NORTH VERNON, Ind. — A group of civilians preparing to deploy to Afghanistan to carry out President Obama’s vision to involve the entire federal government in the war gathered in a circle for an after action review at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
Only minutes earlier, they had been walking down a street in a mock marketplace taking a tour with the provincial governor, when an improvised explosive device was set off near an Indiana National Guard humvee. The soldiers escorting the civilians quickly loaded them into their vehicles and sped off as they exchanged fire with “insurgents” shooting from balconies.
Now the role player portraying the governor wants to know why he was left behind. No one protected him. What are the implications for their mission if the governor is killed in such an attack? he asked through an interpreter.
The dozen civilians spending a week on the grounds of this former mental institution — now converted into a training facility — didn’t have any ready answers.
In July 2009, the State Department in partnership with the Indiana National Guard began offering a one-week immersive training course designed to shorten the learning curve for civilians who will be thrown into two very different cultures: that of the Afghanistan and that of the U.S. military.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a 2007 speech set off a debate on whether the entire federal government was truly doing its fair share to fight the current wars.
Why were Army sergeants during the early years in Iraq running water treatment plants? Why were lieutenants asked to instill the principles of good governance in municipal leaders?
Along with President Obama’s Afghan surge announcement last year came the so-called “whole-of-government” approach. Personnel from various civilian agencies with skills to offer could volunteer for one-year assignments and take some of the burden off the military.
Training for such missions was lacking, though. Civilians had to quickly learn the military way of doing things as well as the complexities of Afghanistan. The result was this immersive one-week course where civilians live, eat and interact with the military, sleep at a mock forward operating base, and negotiate with Afghan role players by day.
“The military is the major footprint on the ground and the major logistical piece, so the civilians have to live as part of that system,” said Army Brig. Gen. Clif Tooley, commanding general of the Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations.
Some recruits are retired military, but others are employees of federal agencies, or civilians hired for one-year contracts who may not be able to tell the difference between a sergeant and a major, and more importantly, what their roles are in a military structure.
More than 100 members of the Indiana National Guard — some of them returning from overseas deployments — provide security to the civilians as they move each day through various vignettes. Some of the Guardsmen are mid-level officers who play the roles of forward operating base leaders and give mission briefings based on their experiences in theater. The civilians must negotiate with them as well.
Previously, civilians hired by the military and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan did not have immersive training such as this. They sat through PowerPoints in classroom settings, said Dereck Hogan, an advisor to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special envoy to Afghanistan.
Now, “it’s about getting them prepared enough so they can hit the ground running, so they can know what they’re getting into before they get out there,” Hogan said.
James McKeller, president of the McKeller Corp., along with the Foreign Service Institute, designed most of the vignettes for the interagency civilian-military integration training program. He observed first hand during his time in Iraq how Defense Department civilian workers were thrown into situations for which they weren’t prepared.
“In some cases, people got to Iraq and just quit. They got to the Green Zone and said, ‘This is not what I signed up for.’”
McKeller said he sat in a meeting with Army Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. Central Command commander, and Holbrooke as they discussed the new “whole-of-government” approach to turning around the Afghan war.
“They concluded that the civilian side didn’t know what the military was doing and the military didn’t know what the civilians were doing, and that the best solution would be training,” McKeller said. “Civilians were more afraid of getting on a helicopter than they were of al-Qaida.”
The question is whether civilian agencies will continue the training beyond the surge.
Hogan said absolutely. Even as military operations wind down, the commitment to building or rebuilding Afghanistan will continue. “The president has been clear on the need for the military to come home as soon as responsibly possible, but the civilian effort has always been this long-term commitment.”
For the next few years at least, he expects civilians will be working hand in hand with the military.
And there are other areas in the world where conflict may break out, and nation-building skills are needed.
McKeller agreed. “I don’t think we’re going to go back to the notion that a military is going to go in and occupy a country in a way that we did in Iraq. We are going to look for ways to partner.
“Who would have ever thought that the State Department and the Indiana National Guard would partner on training?” he asked.
But one civilian agency official was skeptical.
“Within the military, the support for this kind of effort is very thin,” said the official who preferred not to be named so he could speak candidly. That goes for the civilian departments as well. If it’s funded, it will continue. If it’s not, there won’t be any support, he said.
“It’s getting a lot of wordplay now, but when the budgets get cut, we’ll see where the priorities are,” he added.
The training blends nuts and bolts military knowledge with Afghan culture. After classroom lessons in Washington, D.C., students are flown to Indiana. The first day is spent at the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, a National Guard base about 55 miles northwest of the Muscatatuck Center. There they learn how to properly put on their body armor and become familiar with some of the weapons they may encounter. Civilians do not carry firearms, but they may be caught in an ambush. “So if the soldier says, ‘hand me some .50 cal.,’ they understand,” said Col. Barry Richmond, Muscatatuck’s deputy commander.
Although there are almost 10 times as many Guard personnel as civilian participants, organizers said it’s important that the training not be military-centric.
“We’re not taking civilian students and putting them in a military model. They are actually conducting a civilian developed training … under the auspices of the Foreign Service Training Institute, and we are augmenting that with the security element,” said Richmond.
Important to the State Department was finding a neutral facility that would not take on an exclusively military flavor. Muscatatuck has been conceived for just that purpose, said Tooley (See related story here
The Indiana National Guard sees this as a training opportunity, Tooley added. No one wants to be considered a “training aide for someone else.”
In Afghanistan, the Guard works with civilians and is asked to provide security when provincial reconstruction teams go into the field to have meetings with Afghan civilians or government officials. During any of the vignettes, Guardsmen playing red team members can set off flashbombs to simulate improvised explosive devices, or jump out and fire blanks during an ambush. Those providing security must respond appropriately.
At a mock forward operating base after lunch, red team members staged an attack as two civilians concluded a meeting with a base commander and his deputy. Guard personnel fired into the woods as the trainees and their interpreters ran into a bunker.
“What the hell were you firing at?” the military trainer asked the soldiers in the after action review. They shrugged their shoulders. In a small outpost, ammunition is not easy to replace, he told them. The attackers could have been halfway down the hill while they were wasting rounds shooting at nothing. And who went to the bunker to protect the civilians? Nobody.
“We get the reverse benefit, if you will, of the soldiers getting to work with the civilians and understanding why it is important to do certain things to support their mission,” Tooley said.
On the third day, trainees were put in a difficult scenario. The Air Force has accidentally bombed an Afghan civilian’s home and killed his 19-year-old eldest son. The military has already given the family $6,000 in “solatia” money — compensation for their losses — but the father is still unhappy and is complaining to the local government and the media.
Provincial reconstruction team members were first brought in to a meeting with Afghan police, government officials and a religious leader, where they discussed the problems. The Afghan role players did not speak English, so negotiations took place painstakingly through a translator. This scenario had a twist, though. A politician was in town. Since Afghanistan will be holding parliamentary elections in September, his role had been added to increase the degree of tension in the room. The objective was to “prevent this from becoming a media victory for the insurgency,” a summary of the vignette stated.
After the meeting, the PRT members and Afghan officials traveled in humvees to the scene of the accident. There, the actor playing the father was so aggrieved that the other role players had to restrain him. Two female civilians met separately with the Afghan women to offer their sympathies.
As the trainees and Afghans sat down and began making demands, the crux of the problem became apparent. The U.S. civilians could not meet any of their demands. The family asked for scholarship money so their surviving son could study until he was 18. The young people in the village don’t have any jobs. They see destruction like this, and then they join the Taliban, one of the Afghans said.
Also, there was still unexploded ordnance in the house. The PRT leader asked the leader of the security detail what they could do to remove the unexploded bombs. Unfortunately, the security team leader didn’t have any immediate answers. He did convoy protection, not bomb disposal.
Richmond said civilians need to learn to whom to address their questions. “If I know that S-3 is operations and S-4 is logistics, I’m not going to go to the S-3 to get some supplies.”
This knowledge makes it easier for them to become effective, he said.
By the end of the week, trainees ran through several election-related scenarios. There were high-level meetings with election commissioners who wanted more security. As a twist, the interpreter was instructed to make some poor interpretations and send the meetings off course.
McKeller said: “Certainly all of the students that are here in their one year tour of Afghanistan are going to be confronted by the election.”
Courtney Body was typical of the students who have a specialty that is in demand in Afghanistan, but no experience with the federal government, Afghanistan or the military. A former CNN International producer who had studied a little bit of the Pushtu language, she was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development on a one-year contract to be a communications specialist. Although she traveled the world in her former job, she had never had many encounters with the military.
“The first night in Atterbury, I walked into chow and it felt like we were foreigners,” she said.
After several days of working with the soldiers, she said she had a better appreciation for what they do, especially the younger ones who have served overseas, although she still had trouble memorizing the ranks and their insignias.