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Food Security and Climate Mitigation as Counterinsurgency

Global Food for Thought by Julia Whiting
Afghan woman receives a box of food.

If left unmitigated, hunger- and climate change-induced suffering in both Afghanistan and Haiti will likely exacerbate current political instability and conflict.

The shocking events of the past few weeks in Afghanistan have highlighted the failure of US counterinsurgency efforts, and it demonstrates the need for revising our counterinsurgency doctrine to address underlying critical concerns such as hunger and climate change. Current strategy, as laid out by the US military’s Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), consists of the military, political, economic, and civic actions taken to fight insurgency and establish governing institutions. This doctrine was first developed in Haiti in the early 20th century and more recently applied in Afghanistan, and the current state of both nations shows how counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) has failed.

It is time to reimagine what constitutes “security” by redefining it as primarily an issue of food and climate security and, in doing so, recognizing that non-military actors like USAID and NGOs like the UN World Food Programme (WFP) may be the best equipped to lead new COIN efforts.

Both Afghanistan and Haiti bore protracted US military occupations that laid the groundwork for current upheavals. Decades of US intervention and violent dictatorship eroded Haiti’s ability to cope with disasters like the most recent in a chain of devastating earthquakes. After two decades of US occupation and counterinsurgency operations, Afghanistan’s government fell to the Taliban in a matter of weeks. This is not to say that the two nations are identical, of course. They differ in geography, language, demographics, and religion; their unique (and long) histories of invasion and occupation each deserve attention in their own right. But these differences do not detract from the failures of COIN.

Unresolved Roots of Conflict

Removing as many causes of insurgency as possible is critical to COIN success; however, the lack of food and extreme climate events that are pervasive in Afghanistan and Haiti are both key drivers of conflict. According to the WFP, approximately 14 million Afghan people—over one third of the population—are hungry, including two million children. Afghanistan has been in the top three worst global food crises for three consecutive years and ranks 99 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index. The nation is experiencing its second extreme drought in four years, and rainfall is becoming more extreme as well as variable.

Twenty years of US intervention failed to establish an Afghan central government capable of supporting its citizens through these disasters. Moreover, the decades of conflict have rendered any international food security or climate resilience efforts ineffective. Afghanistan has been one of the top five most dangerous operational settings for aid workers since 2005, seriously constraining humanitarian efforts. According to a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the international community poured almost $1.8 billion of food assistance into Afghanistan between 2014-2018, $700 million of which came from the US, with very limited results.

In Haiti, the situation is extremely similar. Almost one-half of Haiti’s population are hungry, including 1.9 million children. Haiti has been in the top 10 worst food crises in the world for the past two years and is ranked 104 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index. After years of political instability, international intervention, and inadequate investment in infrastructure, any hurricane, tropical storm, or earthquake can spell disaster for Haiti. And human-caused climate change is intensifying the storms Haiti will have to weather. Each disaster and political upheaval undermines international food security assistance. The same GAO report found that between 2014-2018 the international community gave over $766 million of food assistance into Haiti—including over $350 million from the US. The vast majority of this was allocated to agriculture and emergency food assistance, theoretically an ideal combination of mitigating immediate hunger and building up systems to eliminate it long term. Yet years of conflict and climate events have subverted these efforts.

Investing in a Different Kind of Security

Climate change and hunger can no longer be sideline issues in security conversations. As FM 3-24 points out, counterinsurgency is a long-term commitment. Food security and climate mitigation take long-term investments, and years of underfunding haven’t helped. From 2014-2018, the same time period in which the US invested $700 million in Afghan food security, US defense “security” spending topped $65 billion. Even with that spending, the Taliban is back in power and millions are starving. If left unmitigated, hunger- and climate change-induced suffering in both Afghanistan and Haiti will likely exacerbate current political instability and conflict. Extreme climate events—such as droughts and major storms—both negatively impact food security and increase the risk of conflict. And food insecurity can tip already precarious situations into violence with the potential to create a negative feedback loop in which conflict and hunger exacerbate each other.

Breaking the Cycle of Crisis and Conflict

Breaking this cycle requires more than just an increase in food security spending, or adding climate considerations to the National Defense Strategy. It requires reconsidering traditional approaches to “security” and moving beyond military engagements that are ill-equipped to foster thriving communities. Taking a Human Security approach, the US needs to focus in on localized conflict prevention and resilience efforts. We need to start thinking about efforts to reduce the US contributions to climate change as long-term investments to reduce armed conflict around the world. And it is time to recognize food security efforts by US initiatives like Feed the Future and international organizations like the WFP as critical peace-building operations that merit traditional security-level funding. These efforts should focus on supporting climate-smart agriculture to build up community resilience. Agricultural development assistance, the most effective strategy to lift communities out of poverty, should be centered on the voices of recipients. US food security efforts must be led by and implemented with the Haitian and Afghan people. With stable, long-term support that prioritizes the needs of local communities, food security and climate mitigation could be the most effective US counterinsurgency strategy yet.

About the Author
Julia Whiting
Former Research Associate
Council expert Julia Whiting
Julia Whiting joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2019 and was a research associate with the Global Food and Agriculture Program. She supported the development of research reports on global food security issues as well as coordinated digital engagement and content for the program.
Council expert Julia Whiting