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U.S. Wants More Help From Allies? Not Really

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    U.S. Wants More Help From Allies? Not Really
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    By Sandra I. Erwin

    Obama administration officials, including the president himself, have called for U.S. allies to take on more prominent roles in planning operations in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reached out to European governments for more help in nation-building and police training.

    The hope is that President Obama’s extraordinary popularity in Europe will translate into “enhanced contributions to the efforts in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

    But goodwill alone may not suffice.

    What often goes unmentioned is that allies are being asked to participate in coalitions that exist only on paper. In the real world of military operations — where the United States is the dominant force, with far more troops and hardware than all other nations combined — allies play on the sidelines, if at all.

    Foreign members of a U.S.-led coalition are not treated as true “members of the team,” says John F. Sattler, a retired Marine three-star general who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and served as former director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    Almost by default, planning documents and e-mails written by U.S. officials are flagged “secret/no foreign,” Sattler tells a Washington, D.C., conference. So when coalition members gather to discuss an upcoming operation, U.S. officials give them praise, thank them for their contributions, and then ask them to leave the room so the Americans can go over operational plans that foreign officers have not been “cleared” to see. Sattler, who commanded coalitions in Iraq and the Horn of Africa, says the inability to share information is self-defeating.

    “We over-classify,” he says, and as a result, “We shoot ourselves in the foot.” Once it becomes clear to allies that they are not part of the inner circle, no amount of glad handing or socializing after-hours can make up for that, says Sattler.

    “It’s the number-one thing that our allies hate,” he says. Sometimes they are handed paper documents with large sections cut out. While some data must be kept secret, much of the current classification is unnecessary, says Sattler.

    An internal Defense Department report that recently was leaked to the Wikileaks website disclosed that Dutch F-16 pilots in Afghanistan were under U.S. orders to bomb certain targets but later were denied access to the “battle damage assessments” of what they had hit because the Dutch did not have the required security clearance. The document also revealed that coalition forces from several nations at a military base in southern Afghanistan maintained 13 different intelligence cells and none of them cooperated with each other.

    U.S. commanders are aware of how much friction can be caused by the inability to share information, says Sattler. They can request that certain documents be declassified but that takes time and effort that commanders often can’t afford in the midst of a military operation.

    In Iraq, it would take months just to draw up the paperwork for a coalition unit that was fighting alongside U.S. troops to receive food and lodging from the U.S. military for which it would later reimburse the U.S. government, says Sattler. “That’s not how we are going to breed the coalition that we need today.”

    Much like foreign allies, U.S. civilian reconstruction teams also have found it difficult to work with the U.S. military. In Iraq, coordination between the military and State Department teams has not been easy, says Army Capt. Sean P. Walsh, who oversaw a school-building project in Iraq last year. There was “head-butting, gnashing of teeth and, to be honest, some hurt feelings on all sides … I can clearly see that the culture clash between members of the armed forces and State Department employees has a definite impact on the quality of work done by both organizations,” Walsh writes in the February issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

    In conflict zones such Iraq and Afghanistan the military runs the show and some commanders regard civilians as burdens that distract from the “real” mission, Walsh says. “I won’t try to downplay the fact that some military personnel view civilians as ‘weenies.’”

    The civilian-military rift slows down reconstruction efforts and, most importantly, delays the economic progress that is necessary to create stability and, ultimately, make it possible for U.S. troops to go home. “Though we should all be working from the same page, often this isn’t the case,” says Walsh.

    When it comes to coordinating activities, just like foreign allies, civilian diplomats are mostly out of the loop. “Another major obstacle to an efficient and productive relationship with the military is the fact that many reconstruction team members do not have access to the Defense Department’s secret Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) computer network,” says Walsh. “Almost all reporting and e-mail coordination in a deployed unit is conducted via the SIPR.”

    Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that the campaign in Afghanistan will require more than just military force. “In the coming year, I expect to see more coherence as efforts to improve civil-military coordination gain traction,” Gates told Congress.

    One of his challenges will be to sever the Gordian knot that has kept U.S. allies from being bona fide members of the coalition.