With the current geopolitical landscape constantly shifting, the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point is hard at work preparing cadets to become future leaders who will facilitate CMO assisting in foreign affairs. Over 100 cadets along with staff and faculty gathered at the Eisenhower Hall Theatre Ballroom to participate in the 8th annual Student Workshop on Civil-Military Operations, organized by the CSCMO on April 6. Keynote speakers attended in-person and virtually to participate in discussions to contextualize various elements of CMO.
The event started with introductory remarks by members of U.S. Military Academy Class of 1978, who sponsored this year’s event, followed by the Honorable Randall Schriver, former Assistant Secretary of Defense. Shriver set the stage for the workshop by sharing insight into China’s development on its blue-water navy capabilities and it’s access to more ports in the pacific to project power across the Pacific Ocean while establishing relations with Pacific Island nations.
During the third session of the event, Christopher Williams, a humanitarian advisor and civil-military assistance advisor coordinator to the military at U.S. Agency for International Development and Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (USAID-BHA), attended virtually to inform cadets on the nuances that involve planning, preparation and how to deal with humanitarian disasters, from the perspective of civilian-military efforts, Williams said.
The BHA is the lead organization in the U.S. government for international disaster assistance, Williams explained. BHA is typically tasked with saving lives, alleviating suffering, and reducing the social and economic impact of disasters. Moreover, their mandate is to work with foreigners and the U.S. government to effectively enable humanitarian aid and then set the conditions for follow-on stabilization recovery activities, whether it’s by USAID, the State Department or other duty-related humanitarian assistance activities.
“One of the things that I think is really critical takeaway (from this discussion) that we do is in addition to doing disaster response, we focus on early recovery (for victims of natural disasters) so this is not total reconstruction, which is rebuilding an entire city that was destroyed. However, it builds on the immediate disaster response,” Williams said. “We’re looking at the impact on folks’ livelihoods, not just (the safety of) their lives beyond that 72 hours. We are thinking about water, shelter, food hygiene, looking at some of the basic things we can do and fund to get people back on their feet, and then handing it over to the to the mission or the embassy, and then also to other international organizations for the longer-term reconstruction development like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.”
Subsequently, Capt. Joseph Baca, USMA 2011 graduate, and 1st. Sgt. Christopher Anderson kickstarted the fourth session by sharing what special operations civil affairs brings to the table. Baca and Anderson also provided a real-life example of providing aid during a disaster response mission.
During the 2019 northern Thailand fires, Baca and Anderson spear-headed a no-notice response supporting local Thai government and civilian agencies who were present at the time by coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, Baca explained.
“We did a fire assessment, and basically, what we learned was that all of these fires were started by the local population farmers to produce better crops the next season,” Baca said. “We also learned, from speaking with the firefighters, that some people were intentionally starting these fires in order to make the local government look bad because of election season. So, that’s not something that was widely talked about, but because of our engagements, we found that information out.”
Field burning is an annual event led by farmers that takes place every year in Chiang Mai, a mountainous city in northern Thailand. This particular year, in 2019, field burning created additional issues where bordering countries were also doing the same thing. The Chiang Mai Consul General received increased pressure to help support and do something about the wildfires that were spreading as a result of field burning. That request went up from the CG’S office in Chiang Mai, to the Embassy in Bangkok. The Bangkok Embassy then reached out to the U.S. Indo Pacific Command augmentation team and eventually ended up on the desk of Baca and Anderson, Anderson added.
“So, at that point in time funding was available and so we leverage a low cost, high impact project of approximately $50,000 of supplies to donate and actually mitigate some of the issues going on in the country,” Anderson explained. “Initially, Baca, myself and our senior medic conducted initial assessments and determine that we were able to meet certain needs that were being requested at the time.”
As the session culminated, Baca and Anderson discussed the importance of building relationships and how, in the realm of civil affairs, it’s always crucial to expect the unexpected. Baca learned the importance of this idiom when he was tasked with building relations with a Taliban sympathizer during his time as an infantry officer, he said.
“Civil affairs is known for building and maintaining relationships and as an infantry officer, the last thing I ever wanted to think about was building relationships,” Baca said. “I wanted to go to combat with a platoon, like most of you probably, and the first thing my battalion commander told me was, ‘You’re going to make a relationship with a (Afghan) commander who is a known Taliban sympathizer. I didn’t want to do it then, but I did. Turns out that he actually competed in the Sandhurst Competition, and so did I and we competed against each other, so we actually became really good friends, and our units loved each other. So it worked out. I did not think that was going to happen.”
Afterward, the event culminated with closing comments from Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the commanding general of United States Army Europe and Africa, and USMA 1975 graduate, retired Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hudzeker.
Cavoli informed cadets on the inevitable difficult moments they would face as future leaders. Moreover, Hudzeker said that many opportunities will arise that will draw upon the future officer’s energy to test their ability to remain optimistic during dire circumstances and to see the end goal even when everyone around them is staring at despair.
“As you go out into the world as the future leaders here. This is the difficult landscape you're going to face and I think all the presentations today inform you about those future challenges, whether you’re working with nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations. I never thought I’d have to work with those entities myself but as the deputy commander in Iraq (at the time), I had to do that on daily basis,” Hudzeker said. “What you’re going to see, and what you’re going to experience is unlike anything that anybody will ever talk to you about. As guest speakers, we don’t know what the future holds, so my message to you is go into your next job and have energy and optimism. I absolutely agree those are two incredible leadership characteristics that will guide you on your path.”