STUTTGART, Germany — The empty health clinic in a remote part of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a legacy of what sometimes goes wrong when the military takes the lead on civil affairs projects, despite good intentions.

During a "hearts and minds" mission in the city of Nema a couple of years ago, U.S. special forces built the clinic in coordination with the local ministry of defense, but that’s where the consultations ended. With no local U.S. Agency for International Development officials on the ground to provide the regional political and social context, the clinic was built on military land restricted from public use. Now, the facilities remain vacant and unused.

"It’s a monument to a lack of interagency coordination," said Ron Capps, who manages the peacekeeping program for Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

“I don’t blame the soldiers,” Capps said. “They were trying to do a good thing. They just didn’t have anyone to coordinate with.”

From Iraq and Afghanistan to far-flung African villages, countless projects have gone to waste because of limited coordination between military personnel and their counterparts from the State Department and USAID. As a result, more U.S. government resources are now being directed at bolstering those underfunded and undermanned civilian agencies.

And, military combatant commands are working to improve how troops interact with outside agencies and fit their efforts into a more “whole-of-government” approach to problem-solving.

This month, U.S. European Command for the first time hosted an interagency meeting that pulled together USAID officials from around Europe and focused on fostering cooperation.

Mike Anderson, deputy director of EUCOM’s interagency engagement group, said the meeting was long overdue.

“We have not been talking to each other,” he said.

Such efforts are in sync with the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review Report, which was released in January and emphasizes the need for national security planning to extend beyond the corridors of the Pentagon.

“The Department supports institutionalizing whole-of-government approaches to addressing national security challenges,” the report states. “The desired end state is for U.S. Government national security partners to develop plans and conduct operations from a shared perspective.”

The cost of a lack of coordination is perhaps best highlighted by the post-invasion chaos in Iraq, when control of the reconstruction effort was consolidated within Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, alienating many planners in agencies such as USAID.

The ripples of this call for better planning and integration fan out to commands such as EUCOM, where staff is being added to better coordinate efforts in its area of operation.

There are now just five positions within EUCOM, drawing in people from institutions such as the FBI, State Department and USAID to serve as liaisons. Another five interagency liaison slots will be created later this year and five more will be added in 2010, Anderson said.

“We think it is the way to go,” Anderson said. “To be successful, [combatant commands] have to be much more interagency-oriented. All the solutions aren’t military solutions.”

Counselor Lisa Chiles, the most senior career officer at USAID, said she expected those kinds of links to grow stronger.

“We see the relationship getting closer,” said Chiles, who was in Stuttgart for the conference. “This is about getting the best results and about making programs as effective as possible.”

For USAID, however, the main problem remains its lack of manpower, she said. The agency is in the midst of a hiring surge, which is expected to continue for the next five years to help fill some of the holes that have developed after years of stagnant budgets.

Meanwhile, as EUCOM looks to add to its own modest interagency staff, another command at nearby Kelley Barracks is at the forefront, building upon interagency concepts first developed by U.S. Southern Command.

“Here at AFRICOM, USAID has been very involved from the beginning,” said Carl Abdou Rahmaan, senior development adviser for U.S. Africa Command, which features four additional senior USAID advisers.

In all, there are 26 interagency staffers currently embedded in the command, which coordinates its activities around the continent with 16 U.S. government agencies and nongovernment institutions.

The size of the interagency staff will grow as AFRICOM — which stood up in October as the military’s sixth unified geographical command — continues to develop, Rahmaan said.

“One of the things that is happening is the whole interagency process is maturing across government and that same maturity we’re witnessing at AFRICOM,” he said. “Everyone recognizes an integrated, coordinated whole-of-government approach will be more effective and have greater impact.”

The AFRICOM model of incorporating officials from other agencies into the command structure is not without its critics, though.

Refugee International’s Mark Malan, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs last year, described AFRICOM’s interagency structure as a mythical concept.

“The DOD is so strong in human and material resources, and in thinking power as well as firepower, that its civilian agency counterparts pale into insignificance. There can thus be no meaningful talk of partnerships or an interagency team,” Malan said. “The ‘interagency’ in the context of U.S. AFRICOM is in fact the Department of Defense, a department that ... is adept at paying lip service to the myth of real interagency participation in planning, decision making and policy implementation.”

Others are more optimistic about AFRICOM’s approach. Capps, from Refugees International, says it is doubtful senior State Department officials would have their voices drowned out within the command, but it’s still early in the process.

“It’s a very different, innovative approach, and it’s yet to prove whether it will be effective or not,” he said. “It’s new and I don’t think the jury is in yet.”

Nevertheless, there’s a growing recognition among military leaders of the value of working with other agencies.

“They’re trying to get this foreign policy expertise. The military is asking for more integration,” said Capps, who has served in numerous African countries both as an Army officer and State Department foreign service officer.

The health clinic in Mauritania was built before the activation of AFRICOM. Capps points to its failure as an example of how small missteps can have larger consequences, and might interrupt U.S. efforts to increase stability in a key region.

“Little things add up,” Capps said. “We have a serious interest in preventing Mauritania from slipping out into fundamentalist ideology. It’s on the edge. We need to work with it, but there was no USAID officer there.”

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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