From Three to One:

Rethinking the "Three Block War" and Humanitarian Operations in Combat


Reuben E. Brigety II, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, School of International Service, American University


            In the mid-1990's, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak conceived of the notion of the "three-block war" in which Marine forces engaged in urban combat would have to perform humanitarian and peacekeeping functions while simultaneously conducting combat operations. Recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest not only that Gen. Krulak's concept was prescient, but also that it may not have gone far enough. In Afghanistan and Iraq, both U.S. air and ground forces have had to deal with the tactical and doctrinal demands of providing humanitarian assistance in the course of active combat operations. Such endeavors have been undertaken for a variety of reasons: meeting humanitarian needs for civilians, complying with international legal obligations, and demonstrating American "good will" to a skeptical international audience. Regardless of the motives, these activities have sparked a debate about the appropriateness and implications of partisan military forces performing what should be impartial humanitarian activities. Yet the presence of civilians on the battlefield and the operational and political imperatives of caring for them are recurring features of modern warfare that demand study. This paper explores the implications of the emerging trend of U.S. military-humanitarian operations for the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid, for the civilian international humanitarian community, and for the military forces that will prepare for and execute such missions in the future.

                On October 10, 1997, General Krulak articulated his vision of the three-block war in a speech before the National Press Club. He predicted:


In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees, providing humanitarian assistance. In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart - conducting peacekeeping operations - and, finally, they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle - all on the same day... all within three city blocks.[1]


Though it was originally proposed to describe the urban battlefield of the future, the concept of the three-block war can be seen as more than simply the tactical terrain on which soldiers may have to fight. Indeed, it can represent both a broad operational concept and a new strategic imperative.

            The central operational idea in the three-block war is that military forces will have to conduct humanitarian activities for civilians during active hostilities as an integral part of the war plan. Yet such activities need not be confined to a small tactical area, such as three city blocks. Humanitarian activities could be conducted throughout an entire theater of operations. Indeed, this is precisely what U.S. forces did in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

            In addition to the obvious ethical considerations, providing humanitarian assistance to civilians during hostilities has a clear strategic value as well. A combination of forces has converged in recent years to bring this about. First, the rise of a global human rights culture has heightened the importance of the dignity of the individual, particularly at the hands of governments. Second, the emergence of instantaneous global news media has permitted observing publics around the world to witness first hand the suffering of innocent civilians in war zones. Finally, the nature of the global war on terror demands that the U.S. promote a positive image of itself to deter people from becoming terrorists at the same time as it takes military action against verified enemies. Taken together, these conditions suggest that demonstrating the capacity to care for civilians in the midst of warfare actually helps to achieve the strategic objectives for which the U.S. uses force in the first place - namely, to deter hostile intent toward America and its citizens.

            While the participation of military forces in humanitarian activities may appear to be a useful synergy of humane impulses and national interests, it is not without controversy. Segments of the international humanitarian community have suggested that such arrangements are problematic for at least three reasons. First, they suggest that performance of humanitarian activities by military forces that are parties to the conflict actually reduces the "humanitarian space" for intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations to conduct relief work. Both recipients of aid and other parties to the conflict may find it difficult to distinguish between providers of assistance and combatants. This confusion can extend beyond mere physical identification and apply as well to the motives of such forces. While, as stated above, military forces may wish to be identified with humane purposes for both tactical and strategic reasons, humanitarian groups almost invariably do not wish to be identified either physically or politically with any party to an armed conflict. Such identification can compromise the neutrality on which civilian humanitarian agencies depend both for their operational security in the field and for their political independence in funding and policy circles around the world.

            Secondly, some critics have argued that the military is simply not as competent as civilian humanitarian aid agencies are in the provision of humanitarian assistance. Given their long experience in complex emergencies, many aid agencies not only have substantial skills in critical areas (such as rapid needs assessment, water purification, humanitarian demining and human rights monitoring), but they may also have in depth local knowledge of the area where aid is needed, as well as its people. Modern advanced militaries may be uniquely equipped or exceptionally skilled in providing security or logistical support for humanitarian operations. Yet their participation in activities outside of areas of their greatest competence, and for which civilian aid agencies may have a comparative advantage, may undermine the ultimate success of the humanitarian effort.

            Thirdly, there are those who have questioned the ultimate commitment of military forces to humanitarian tasks, and the resulting consequences for the recipients of aid. As long as the principal motivation for the provision of humanitarian assistance is to support the strategic interests of the provider, then the recipient is ultimately subjected to the whims of those interests. When the interests change, the amount or nature of the aid may change as well. Humanitarian agencies, however, see themselves as dedicated to responding to humanitarian suffering for as long as such suffering exists, regardless of the affiliation of those in need, for as long as they have the capacity to respond, and as long as security conditions permit. All other political and strategic considerations are, generally speaking, irrelevant. This emphasis on the impartiality of providing assistance, argue aid workers, is essential to the humanitarian enterprise. Its subordination to other interests may compromise the endurance and flexibility of a humanitarian operation to respond to the needs of the beneficiaries as long as those needs may exist.

            There is not yet a definitive body of empirical evidence to determine conclusively whether or not having partisan military forces provide humanitarian assistance adversely effects the recipients of such aid. Nevertheless, recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq may suggest some important trends. It is worth noting that humanitarian disasters did not emerge in either country as a direct result of U.S.-led combat operations. In Afghanistan, at least, this is due in part to the delivery of millions of humanitarian daily rations (HDRs) by airdrop during the bombing campaign of OEF. The mass starvation of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians that many in the aid community were predicting in the winter of 2001 simply did not happen. In Iraq, the sheer speed of the ground campaign of OIF in March and April of 2003 essentially ended formal hostilities before a major humanitarian crisis could develop. There were no significant flows of refugees or internally displaced persons, neither was there the threat of imminent starvation anywhere in the country. To be certain, as in most wars, civilians were killed in the course of fighting in both OEF and OIF. While substantial post-conflict reconstruction tasks remain in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it would appear that, at the very least, the provision of humanitarian assistance by U.S. and coalition forces did not adversely affect the well-being of the recipients of aid in those countries.

            With regard to questions of humanitarian space, the record is more mixed. Civilian humanitarian agencies had been operating in Afghanistan long before U.S.-led combat operations there. As a result, many had significant logistical capabilities and support infrastructure as well as close ties to the local population that they were serving. Though there was a relatively brief interruption of the activities of these groups in the fall of 2001 during the heaviest fighting, most not only retained but expanded their capabilities after the fall of Taliban. Furthermore, the establishment of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) created a policy (and sometimes physical) environment in which aid organizations could coordinate and interact with U.S. military forces without compromising their neutrality, not unlike what the UN had done in the Balkans and in West Africa in the mid- to late- 1990s. That, plus the relatively small footprint U.S. ground forces inside Afghanistan, facilitated the creation of humanitarian space in Afghanistan.

            In Iraq, the situation was different. The long-standing authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein made it impossible for humanitarian and development agencies to operate with any degree of freedom inside the country prior to OIF. Even contacts with the civilian population for the UN Oil for Food program were closely managed by Iraqi government officials. Consequently, with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), there was no significant humanitarian presence inside Iraq when hostilities began in the middle of March in 2003, and many critical humanitarian functions were initially performed by coalition military forces aided by USAID personnel. While the coalition took great pains to set up sophisticated Humanitarian Operations Centers in locations such as Kuwait City, Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriya and elsewhere, they did not quickly establish a security environment to facilitate the work of aid agencies. Indeed, attacks on the headquarters of the UN and the ICRC in Baghdad in late summer 2003 suggested that either international aid agencies were not seen as neutral actors in the post-conflict environment or that their neutrality was irrelevant and they would be targeted anyway. As a result, humanitarian agencies have been slow to enter Iraq, some out of concern of associating themselves with the U.S.-led occupation.

            It is important both tactically and strategically for civilian aid agencies to be involved in humanitarian operations during and after U.S.-led military engagements. Tactically, they can provide much needed expertise and material support that otherwise would have to be performed by military forces. Strategically, the presence of civilian humanitarian agencies can tacitly signal international legitimacy for a military operation. It is therefore vital for military forces to design procedures, especially in peacetime, to facilitate cooperation with civilian humanitarian agencies in pursuit of victory in the three-block war.



[1] Gen. Charles C. Krulak, USMC "The Three Block War: Fighting in Urban Areas." Vital Speeches of the Day. New York: December 15, 1997. Vol. 64, Iss. 5, pp. 139-142.