Army as Border Patrol
AP’s John Milburn examines the use of active duty U.S. Army forces to help patrol our border with Mexico. I was interviewed for the piece to provide reaction to the argument that such use would help “train” the military.
By providing extra eyes and ears for agents, helicopter crews from Fort Riley and Fort Carson, Colo., were learning to operate in terrain close to what they will find in Iraq this summer. “They learned how to do things the right way and do it faster every day,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Waller of the Combat Aviation Brigade’s 1-6 Cavalry, which includes soldiers from both the Kansas and Colorado posts. “And you do it without bullets flying overhead. You can correct it without someone getting killed.”
But with U.S. forces stretched across battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, some question whether the military should be involved in such missions. “Surely, the Army has enough to do without getting into that business,” said James Joyner, a former Army officer and military analyst in Washington. “And it’s not like our helicopter assets aren’t getting a workout, either.”
Joyner said the help that active-duty troops provide along the border should come from the civilian Department of Homeland Security personnel and the National Guard.
Commanders volunteer their units for the border missions, which are organized by Joint Task Force North, based at Fort Bliss, Texas. Most last only a few weeks, but some last months.
Task force spokesman Armando Carrasco said the active-duty troops bulk up law enforcement’s presence, especially at night. And the task force touts the missions as training opportunities, including access to ranges where units can fire missiles. “These mission sets allow the military units to train in terrain and geographic locations and climatic conditions that would be similar to where they may be deploying in the future,” said Xavier Rios of the Customs and Border Protection Agency.
One goal of the border training was to teach disparate elements — the soldiers from Colorado and Kansas were joined by other parts of the 1st Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade — how to work together before they’re in a war zone. And although the 1-6 Cavalry’s border mission was scheduled before the helicopter crews knew they would be going to Iraq, Lt. Col. John Thompson, commander of the 1-6 Cavalry, said the missions offer training that his troops need regardless of where they might be deployed.
Still, Maj. Gen. Carter Ham, the 1st Infantry Division’s commander, acknowledged there was “real concern” about the border mission taking soldiers away from training on their home posts — and away from their families — just before they face spending up to a year in Iraq. “We determined that the training value that would be gained was worth the time away from home station,” Ham said.
Military units have supported missions along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1989, starting with efforts to stop narcotics trafficking and expanding to include efforts to stop terrorist and illegal immigrants. In 18 years, nearly 6,000 deployments have been completed.
The military units use tactics also needed to fight insurgents in Iraq. But instead of looking for insurgents and roadside bombs, they scan for illegal immigrants and smugglers of drugs, weapons or people. They forward their information to law enforcement, because federal law prohibits active-duty soldiers from making arrests or monitoring individuals or organizations on U.S. soil. That makes the mission challenging, said Thompson, “but worth it, very similar to what we’re going to do in Iraq.”
Still, Joyner said, it’s bad for the military to be involved in law enforcement and border operations. His preferred model is Operation Jump Start, President Bush’s effort to put 6,000 National Guard troops on the border to help law enforcement as a temporary fix until the Border Patrol can hire enough new agents. “The National Guard, in their role as state militias, could be used as an occasional augmentation force, but the active Army operates under different rules of engagement,” Joyner said.
My concerns go beyond operations tempo to the issue of politicizing the military by using them in civilian law enforcement. That’s a dangerous path, although we’ve likely got enough institutional safeguards to prevent going too overboard.
I must admit that I find it interesting that so many senior officers see this as a training opportunity. Whether they are gung ho supporters of the mission or merely being good soldiers putting their best face on carrying out their orders is hard to say.