What We Can Learn in the Sandbox

06/30/2010 10:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today marks the year anniversary of the beginning of the U.S withdrawal from Iraq. It was on June 30, 2009 that American troops withdrew from Iraq's cities fulfilling the first of our withdrawal obligations agreed to in the Status of Forces Agreement with the Government of Iraq. By August, only 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq down from the approximately 150,000 deployed there at the height of the Surge in 2008.

However, as we continue to draw down in Iraq it is important to remember that our obligations there are still far from met, the timeline for our presence in Afghanistan is still far from set, and Americans are still regularly deploying for service in these challenging environments.

These national responsibilities are daunting and exhausting, and at a time when we need the best efforts of weary Americans who we have asked to serve in harm's way for many years now, the untimely resignation of General McChrystal last week seems to have brought to light the specter of a rising "culture war between American soldiers and civilians". This culture clash is obviously a real concern as evidenced by the infighting in the Obama administration over the way forward in Afghanistan and the seemingly chilly relationship between Gen. McChrystal and his staff and their civilian counterparts in the State Department and the White House.

However, it is comforting to know that despite last week's gross public airing of personality clashes at the top of our command in Afghanistan, our government is taking steps to ingrain inter-agency collaboration into the training of our young men and women deploying for war zones to ensure that they are adequately prepared for their mission.

In April I spent two weeks out at Ft. Irwin in California, helping to train the next round of State Department Foreign Services Officers and a Brigade of U.S troops headed to Iraq. A simulated Iraq has been set up in the Mojave desert there -- an entire network of towns broken up into two provinces -- to mimic the complicated governmental structures and the political balancing act required to navigate them.

The towns are populated with 2,500 role players organized into demographic and ethnic groups representative of what our troops will encounter in Iraq: Kurds, Chaldeans, Arabs; Sunnis, Shiites, Christians; Sheiks, Clerics, Government Officials. There are even "insurgents" that form cells and live amongst the every day people to imitate the nuanced reality of counterinsurgency and development operations in Iraq.

In the "sandbox", as the training area is colloquially referred to, you can quickly forget you are not in Iraq. The sand and wind can be just as invasive, impenetrable, and unforgiving. Up armored humvees and MRAPs are the only modes of transportation, 80 lbs of body armor are your constant companion.

The "Iraqi" role players perform their roles masterfully: interrupting meetings for constant cell phone calls, chain smoking and playing unwitting Americans off each other in fine Machiavellian tradition. And while much of the focus for the military during this training is on lethal operations, entire scenarios devoted to governance challenges, essential service provision and political reconciliation are woven into the course. Military and civilian counterparts must work together to confront these complex issues and must draw on each others expertise to do so. Ingraining this interagency collaboration is so essential to our efforts abroad and it is long overdue.

However much we would like to believe that the most sophisticated and deadly military force on earth and its counterparts in the world's most powerful government have developed systems and tools for managing interagency collaboration, in the field time and time again, it comes down to personalities, egos and temperaments.

The culture of the U.S. State Department necessarily differs greatly to that of the U.S. Army, and up until the "surge" in Iraq when a premium was put on interagency collaboration and empowering development experts to take an active role in our efforts in Iraq, often these organizations tended to operate in silos: wary and dismissive of one another.

The more the good people of our military and diplomatic corps are forced to get into the "sandbox" and play together, the greater our ability to take advantage of the strengths of each of our government agencies in war zones. The more we are exposed to each others cultures before deploying, the less time is wasted in the field adjusting to each others unique and valuable ways of doing business. The necessity of this "whole of government" approach is a hard won lesson of our time in Iraq and must be applied to our future efforts in Afghanistan, Haiti or the next nation-building challenge we face.

To better synergize the strengths of the Department of State (DOS), Department of Defense (DOD), U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) and other agencies deploying subject matter experts to conflict or post-conflict reconstruction zones, our government should make all efforts to:

  1. Better align rotation schedules so that soldiers and civilians who train together (and develop personal relationships early) also deploy together;
  2. Expand mandatory language and cultural training - even the most limited vocabulary of 50 words can offer invaluable situational awareness and engender immeasurable goodwill on behalf of the local populace;
  3. Fund and support joint DOS and DOD educational opportunities focusing on whole of government approaches - a school of advanced civil-military operations for example.

The exposure to cultures within our own government gained in trainings like those taking place at Ft. Irwin are arguably just as important as the exposure to Iraqi culture gained in these role playing exercises. The ability of our folks in the field at every level of command to develop and communicate common goals and vision, is paramount in our hopes of leaving behind stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan after we fully withdraw. Turf wars over responsibilities and resources have no place in 21st century war and diplomacy; we need everyone's expertise to succeed.