This article originally appeared in Small Wars Journal under the title Preventive Medicine: Ebola and Security Sector Reform in Liberia, and is re-posted here with the permission of the original author. It was first re-posted in Havok Journal on 22JAN15.
After an autumn blitzkrieg, the U.S. military has begun talking about the end of Operation United Assistance, the anti-Ebola mission in Liberia. So says AFRICOM Commander Gen. David Rodriguez, citing“significant progress” achieved towards the mission’s end.
This was a quiet end indeed to what was not months ago America’s biggest news story – big enough to produce TIME’s Person of the Year, ‘the Ebola Fighters’. During the scare Haz-mat suit makers saw their stock leap, schools one thousand miles from Dallas temporarily closed, and lawmakers advocated sealing off American borders from West African travel. But there is an element to this drama that has gone overlooked: Service members arriving in Liberia were greeted by American service personnel already there.
Since the end of the Liberian Civil War in 2003, the United States has been engaged in a partnership with the United Nations and the Government of Liberia to rebuild the Liberian security sector. The case represents one instance of what policy wonks call Security Sector Reform, or SSR.
The Ebola crisis has thrown the importance of this work into sharp relief. It illustrates that investments in responsible security sectors establish more than just stable borders and avoid more than just civil war – they build state capacity to respond to any crisis.
Quietly Raising an Army in Liberia
Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams’ first anti-Ebola teams joined a deployment in-country since January of 2010 entitled Operation Onward Liberty (OOL). The operation represents the culmination of the United States’ effort to rebuild the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Its origins lie in the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was signed at Accra and ended the thirteen year Liberian civil war. The peace agreement asked the United States to take the lead on reforming the AFL and the United Nations to do so for the Liberian National Police (LNP).
The U.N. and the U.S. coalesced. At the time, the Department of Defense had just launched its invasion of Iraq. That, combined with funding authority complications, prevented the Department of Defense from taking the lead in the reform effort. It ended up the responsibility of the Department of State. Unequipped to raise an army, the Department of State outsourced the project to two contractors – DynCorp International and Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE).
DynCorp has since left, leaving in its wake a Liberian army comprising one light infantry brigade of two thousand soldiers. OOL, entering its sixth and final year, replaced it. Though the Iraq war had since subsided, OOL, consisting largely of Marines operating out of Marine Corps Forces Africa, has sought to professionalize the nascent AFL and ensure its long-term operational capability through mentorship, finishing what DynCorp began, while PAE remains for logistical support. The deployment, originally consisting of 250 service members, has shrunk annually and now stands around 50. While these personnel are from the Department of Defense, the operation remains attached to the Department of State.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Police (UNPOL) launched its own reform effort for the LNP – an effort entirely independent of the 15,000-strong peacekeeping mission deployed in 2003 to enforce the peace agreement entitled UNMIL. From the outset, a litany of issues hampered the reform. Donor countries (including the U.S.) provided insufficient, inconsistent funding, a fraction of that the U.S. provided to DynCorp and PAE. For this reason, trainers, training and equipment proved lacking. UNPOL’s diverse trainers brought different sets of norms and methods from their home countries, undermining the homogeneity the effort.
I had the opportunity to spend 21 days in late May and early June 2014 with OOL. On the trans-Atlantic flight to Belgium I sat next to two American medical school students. They too were headed to West Africa, where they would be volunteering with health organizations in Sierra Leone. The day before authorities had confirmed several new cases of Ebola in Guinea and Sierra Leone. We speculated that the virus, which was only just appearing on the international community’s radar, would add a sobering dimension to their summer volunteer experience.
Once I arrived in-country, I quickly learned that trainer-to-trainer mentorship is a trying affair. The absence of discipline and accountability made establishing even basic organizational habits difficult. Six-month deployment rotations deprived the U.S.-AFL relationship of continuity and service members of a wider-lens view necessary to see AFL’s progress. It would take a crisis to demonstrate the AFL’s slow improvement.