By Christina Plumley
Working in a new environment always means initially learning by “drinking from a firehose.” (courtesy of imgflip)
Even without a pandemic, working in an Embassy environment can seem overwhelming since it is unfamiliar. Civil Military Support Elements (CMSEs) are navigating the unprecedented challenges of teleworking, minimal manning requirements, and Authorized/Ordered Departures from Embassies stemming from COVID-19. Regardless of whether a particular CMSE established relationships across US Country Teams (USCTs) prior to the pandemic, for the incoming CMSE, building on such relationships may be challenging.
Political (POL) / Economic (ECON) / Environment (ENV)
When approaching Foreign Service Officers in these sections, thoroughly know the Integrated Country Strategy (ICS), the USCT’s four-year plan detailing US priorities. Identify specific Mission Objectives relevant to the specific section you’re speaking with to reference areas of common interest. Understanding and using the State Department’s terminology earns you credibility and helps dissuade initial civ-mil coordination hesitancy.
When you conduct Civil Affairs Operations (CAO), ask beforehand if these sections have any requests for information for an area you’re going to or an organization you’re interacting with. Your relationship then becomes mutually beneficial because they may not have the time, capacity, or permission to travel as you do. (Recommend you implement this with the following sections as well.)
Come prepared with questions about a specific issue, geographical area/sector, or existing programs to expand your understanding of the civil environment and ongoing US initiatives.
Ask if you can be added to cable distros, which is the official channel for information distribution in the Embassy.
Foreign Service Officers are the subject matter experts (SME) in their respective focus areas and likely have a large network of host nation (HN) relationships they may be able to connect you with as well.
Example USCT Mission Objectives (courtesy of
Public Affairs Section (PAS)
The PAS is focused on public diplomacy, working with the media, cultural, and educational sectors. PAS is critical for media amplification, particularly with the complexity of competing narratives in the Information Environment. CMSE events are good news stories that the PAS typically wants to publicize across the Embassy’s social media platforms. CMSEs should seek to expand event coverage beyond the DoD Public Affairs Office; otherwise you limit yourself to an influence echo chamber. Expand your media audience; a true reflection of a well-publicized event is amplification by local news outlets and media influencers.
Coordinate early on for PAS support. There is a chance PAS doesn’t want to highlight a CMSE event, which may require dedicated efforts to convince them. Understand their priorities and perspective to show how promoting your event is in their best interest. If it does not conflict with your mission, possibly adjust course to accommodate. For small-scale events, expect you will do the legwork of taking pictures and drafting a press release. When available or if a senior Embassy official plans to attend, PAS may provide personnel to support the actual event. CAO itself has intrinsic value, but through increased coverage, a broader audience also gains a better understanding of what we do.
Beyond media, PAS coordinates many cultural and educational events. Leverage the section’s locally employed staff’s expertise if you plan to conduct community outreach. They may have resources they are willing to share.
Ask PAS about the nuances of messaging to the local audience. Are there words or phrases you should avoid? Are there sensitivities to publishing about certain organizations? What types of photos/posts are people most receptive to? What cultural trends are good to be aware of? What social media platforms are popular?
During planning, coordinate hashtags with PAS and your HN partner and identify your HN partner’s social media pages to tag them in posts.
During execution, ensure you take high resolution action photos and get quotes.
General Services Office (GSO)
The GSO manages and coordinates logistics, to include contracting, procurement, customs, vehicle maintenance, etc. Major topics relevant to the CMSE are that they facilitate contracted lodging and Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster Assistance, and Civic Aid (OHDACA) funding for projects. CMSEs should be well versed on Chapter 12 of the Security Assistance Management Manual, which covers OHDACA. Develop a positive working relationship with GSO to support operational needs and leverage their wealth of knowledge on local vendors. It is best to procure supplies locally; likewise, CMSEs should always consider quality and country of origin. Understand the documentation the GSO requires and prepare it in advance to streamline the funding process.
I cannot stress enough the value of upfront communication with GSO. They may see dissonance between DoD’s OHDACA guidelines and State’s Office of Procurement Executive (OPE) guidelines, so prepare to walk them through the process and regulations. Contracting and funding a project can consume a significant amount of time. Proactively communicate with the GSO manager and contracting official early on to avoid delays in your execution timeline.
Ensure any intended purchases are approved in advance and be prepared to hear “No.”
If you cannot work towards a “Yes,” familiarize yourself with contingency options for contracting, which may be a regional or theater-level DoD contracting office.
Be specific when seeking GSO assistance locating a product from the local economy. Provide image examples and specify dimensions, quantity, capabilities, budget constraints, etc. The more generic your request, the more likely you will need to provide follow-on clarification. Example: a first responder medical bag’s sub-components can vary drastically in quality and quantity.
Regional Security Office (RSO)
RSO oversees all safety and security functions for the Embassy, to include travel and hotel approvals. They provide security briefs for intra-country travel. This relationship is critical to enabling operations, particularly when CAO requires travel to remote areas. RSO approval may not be a prerequisite for travel (since CMSEs do not technically fall under Chief of Mission authority) — but if in doubt, check in with both DAO/ODC and RSO. Investing into this relationship by assisting RSO when possible will also pay dividends by building credibility and facilitating CMSE freedom of maneuver.
Offer to conduct new hotel assessments to update their approved hotels list.
If traveling to new areas, provide route assessments.
If available and RSO requests, provide medical coverage support during Embassy events.
Defense Attaché Office (DAO)/Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC)
DAO and ODC personnel are the DoD’s permanent representatives in US Embassies whose role is to coordinate security cooperation activities with HN counterparts. The Senior Defense Official (SDO) is the Chief of Mission’s primary military advisor on defense and national security issues. Both offices are key stakeholders. Make a good impression, which starts with your DoD country clearance request and visa application.
They have a network of relationships you’ll want to leverage to get settled and acculturated; administrative and operational support will also go through them. Most often, the ODC will be the funds custodian office for the CMSE. Within the ODC, the Security Cooperation Officer (SCO) must concur on all OHDACA projects and obtain Chief of Mission concurrence, which is a prerequisite to staffing funding requests. DAO and ODC will provide guidance and oversee your operations. They may also assist in connecting you with HN military points of contact based on their networks. Their locally employed staff generally have years of experience and local knowledge, providing long-term continuity despite DoD turnover.
Take the initiative and openly communicate with DAO/ODC, and CC them on e-mails with other USCT sections so they’re never caught off guard if someone asks about what you’re doing.
Recognize that the Embassy is not an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” environment. You don’t just represent CA, SOF, or the Army. Mistakes (even if well intended) can upend years of DoD, or even USG, efforts.
Other Civilian Agencies
The USCT can include a range of cabinet departments and civilian agencies. Below are two agencies with which, if present, CMSEs typically have much in common. Leverage the outgoing CMSE’s knowledge and your orientation briefing to identify other potential partners as well.
US Agency for International Development (USAID)
USAID is the lead agency for foreign humanitarian assistance and development. A fully staffed USAID Mission should have teams that focus on specific areas, like health, environment, and democracy– but in some countries, USAID may have only a handful of staff, or none at all if the country in question no longer requires aid. CMSEs typically engage with the local populace through Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) via OHDACA, which sometimes aligns nicely with USAID programs and projects; however, that doesn’t guarantee immediate buy-in.
Despite common interests, CMSEs must do their homework on the country and USAID’s priorities.
Thoroughly know the Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS), which provides the roadmap for USAID’s Development Objectives. The CDCS informs and is often nested within the ICS. Identify specific objectives that align with CAO priorities. Using USAID’s terminology immediately shows you care about what they do and have come prepared to engage.
Example USAID Development Objective (courtesy of USAID Indonesia CDCS)
Strive towards an information sharing relationship with USAID. Explain how CMSE fits into the whole of government approach. As you engage with the local populace, you should inform USAID of issues/trends they might not be aware of due to your unique access.
Ask how they’re employing the “Clear Choice Framework,” USAID’s new approach to supporting a HN’s “journey towards self-reliance” in contrast to China’s One Belt One Road.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
CDC works with HN ministries of health and international organizations to address global health challenges and disease outbreaks. CDC is the lead agency in USCT COVID-19 response. They generally have the most current information on COVID-19 and local health issues. Additional medical staff may include Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Services (AFRIMS) personnel, like the Naval Medical Research Unit (NAMRU). These personnel research topics like infectious diseases and battlefield medicine, a potential resource for SMEE coordination. They are a great wealth of knowledge to tap into.
Come prepared to the discussion table having done your homework. Demonstrating you understand existing health concerns in the country and voicing that you’re there to learn from their expertise shows you respect their position and time.
They may find CMSE observations on the HN’s health infrastructure network valuable as they likely have limited freedom of maneuver beyond the capital.
As SOF professionals, we should arrive at the Embassy prepared with baseline knowledge and then focus on connecting with people to develop meaningful relationships. Positive relationships in the Embassy are critical as their benefit is two-fold: they enable effective accomplishment of US objectives and foster trust to enable autonomous freedom of maneuver.
Be the human domain expert that the CA Qualification Course and Pre-Mission Training equipped you to be. Have a clear, concise CA elevator speech. Understand the various USCT sections’ priorities. Be a friendly face: volunteer, attend local events, and eat in the Embassy canteen. As social distancing restrictions lift, pursue and even host Embassy-related social events like it’s your job—because it is. Relationships are key to your success, and you will only develop those through networking, both professionally and socially.
About the Author
CPT Christina Plumley is a CA Officer assigned to E Company, 97th Civil Affairs Battalion (Special Operations) (Airborne). She is currently forward deployed in Southeast Asia as the Theater Civil Military Support Element (TCMSE) Deputy Operations Chief. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in International Relations and French from the United States Military Academy.
The views expressed are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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