The multinational military exercise known as Cobra Gold will take on a new mission next month when Asian and US officers meeting in Thailand will try to figure out how their forces could have responded better to the Indian Ocean tsunami that took nearly 300,000 lives and left several million people homeless last December.
Moreover, the assembled officers will widen their focus from the tsunami that hit 11 nations in Southeast and South Asia and seek to apply the lessons learned to other natural and manmade disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, chemical releases and terrorist attacks that would call for international responses.
Japan will participate in the exercise for the first time, along with Thailand, Singapore and the US, albeit with only 20 officers among the 6,365 military people in Cobra Gold. Even so, that presence is more evidence that the Japanese are shedding the passive cocoon in which they wrapped themselves after their devastating defeat in World War II 60 years ago.
In addition, observers plan to come from China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. While the exercise will be spread over 12 bases, the central sessions in the 10-day exercise will be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Those in Chiang Mai will discuss inadequate responses in the early days of the disaster, not the lag in rebuilding that has made headlines recently. The New York Times last week quoted an Indonesian shopkeeper, Samsur Bahri, as saying: "The only thing we've gotten is small packets of food and supplies. Where the money is, we don't know. It's just meetings, meetings, meetings."
Looking back at the swath of destruction caused by the tsunami, the first obstacle to relief was the lack of warning and the slow awakening to the extent of the death and devastation. Early reports said only a few thousand had died. The remote regions of initial impact compounded the sluggish response. Once authorities realized the extent of the damage, they were further hampered in assessing what was needed by a lack of communication and roads, particularly in western Indonesia. Further, many local officials had died or were out of action.
Thailand responded quickly, offering a large airbase in Utapao as a command center. Feuding between the US embassy in Bangkok and the military command at Utapao, however, did not help. Indonesia hindered relief efforts by insisting that US warships operate outside its territorial waters, which made for longer flights for planes and helicopters carrying supplies.
Communications were less than satisfactory, on two counts. One was technical radios or computers that were not compatible. The second was language. The U.S. military had few linguists who could speak the languages of the nations affected; the quality of English spoken there was often poor.
As large quantities of relief supplies began to arrive, bottlenecks developed in ports and airfields. Warehouses became overloaded, critical roads were not repaired soon enough, and the distribution of food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters was slowed. Friction emerged among military people who thought disaster relief detracted from their missions and non-governmental organizations who resented the presence of armed forces.
More friction arose between rescue workers, military and civilian, and a swarm of news correspondents and television crews from around the world. In Sri Lanka, some victims complained that they were ignored by TV crews while others were coaxed into posing for pictures. Governments grumbled that rescue efforts were overlooked while victims were portrayed long after the disaster.
Perhaps most tragic, neither the governments of the affected region nor the US and other military forces deployed there were prepared to prevent looting or the kidnapping of orphaned children to be sold into the sex trade.
These are among the issues to be addressed in Chiang Mai in the 24th annual Cobra Gold. The exercise has shifted focus in recent years from routine military drills to coping with refugees, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations and now disaster relief.
A nearly completed agenda shows that the thorny issues of military-civil relations will get much attention.
Despite recent experience, soldiers and civilian relief people often still don't speak the same language or understand how the other operates.
Along that line, the agenda suggests that military planners have overlooked the need to gain and retain wide political support for an international response to disasters. Public diplomacy and press relations aimed at explaining to the world what relief forces are doing have been given short shrift.
Richard Halloran is a writer base in Hawaii.
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