America can help Haiti restore order with an in-and-out mission

Should Americans care about Haiti? Could we help? Can we get out soon? 

These three questions animate America’s reluctance to deal with the massive and brutal violence that is holding our neighbors hostage. Without clear answers, many Haitians, most Americans, key allies and the White House will not accept a necessary, immediate and short-term insertion of U.S. special forces. 

Yes, we care, even if we fail to address the necessary solutions. For decades now, instability in the Americas has produced strains on the U.S. Problems in Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Central America and Haiti generate flows of thousands to our borders and pressurize other political challenges. Plus, human suffering is a driving concern for most Americans. 

Yes, we have the unique capacity to make a positive difference. U.S. soldiers are not required in Ukraine or Gaza, and a modest number for a short time could stop the humanitarian hemorrhaging with direct international assistance and provide relief to the beleaguered Haitian National Police. 

So, what is America’s exit strategy from Haiti? It starts with a simple mission: Give the Haitian people a fighting chance to live their daily lives without violence. Address the tragedies of the moment in such a way that Haitians will be able to move ahead without the historic constraints of intimidation, exploitation and exclusion. 

Haiti is not America’s jewel in the crown — it is an independent nation with resourceful people, eager to be free to live their lives without oppression and fear.

We can catalyze change by focusing on two addressable problems. First, restore freedom of movement into and out of enough airports and harbors and through four major road intersections in Port au Prince so that humanitarian assistance is possible. Second, disrupt the gang dominance so that the HNP, the soon-to-arrive Kenyans and allied international police and existing private security guards and community groups can build up public safety. 

The immediate deployment of 300-500 U.S. special forces for three to five months will convince the Haitian people and most gangs that there will be a rebalancing of power in favor of the citizenry. Accompany this action with a concentrated effort to stop arms trafficking from the U.S. to the gangs. 

These difficult U.S. initiatives will buy enough time to provide a platform for the Haitian police and their international partners to regain an ongoing grip on security. That could then produce an enabling environment for a longer-term Haitian renewal.

When faced with constant danger, public safety is job #1. It is a wonderful luxury to think beyond this moment — but that is not the task at hand. There will come a time for a national dialogue, the decentralization of government and public safety, a functioning justice system, even elections and the elevation of millions from poverty. With a new sensitivity and a focus on the Haitian people, a successful U.S. role is possible. But right now, life or death is the choice most Haitians face.

Recent in-country surveys by the Haiti Health Network show that 70 percent do not see a Haitian solution to the gang nightmare. Given safe access, humanitarians can save millions of lives within days. 

Today, life in Port au Prince and for half of the population is dictated by thugs with stage names like Barbeque or prison records. The victims of rape are too many for the United Nations to count. Kidnapping, extortion and murder are hourly occurrences. Hunger now threatens nearly 5 million people. 

For over two years, temporizing and inaction have ceded large parts of Haiti to violent gangs, entrapping its people in a death spiral. The flow of events is wholly negative and will worsen without directed help. 


Bogus leaders will emerge and tens of thousands will die. Any interim government will serve at the mercy of the ruthless. Haitians will be tortured into submission and a mass exodus will diminish Haiti’s renewal. A modest U.S. no-nonsense, boots-on-the-ground presence is a game changer in Haiti.

We care and there is a way we can help, without America getting stuck. In doing so, we will save thousands of lives that are now at risk and give Haitians the opportunity to start anew.

Former Ambassador Rick Barton, the author of “Peace Works,” was the first assistant secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the U.N.’s deputy high commissioner for refugees. His work in Haiti started in 1990.

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