On Oct. 2, 2023, the UN Security Council (UNSC) authorized a multinational mission to Haiti spearheaded by Kenya to quell the violence and instability taking hold on the Caribbean island. The resolution passed nearly 30 years to the day after the infamous Black Hawk Down Incident, in which a faltering multilateral humanitarian mission in Somalia morphed into a US-led military effort to establish order and security, culminating in the deadliest battle for US forces since the Vietnam War.
While the United States is not deploying its own troops as part of the mission, it has supported the effort from the beginning, pledging logistical and financial support while unsuccessfully seeking to enlist both Brazil and Canada to lead the coalition. Accordingly, if the Kenyan-led mission fails or runs into significant challenges, pressure may grow on President Joe Biden to escalate US support to direct involvement in the conflict, as in Somalia. This would be a grave mistake, as the crisis in Haiti has no military solution. US support may entrench unstable and incapable governance in the country, and such an intervention would leave American policies that contributed to the crisis untouched.
It is true that Haiti has suffered a deteriorating humanitarian situation since the assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse in 2021. According to the UN Population Fund, some 5.2 million Haitians require humanitarian aid and protection, nearly half the nation’s population. Many thousands more have been forced to flee north to seek asylum. The UN also estimates that nearly 2,500 people were killed in Haiti between January and August of this year, with many attributed to the gangs that allegedly control 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Yet, if history is any guide, there is no American or multilateral military solution to Haiti’s problems.
Following a Troubling Record
The UN’s previous 2004-2017 Brazilian-led intervention in Haiti should signal caution about the efficacy of sending foreign troops to solve Haiti’s challenges. That force became infamous for its human rights abuses, including sexual assault of women and girls, as well as its complicity in the spread of cholera there. With the support of American officials, the UN soldiers aggressively pursued suspected gang members, with considerable collateral damage (in one 2005 battle in Cité Soleil, peacekeepers fired 22,000 bullets, 78 grenades, and five mortars into the densely-populated neighborhood’s houses, killing dozens of bystanders). Jonathan M. Katz, the only full-time American news correspondent present in Haiti for its 2010 earthquake, described the mission thusly: “Having sought above all to prevent riots, ensure stability, and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermine the second, and by all evidence caused the third.”
Haitian civil society leaders and members of the diaspora see little reason why a new intervention would fare any better. More than 60 different organizations affiliated with Haitian civil society or the Haitian American community have condemned the deployment of foreign military forces, arguing that such a mission would inflict significant civilian casualties. It also lacks public support and would most likely facilitate a refugee crisis. Like the US Marines President Woodrow Wilson dispatched to Port-au-Prince in 1915 to occupy the country or the ensuing slew of failed American interventions that characterized 20th-century Haiti, foreign forces today would not be greeted as liberators. This icy reception is not the only reason an armed intervention in Haiti would likely fail. The gangs are well-armed, often with smuggled US weapons, and have been fighting in the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince for years now. If they engage foreign forces, they will be doing so on familiar terrain and with the ability to inflict considerable harm on the forces and civilians.
An American military intervention would repeat or amplify rather than eradicate the root causes of instability in Haiti. Throughout its history, Haiti has consistently served as a canvas for North Atlantic powers, and those foreign powers have failed the Haitian people.
On the other side, the Kenyan-led force will be hampered by both its size and internal problems. The Kenyan-led force is expected to number only around 1,000 police officers, a pittance compared to the 12,552 police and soldiers in the previous UN intervention force or the 25,000 in the 1994 US-led Operation Uphold Democracy. Additionally, none of the forces in the nascent coalition are from French or Kreyol-speaking countries. Lastly, the Kenyan police have an extensive history of using excessive force and engaging in extrajudicial killings, which could engender greater resentment and exacerbate insecurity.
An American force is no likelier to provide stability or security and could be counterproductive, instead empowering the unelected, repressive, and unpopular government of President Ariel Henry. A military intervention could sabotage long-term stability by discouraging Henry from bargaining for mass support while delegitimizing both the government and the intervention as instruments of American imperialism in the eyes of the opposition. This would deepen the political crisis and set the stage for a bloody popular uprising against US forces that are perceived as backstopping a government with only elite support.
Additionally, such an operation would likely entail working with or reforming the Haitian National Police (HNP). Given that the US Department of State’s own 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices criticizes widespread human rights violations (including torture and sexual assault), corruption, and impunity within the HNP, the Haitian police are likely to be a destabilizing and unreliable partner. The long history of American intervention and meddling in Haiti would suggest that a military intervention would be a risky and likely ill-fated option. Proposing that the United States send troops there in the face of substantial opposition in the defense of such a repulsive and unreliable partner would be a serious strategic mistake.
Finally, an American military intervention would repeat or amplify rather than eradicate the root causes of instability in Haiti. Throughout its history, Haiti has consistently served as a canvas for North Atlantic powers, and those foreign powers have failed the Haitian people. In particular, American and French imperialism wrecked the country to the tune of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. American support for Cold War anti-communist despots François and Jean-Claude Duvalier enriched elites and killed innocent dissidents. François created a paramilitary gang to serve as his secret police (the Tonton Macoute). The Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency were influential in the founding of another gang, the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti. Put simply, Washington’s role in Haiti’s insecurity is palpable, and a military intervention would not put that genie back in the bottle.
A Case for Restraint
It would not be wise to believe that yet another intervention with fewer resources and less support, at a time when the United States remains overcommitted abroad, would bring better results. As former Ambassador Daniel Foote told The Intercept, “Let’s give the Haitians a chance to mess their own country up for once. I’ve seen us do it a number of times.” He added, “They can’t do any worse than the United States and the international community has done, and I guarantee you they’re going to do better because they know their country, and they’re gonna be bought into their own solutions — as opposed to being told what to do by white foreigners.”
A more prudent Haiti policy would tackle the root drivers of insecurity insofar as that is possible and refrain from reinforcing America’s often destructive domineering posture in the Caribbean. There are several steps the United States can take to ensure security while respecting Haiti’s sovereignty and independence.
First, Washington should establish greater oversight and monitoring of the flow of American firearms to Haiti. Despite an existing arms embargo that restricts the sale of weapons to only the Haitian security forces or peacekeeping missions, thousands of American guns are smuggled to Port-au-Prince every year. The United States should work with regional partners like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to better enforce the arms embargo.
Second, the United States should emphasize the need for a Haitian-led transition process. Recognizing there is no foreign military solution, the Biden administration should encourage rather than sideline initiatives like the Montana Accord that propose a viable Haitian-led transition framework and have buy-in from large swaths of Haitian civil society.
Finally, the United States should reverse course on its present policy on migration, which is strategically and morally bankrupt. While the Biden administration urged its citizens in August 2023 to leave Haiti due to the increasing violence, it continued to deport Haitian nationals back to the country. Sending these people, who are fleeing the poverty and violence in Haiti, back to their country of origin puts them in physical danger (as the Department of Homeland Security readily admits), does nothing to alleviate the conditions of instability that drive migration, and flies in the face of international law.
None of those things can occur if foreign powers continue to reach for the same coercive instruments in their policy toolkit, sending police and soldiers into Port-au-Prince every few years when violence flares up.
The only viable path forward is one of restraint.