Humanitarian Missions Prove Skills, Flexibility
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 11, 2010 The military’s quick humanitarian response in Haiti, then in Chile, proved the skills and compassion of servicemembers and showed how fast U.S. Southern Command’s mission can change from its ongoing challenges in Latin America, Southcom’s commander said here today.
Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser outlined Southcom’s missions to the Senate Armed Services Committee, highlighting servicemembers’ work in the aftermath of the earthquake that leveled much of Haiti in January, prompting a massive international humanitarian relief effort.
“I’ve personally seen what these brave young men and women are capable of,” said Fraser, who took over the command last year. “The men and women who deployed to Haiti performed magnificently. They were outstanding representatives of our military, displaying compassion and a sense of focus.”
The magnitude 7 earthquake hit the island nation on Jan. 12, and multiple U.S. military assets were there within 24 hours, Fraser said. In total, some 22,000 U.S. servicemembers provided humanitarian support to Haiti, providing 2 million meals, 2.6 million liters of water and 17 million pounds of bulk food. And thousands of surgeries were performed on the hospital ship USNS Comfort, he said.
Less than two months later, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake devastated Chile. While the humanitarian crisis and request for assistance was not as great as in Haiti, the U.S. military again responded within 24 hours, providing critical imagery and satellite phones to the Chilean government, Fraser said.
“The tragedy in Haiti is a stark reminder of the nature of the challenges we face in the region,” the general said. Southcom’s emphasis on relationship-building and partnerships proved important, he said.
Beyond humanitarian responses, Southcom is focused on challenges to the stability and security of the region, including narcotics and weapons trafficking, the proliferation of gangs, competing ideologies, and the reach of Iran, Russia and China into the region, Fraser said.
“As globalization trends continue, our security will depend upon expanding cooperative engagement with multinational, multiagency and public-private partners in our hemisphere,” he said. “We will be better able to meet complex challenges of the 21st century security environment by building robust, enduring partnerships now. Together, we are stronger and more effective than working as a single organization or nation operating individually.”
Southcom has strong military-to-military relations with every counterpart in the region except Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, Fraser said. “I see real competition in the region for various ideologies, but I see the view of the U.S. growing, too,” he told the Senate panel.
The command also tracks the flow of weapons through the region. “There’s a lot headed toward Colombia right now,” he said. “Most of it originates in Central America, but there also are some from the U.S. heading in that direction.”
Last year, for the first time, Southcom detected a decreased amount of sea-based drug trafficking, Fraser said, noting 46 maritime movements, compared to 68 in 2008.
“From a destabilizing standpoint, my biggest concern is illicit trafficking,” Fraser said. “Brazil is now the second-largest cocaine user in the world. Criminal elements spread from that.” Southcom is working with U.S. Northern Command and law enforcement officials to combat the spread of illegal drugs in the region, he said.
Asked how possible ratification of the Latin America Free Trade Agreement would affect the region, the general said he thinks it would be “a very positive step forward.”
“One stabilizing factor is to have a vibrant economy,” he said.
Fraser noted the economic importance of the region, the United States’ largest market with nearly 38 percent of U.S. trade worth about $1.5 trillion per year. The region supplies 52 percent of U.S. crude oil imports, compared to 13 percent from the Persian Gulf, Fraser said. The Panama Canal, he added, is paramount in strategic and economic importance, as nearly two-thirds of ships transiting the canal are going to or coming from a U.S. port.