The security burden

In Small Wars Journal, Sergeant Michael Hanson laments the weight of the equipment that a US marine carries to keep himself safe. 40 pounds of body armour, plus a pack that can weight twice as much again (at a total of 120 pounds or 54 kilos, that’s like lugging Jennifer Lopez around wherever you go).

The consequences are predictable:

This weight limits their speed, mobility, range, stamina, agility and all around fighting capability. They can’t go out far and they can’t stay out long with all of this gear. It is simply too much. Combat patrols are typically four hours, and even that short amount of time is exhausting. Our Marines are being consistently outrun and outmaneuvered by an enemy with an AK, an extra magazine and a pair of running shoes.

Sergent Hansen believe that the flight to security  (“all the best equipment for our soldiers”) – ends up making soldiers less secure. You’ll find a similar sentiment in General Petraeus’s admirably concise counterinsurgency guidelines. Walk, is one of his directives. You can’t commute to this fight, is another.

But where does this leave civilian agencies? I doubt there is a single British or American embassy in the world that hasn’t seen dramatically increased security since 9/11. Many now resemble prisons.

Aid agencies, meanwhile, operate from fortified compounds in a growing number of countries, while the Iraq operations of some international NGOs are said to have hidden their use of armed guards from their own head offices. Both struggle against the prospect of an ‘armed humanitarianism.’

Petraeus calls on soldiers to live among the people, deepening their cultural understanding and ability to navigate informal networks, through prolonged and regular face-to-face contact. Diplomats, of course, need to do the same.

He advises them to “understand how local systems are supposed to work – including governance, basic services, maintenance of infrastructure, and the economy-and how they really work.” That’s the mission of development workers.

I am not trying to make a glib point here. Soldiers have the means to defend themselves (and to prevent the kidnaps that, once amplified by the media, can be strategic game changers). Diplomats and aid workers do not.

But how can civilian agencies deepen engagement with populations, while responding to growing insecurity? And what will they do if they find that – like the overloaded marine – security measures are eroding their ability to do their job?