Biden Explains Why US Forces Not Involved in Haiti Gang Fight, Welcomes Kenya Leadership

President Joe Biden toasts Kenyan President William Ruto during a State Dinner
President Joe Biden toasts Kenyan President William Ruto during a State Dinner at the White House on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — As the timeline for the deployment of a multinational security force led by Kenya into a gang-ridden Haiti continues to face delays, President Joe Biden and his Kenyan counterpart on Thursday defended the mission, saying they believe the force can help bring peace and stability to the volatile Caribbean country.

Biden also addressed for the first time publicly why he’s refusing to commit American troops to Haiti. The country is closer to Florida than Nairobi, but Washington has had a long-tortuous history with Haiti ever since the United States deployed Marines on the heels of a presidential assassination at the start of the century and then stayed for 19 years.

“We concluded that for the United States to deploy forces in the hemisphere, it just raises all kinds of questions that can be easily misrepresented by what we’re trying to do, and be able to be used by those who disagree with us and against the interest of Haiti and the United States,” Biden said during a joint news conference with his East African counterpart.

“Haiti is in an area of the Caribbean that is very volatile,” he later added. “And we’re in a situation where we want to do all we can without us looking like America once again is stepping over, deciding, ‘This is what must be done.’ Haitians are looking for help, as well as the folks in the Caribbean are looking for help.”

Biden and first lady Jill Biden are hosting Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel, on a state visit this week to mark 60 years of U.S.-Kenyan relations. The Rutos arrived in the U.S. on Monday, the same day that a six-member assessment team made up of senior security planners from Nairobi landed in Port-au-Prince to determine if preparations were in place for the first contingent of 1,000 Kenyan police officers to be deployed.

U.S. congressional and Haitian sources confirmed to The Miami Herald and McClatchy that the team found a shortage in the equipment needed — from armored vehicles to helicopters — to do medical evacuations should casualties arise. The reality immediately dashed hopes of any announcement about the force’s arrival during the news conference.

Neither Ruto nor Biden committed a date to the deployment. Nor did either address the concerns raised about the mission’s lack of readiness.

Ruto also deflected a question about whether the Kenyans will be engaged in actual operations with the Haitian police or serve more as a static force, protecting key government infrastructures like the airport and seaport, which have come under attack. Sources have told the Herald and McClatchy that this remains a matter of debate even as they await the Kenyan government to provide the U.S. Security Council with several documents including its rules of engagement ahead of deployment.

“We have clear modus operandi, how we are going to relate with the situation on the ground that has been agreed under the United Nations framework,” Ruto said. “So we are looking forward to this deployment because we believe that the women and children in Haiti deserve peace like all other women and children and people around the world.”

Haiti featured prominently at the joint news conference even though neither leader mentioned the country and its ongoing gang insurgency during their remarks earlier Thursday on the White House lawn.

Since Feb. 29, a united front of armed groups have overtaken police stations, looted and burned hospitals and forced the suspension of commercial flights in a bid to topple the government. When the violence erupted, the country’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, was in Nairobi signing an agreement with Ruto’s government to have Kenya lead the mission.

Henry was later forced to resign by the Biden administration after it came under pressure from the 15-member Caribbean Community bloc known as CARICOM amid the escalating unrest and calls by political forces and Haitian gangs for the prime minister to resign.

Following Henry’s resignation, Ruto put the mission on hold. He announced its resumption after a transitional presidential council was installed last month to find a replacement for Henry, ready the country for the mission and eventually lead Haiti to elections.

Ruto said he has no doubts that his police, working with Haiti National Police, can loosen the grip of Haiti’s gangs, which now control more than 80% of Port-au-Prince, the capital.

“Gangs and criminals do not have nationalities,” Ruto said. “They have no religion. They have no language. The language is to deal with them firmly, decisively within the parameters of the law. That’s why we’re building a coalition of nations beyond Kenya and the U.S.”

That coalition so far has six countries officially committing through the United Nations to participate in the mission being led by Kenya. It is supposed to consist of 2,500-security personnel, with Kenya drawing battle-trained officers from its paramilitary General Service Unit and Administrative Police Unit.

Still, the initiative has not been without doubts, especially as ruthless Haitian gangs, threatening civil war, continue their run on police stations and critical infrastructures in Port-au-Prince like schools and hospitals. More than 360,000 Haitians have been displaced by the violence, which began escalating with the 2021 assassination of the country’s president Jovenel Moise.

But despite fears that Haiti could soon be facing a humanitarian catastrophe because of the large number of people who have been displaced and the lack of medication and food, the plan to get help to its police to put down gangs has repeatedly faced legal and financial roadblocks.

In Kenya, opposition groups recently filed a new court challenge against the government to stop the deployment after the High Court in Nairobi earlier this year ruled that it was illegal for Kenyan police officers to go to Haiti because the two countries lacked a reciprocal security agreement. Meanwhile in Washington, skeptical GOP lawmakers are blocking $40 million in financing the Biden administration is seeking.

Last week, a new lawsuit was filed in Nairobi after Kenya decided to move ahead with the deployment following a signed agreement with Henry.

Earlier this week, Republican lawmakers also tried to halt the transfer of $60 million in military equipment by the administration through the use of emergency presidential powers, in order to try and fast track the mission.

Biden made no reference on Thursday to any of the challenges. Instead, he noted that the United States had pledged $300 million for the mission and said “we’re working with Congress” to provide the funding.

“We’re going to supply logistics, intelligence and equipment,” he said. “In fact, some equipment already arrived. Kenya is stepping up with the police and other countries plan to do so as well.”

Even before volunteering a year ago in July to head the Multinational Security Support mission into Haiti, Kenya has been a vocal proponent at the United Nations of African nations taking more of a leading role in bringing peace and stability to Haiti. Still, its decision to lead an international force into Haiti after the Biden administration said it would not, and Canada also refused, took many by surprise.

The country’s police forces are involved in fighting terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab in East Africa, and Ruto faces a number of domestic challenges such as mounting discontent over the rising cost of living and proposed tax hikes despite his global push to have his country be a player on global issues like technology, democracy and combating climate change.

During the visit, the country became the first sub-Saharan African country to be given non-NATO ally status. The designation by Biden reflects the administration’s belief that Kenya is a dependable and reliable partner to assist it in its foreign policy objectives.

“Kenya believes that the responsibility of peace and security anywhere in the world, including in Haiti, is the collective responsibility of all nations and all peoples who believe in freedom, self-determination, democracy and justice. And it is the reason why Kenya took up this responsibility,” Ruto said. “We’ve been participating in peacemaking and in peacekeeping over the last 40 years in 47 countries, including very difficult neighborhoods, like what we’re going to face in Haiti, we are going to take up that responsibility alongside the Haiti police.”


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