti earthquake: US military involvement could last six months

Three to six months after the Haiti earthquake, the US military may transition its support operations to other agencies and relief organizations.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
A US Army soldier speaks on a radio on the top of a military vehicle in downtown Port-au-Prince, Tuesday. Thousands of US troops arrived to the country after the Jan. 12 earthquake to treat the wounded, distribute relief supplies, clear roads and direct air traffic.

The head of the Defense Department’s logistics agency says he expects his agency to be engaged intensively in Haiti for quite a while.

Vice Adm. Alan Thompson, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, said that based on the informal guidance he’s received, his group should prepare to provide “intensive support” for Haitian recovery operations for up to six months.

“My sense is the three- to six-month time period would be when there would be efforts to try to transition some of the support,” he told defense reporters in Washington on Tuesday. But, he added, “That’s a personal opinion, and I’m not aware of any real detailed decisions on this at this point.”

Relief operations in Haiti, under the purview of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), have moved into full swing. The airport in Port-au-Prince, which offered limited capacity in the days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, has now seen its pace increase considerably, with as many as 180 flights taking place in one day.

The US military has more than 15,000 personnel involved in Haiti relief – including nearly 11,000 marines and sailors on ships and 4,700 troops on the ground. As of Tuesday, the military had delivered more than 1 million bottles of water and 1 million packaged meals to Haitians.

But much of the support now performed by the Defense Department, troops, and groups such as the Defense Logistics Agency will at some point move to other agencies and relief organizations, like the United Nations.

The decision of when the US military will begin to transition out of Haitian relief operations rests with the White House. Still, military officials have begun talking privately about an exit strategy. The military’s plate is already full, as an accelerated drawdown of forces occurs in Iraq and a “surge” of forces deploys to Afghanistan. Now, the Haiti relief operation is a new “flash point.”

The three- to six-month window could be compressed if possible, Thompson said. But, he noted, Haiti operations have had little or no impact on his agency’s ability to support logistics operations overseas.

“There is interest in obviously moving the follow-on support to potentially other organizations, and I think that is understandable,” he said.

Restoring Haiti could take five to 10 years, say Haitian government officials. Asked Tuesday if the US military would have a role there for that kind of time, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of US Southern Command and overseer of the day-to-day operations in Haiti, said the focus now is on emergency relief. Plans for long-term reconstruction and other needs will be addressed down the road.

“Our role here is providing this immediate need for this emergency assistance and supporting USAID as they go forward and develop that plan and transitioning these tasks that we’re currently doing over to them,” Keen said at the Pentagon by videoconference.

But even the short-term needs of Haiti will probably overlap with long-term plans. For example, officials are considering construction of a new, 5,000-bed hospital, Keen said. Such a project would relieve demands on the military, including the USNS Comfort – a Navy hospital ship currently in Haitian waters.

A new hospital, Keen said, “is needed desperately to take patients off the Comfort and from the other hospitals for postsurgical care,” he said. “We need to build that capacity.”

Security, meanwhile, has not posed as many challenges for the US military as some had thought.

“Distribution points remain relatively orderly throughout our efforts,” Keen said.

For stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to the Monitor's Haiti topic page.


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