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U.S. fears Haiti could fall ‘at any time’ as doubts grow over Biden’s backup Kenya plan

U.S. government officials have grown alarmed that the Haiti National Police could begin to crumble within hours — and that a long-planned multinational mission led by Kenya to provide reinforcements may not be enough to save the country from a complete descent into gang control.

Outgunned Haitian police have been battling a united front of gangs and losing key firefights. Now, a potential power void and a collapse of the Haitian government that had already faced a skeptical public risks undermining whatever morale is left among the police forces.

“The government could fall at any time,” a U.S. official told McClatchy, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the government assessment. “If the HNP dissolves as an effective counterforce, if we see the airport or the presidential palace fall, it’s over.”

The Biden administration is moving urgently to expedite the deployment of a Multinational Security Support mission, or MSS, that has been in the works for over a year and a half. Kenya has pledged to lead the mission and committed 1,000 police officers to the effort last fall.

But the force size of the Haiti National Police is “orders of magnitude less than required,” the U.S. official added. Adding 1,000 more boots on the ground — even if they are well-armed, well-trained, and deployed immediately — is unlikely to meet the demands of the crisis.

The Biden administration has ruled out contributing U.S. forces to the mission, with Pentagon leadership fiercely opposed to any deployment.

“The situation in Port-au-Prince remains extremely fragile as sporadic attacks have continued and all flights in and out of Haiti remain canceled,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday. “The Secretary-General reiterates the need for urgent action, including financing for the Multinational Security Support mission, to tackle the security needs of the people of Haiti.”

Dujarric said the United Nations has not been given a time frame for the arrival of the force.

Whenever the MSS does arrive, it remains unclear how Kenyan forces and leadership — who speak English and Swahili —will operate with a French and Creole-language Haitian force. And it has yet to be determined whether the Kenyan-led forces will take static positions at key sites, freeing Haitian police forces to battle gang members elsewhere, or if the Kenyans would fight alongside their Haitian partners.

It is not even clear whether the MSS, in partnership with the Haitian police, is large enough to reclaim any of the critical infrastructure already under gang control or neighborhoods across the capital that have led to more than 314,000 Haitians being displaced from their homes.

Though the total force size of the MSS has been quoted at roughly 2,500, neither the U.N. nor the United States has given a tally of how many police officers would be involved in the entire operation. And forces are not expected to deploy all at the same time. U.N. officials said last week that five countries, in addition to Kenya, have confirmed they will send personnel.

A State Department official told McClatchy the entire Biden administration had been “seized with this issue” on Wednesday, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken joining meetings with leadership at the White House and National Security Council.

“How much time do we have to do this? This was urgent two years ago. It’s incredibly urgent now,” a senior administration official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald. “The situation in Haiti is as critical a humanitarian and security crisis as we’re facing around the world.”

“Every day is too long,” the official added. “We have to move faster. That’s all I can say. We’ve got to move as quickly as possible.”

The state of Haiti’s U.S.-financed police force has long been a concern of the United Nations and other international partners. Some have expressed concern that the police may be less determined to keep fighting if they do not know who is in charge.

The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the rapidly deteriorating security crisis. Diplomats focused on the coordinated attacks that have forced U.N. officials to reposition aircraft, and consider an air bridge with the neighboring Dominican Republic should the situation further deteriorate. But the country’s political crisis also came up.

Biden administration officials and Caribbean leaders have been pushing for Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who recently finalized an agreement for the MSS, to cede power to a transitional government and resign.

Dujarric, the spokesman for Guterres, told reporters in New York on Wednesday that Haiti’s health infrastructure is on the brink of collapse.

“Port-au-Prince’s main public hospital has closed due to violence and the inability of staff to actually get to the hospital to support the people who need help,” he said. “The main hospitals receiving wounded civilians are overloaded, partly due to the number injured. There is an urgent need for blood products in the country.”

Push for political transition

White House and State Department spokespeople pushed back against a Herald report published Wednesday morning that revealed the administration had asked Haiti’s prime minister to resign as part of an “expedited” transition of power.

A U.S. government document obtained by the Herald and shared with Henry on Tuesday proposed, among other things, that he “step down as interim president and prime minister when the new governing structures have been established and the prime minister appointed or the MSS has deployed, whichever is first.”

Linda Thomas Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., acknowledged to reporters later in the morning that the administration had asked Henry to move forward with the formation of a transitional council — a mechanism that would involve the appointment of an interim prime minister to replace Henry, compelling his resignation.

“What we’ve asked the Haitian prime minister to do is move forward on a political process that will lead to the establishment of a presidential transitional council that will lead to elections,” Greenfield said. “We think that is urgent.”

The senior administration official confirmed to McClatchy that the State Department had proposed Henry “agree to step down” after a presidential transition was in place or the MSS was deployed. “We’re asking him to do that at a future time,” he said, while noting the administration is pressing for the MSS to deploy as soon as possible — perhaps in a matter of days.

Biden’s team has lost faith in Henry’s ability to lead after repeated, “pointed” conversations with the prime minister over his “unwillingness to cede real power” in a democratic transition, the official added. Asked whether the administration could envision a scenario in which Henry remained in authority, the official said, “I find that unlikely.”

Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, left, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, September 22, 2023 ahead of a meeting on Haiti’s security.
Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, left, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, September 22, 2023 ahead of a meeting on Haiti’s security.

READ MORE: Rushing home on a rerouted jet, Haiti’s prime minister is pressured by U.S. to resign

The issue of Henry’s fate and the Herald report were raised in the U.N. Security Council meeting, where several countries expressed support for the prime minister — as well as concerns about the timing of the U.S. proposal and whether it might complicate the MSS deployment.

“We continue to deal with Mr. Henry as the prime minister of Haiti,” Dujarric said ahead of the three-hour meeting. “I think, as we said, it is important that everyone in Haiti – all stakeholders, everyone, political actors and others – work towards first of all restoring safety, and supporting Haitian institutions.”

The transition plan, requiring Henry’s ouster, had been presented by Caribbean leaders to Henry in Guyana last week. Henry rejected it at the time, before the Biden administration endorsed it.

The plan is similar to a proposal drawn up by opposition figures in Haiti and by three former Caribbean prime ministers, a group referred to as the Eminent Persons Group, charged with finding a solution to the political impasse.

Caribbean leaders had requested Henry’s presence in Jamaica on Wednesday, where he was expected to accept the proposal.

Henry would empower a High Transition Council to negotiate a transitional government under the plan, either with an expanded council or a “presidential college” representing political parties, private sector and civil society. At the same time, Caribbean and U.S. officials were holding talks with Haitians to find an agreement on the finer details of who would compose the new structure.

On Wednesday, Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, who currently chairs the 15-member regional bloc known as CARICOM, acknowledged that efforts to find a consensus among key Haitian players still had not succeeded.

“We have been working on this around the clock for the last three days,” he said in a video. “Despite many, many meetings, we have not been able to reach any form of consensus between the government and the respective stakeholders, the opposition, the private sector, civil society and religious organizations.”

It remains unclear whether Henry will accept the proposal to resign. He had been working on a plan of his own, which involves staying on as prime minister, but enlarging the High Transition Council with a presidential panel to participate more in the decision-making.

For now, he remains in Puerto Rico, while commercial flights into his country remain suspended.

“We are going to continue to work with CARICOM — because I think it’s important to make clear that it’s not the United States acting alone with this regard, it’s the United States in consultation with partners in the region having these conversations,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters on Wednesday. “And what we are saying to the prime minister is that he needs to expedite the transition to empowered and inclusive governance, including the appointment of a transition council. So that’s what we’ll continue to discuss with him.”

Though Caribbean leaders initially called for Henry to step aside, they ultimately offered him a compromise in Guyana last week. They took note of his commitment to hold elections no later than August 2025, and said they would work with international partners, including the United Nations, to do so. They also called for a consensus among Haitians.

That was last Wednesday. On Thursday, as Henry was arriving in Kenya to sign a deal for the MSS, gangs launched their attack.

CARICOM reverted to its old plan within a week — a move seen as a betrayal by those close to Henry. This time, the United States was on board.