Military leads the way in interagency training

"Black Hawk Down" is a compelling film about a battle. But what stays off-screen is the context that explains how an effective humanitarian operation that fed hundreds of thousands of starving people in Somalia in 1992 degenerated in 1993 into an urban gun battle in Mogadishu that killed 18 American soldiers.

A lot of that context can be explained by the pileup of competing and uncoordinated agency agendas that defined the Somalian operation. In addition to the American military presence, the country over time was invaded by a host of U.S. and U.N. agencies and private organizations, all of which had different ideas on how to bring stability to the East African country. Add in the mix of clan and ethnic rivalries within the country and an inexperienced Clinton White House in its first months on the job, and the result was bureaucratic confusion that eventually sent military men on a questionable and fatal mission.

Afghanistan today is not terribly different from Somalia in 1993. Nor was Haiti, Bosnia, or Kosovo. Each of these crises has only underscored the need for the United States to develop the ability to step nimbly between roles--from warrior to peacekeeper to humanitarian aid worker and back, with ad hoc ethnic alliances shifting underfoot all the while. In the same way, the global war on terror--abroad and at home--requires the combined talents of America's diplomats, warriors, spies, detectives, and even accountants. But such intricate cooperation among government agencies is not easily learned on the fly.

"The first time you plan should not be in a crisis ... when lives are on the line," said Michele Flournoy, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense who led the Pentagon's review of Somalia. Yet all too often in the early 1990s, "when we got the relevant players around the table, it was the first time they had ever been at the same table." As a result of her review, Flournoy, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, went on to help found one of the first programs to teach officials from different agencies to work together--before they stumble into a second Somalia.

The buzz phrase for all this is "interagency cooperation." And increasingly, the rest of the federal government is looking to the U.S. military as its model for getting officials from different agencies to work together and for providing ongoing training.

Today, "interagency is the growth industry," said professor John D. Waghelstein of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., widely acknowledged as the military's most prestigious and rigorous school for officers. It is now common for seminars designed for aspiring admirals and generals to include a civilian official from another department. The great benefit, Waghelstein explained, is that "the civilian can say, `Look, you're ignoring the nonmilitary aspects.... This makes no sense to somebody outside the Department of Defense.' "

The State Department and the CIA have long sent their rising stars to military schools for training. But the numbers remain small: about a half-dozen CIA officials and 40 diplomats a year. Most other agencies send even fewer. And outside the Pentagon's extensive school system, federal civilians have little opportunity to get interagency education of any kind. No wonder then that, just weeks after September 11, one official with both State and Defense experience said flatly: "We need to have more interagency training."

For all its recent growth, interagency education remains in its infancy. Consider the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, the principal school for training diplomats. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has named the institute one of the parts of his department that he most wants to strengthen. Among its many training programs is the prestigious Senior Seminar for prospective ambassadors. The seminar mixes 15 to 20 veteran diplomats with a roughly equal number of officials from other agencies--Defense, CIA, and even the FBI and Commerce. The informal interaction among the participants over the nine-month-long program is as important a learning experience as the formal curriculum, and both are intended to broaden students' perspectives so they can work across agency lines.

But nine months is a long time for an agency to give up a senior official for training. Except for language study, most of the institute's courses last just one week. Courses must be kept "bite size," to quote one institute official, because that's all the time most students can spare.

And the problem goes well beyond State. "We are not able to get people from the interagency community to give us more than two days at the maximum," said Erik Kjonnerod, director of interagency training at the National Defense University in Washington. Especially after years of budget cuts, said Kjonnerod, key personnel are too drowned in day-to-day duties to step back and study for the future.

At State, Powell has been trying to help solve that problem by getting authorization to hire more people. He's pushing to get "enough people where we could still get the job done and also be able to train," said Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal, dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute. The 2001 report by the federally chartered Commission on National Security/21st Century (co-chaired by retired Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman) recommended adding 10 percent to 15 percent more personnel across all national security agencies to allow for adequate training. Such a boost would cost an estimated $200 million a year for State alone.

More manpower is indeed expensive. Yet, as retired four-star Gen. Powell knows, adequate staffing allows the military to sustain its large and unparalleled program of professional military education. By the time a military officer has reached the rank of general, he or she has taken one 10-month, full-time program at a staff college for midcareer officers, another 10-month program at a war college for prospective generals, and countless shorter courses. Even the military school system's critics agree that it is the model for other agencies to aspire to, simply because it's the only model around.

Another area where civilian agencies can emulate the military is in distance learning. The Pentagon offers huge numbers of training courses online or through video means, such as teleconferencing or satellite linkups. At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., for example, about 500 students a year take courses remotely, said the college's distance learning chief, retired Col. Richard Yarger. Eighty percent of those students are Reserve or National Guard officers who must juggle civilian day jobs with continuing education--a clear parallel to federal civilians.

The Pentagon has used distance and Internet learning so much, it now knows its weaknesses, too. "I used to be the guy that said, `Distance learning, distance learning,' " said Kenneth Pisel, chief of distance education at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va. "Now I'm the guy that says, `Not so fast, not so fast.' " The Internet can transmit reams of information, and e-mail exchanges can actually allow for more-thoughtful debate than a live classroom-but there is no high-tech substitute for informal interaction among students when it comes to building trust and sharing worldviews. Said Pisel, "It's difficult to change people's values at a distance."

The solution, most educators argue, is to combine online and in-person education. Take Pisel's proposed program for Reserve and Guard officers: Students will come together face-to-face at the start of a course to establish a rapport, disperse to study electronically, and then regroup again, alternating periods of traditional and distance learning.

Indeed, the most far-reaching impact of distance education will not be the offering of traditional courses online, but the opening up of a new world of flexibility. Today's military schools (and most civilian colleges) take an Industrial Age, assembly-line approach: A mass of students, all about the same age, go to the same place at the same time to study largely the same things. The need to meet every student's needs in one curriculum--from war fighting to peacekeeping to base management--can limit the number of course offerings. Conversely, without efficiencies of scale, specialized intensive courses such as the State Department's Senior Seminar must stay fairly small. But, argues retired Army War College Commandant Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, online techniques can break up the big courses and let scattered students delve deeply into special subjects. Such flexibility would make education "more tailored, more flexible, more modularized," and could allow civilians from across the government to study exactly what they need, on their own schedules.

Any such program would still need a healthy leaven of old-fashioned face-to-face contact to build up a community of trust across different agencies. And no technology can create 30-hour days for overworked officials in understaffed offices.

To make this kind of investment in interagency education, and to have many agencies benefit from it, will require not only a financial commitment from the federal government but a cultural shift across the various agencies. Said National Defense University's Kjonnerod, "Unless and until you buy into this kind of philosophical orientation, you get what happened in Somalia: People get killed."

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