As part of the U.S. government's effort to foster stability in Sudan, in October 2008, the Department of State (DoS) asked U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) for assistance with establishing a noncommissioned officer's academy for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The resulting process of developing the program of instruction, preparing lesson plans, establishing the facilities and training the academy headquarters staff provided important lessons that may be applied to future security force assistance efforts elsewhere.
USAFRICOM assigned lead responsibility for the NCO academy to me, a U.S. Army civil affairs master sergeant with 18 years of service. As a veteran of three similar missions on the African continent and one civil affairs mission supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, I saw common difficulties arising among U.S. personnel and forces to be trained, regardless of their experience levels.
Personal experiences on my recent mission in Sudan stressed a need for soldiers to know both the mission and the social/cultural perspectives of the various ethnic groups with which they are working. U.S. officials and military personnel must remember that both language and cultural sensitivity are key factors in developing relationships within host countries. These relationships are the foundation for the types of activities in which we have been participating. In addition, our approach to security sector reform / transformation has been too narrowly focused; we must address all levels of training to achieve our goals.
Background on Sudan
Although Sudan has had a lengthy history of violence, the seeds of its current instability were sown under Anglo-Egyptian rule from the late-19th through mid-20th centuries. The British followed a "divide-and-rule" policy that reinforced long-standing separation between the Muslim North and the Christian/animist South. In 1946, however, the British administratively unified Sudan as a single colony without consulting the Southern Sudanese. Independence in the 1950s led to conflict as the North took steps to dominate the South. Two lengthy and devastating civil wars followed: the first from 1955 to 1972, and the second, 11 years later, from 1983 until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005.
Among its provisions, the CPA provided for the South to have self-rule for six years, from 2005 through 2011, followed by a referendum on secession, equal sharing of oil revenues, employment splits and the form self-governance would take. The referendum would also determine if the forces of the North - the Sudanese Armed Forces - and the SPLA would merge into a single force, or if they would be the official militaries of separate North and South Sudans, respectively.
U.S. policymakers determined that an important factor in ensuring compliance with the CPA and a stable Sudan was the transformation of the SPLA into an effective security force. Thus President George W. Bush issued Presidential Determination No. 2006-22 of August 28, 2006, authorizing a security sector transformation program inckiding activities with the SPLA.
Planning the Effort
In October 2008, USAFRICOM developed two programs of instruction (POI) and carefully selected one to be presented to the U.S. Department of State, the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and the SPLA. The POIs marked the beginning of an effort to establish a responsible and professional NCO corps within the SPLA. The selected POI was a six-week program that resembled the U.S. Army's Primary Noncommissioned Officer Course from the mid-to-late 1970s, and emphasized field leadership and instructor-qualification training. This course was chosen based on the program's ability to fulfill the needs and desires of the SPLA: quality leadership training for NCOs and sustainability after the departure of the U.S. government-provided instructors. In early 2009, the SPLA requested through the DoS that USAFRICOM provide an NCO to assist the SPLA in supervising the inaugural class to be conducted by DoS-contracted instructors. The instructors were mainly former NCOs from the United Kingdom, who could capitalize on SPLA familiarity with British doctrine and terminology; in addition, it was relatively easy for British citizens to obtain the necessary visas.
After a lengthy delay waiting for visa approval, I arrived in Juba, the provincial capital of Southern Sudan, and began meeting with officials from the SPLA. Living arrangements had to be confirmed prior to movement to the Mapel Training Center (MTC). This further delayed interaction with the MTC staff and prompted movement of the MTC leadership to the SPLA interim garrison headquarters in order to facilitate the gathering of muchneeded information regarding the MTCs current status. This initial interaction confirmed that the primary goal of establishing the NCO academy with SPLA instructors would be vital to the success of the academy and the teaching of skills to hiture students.
Issues of Language, Culture and Approach
Without question, my greatest initial challenge was becoming conscious of how best to communicate with my partners. Although the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan states that the official language of the GOSS is English, the primary language spoken by the majority of Southern Sudanese was either a dialect of Arabic or a native tribal language. Although the MTC leadership had respectable English skills, I had to choose my words deliberately to prevent confusion. Sometimes the multiple meanings of some English words created misunderstandings. A good example was the word execute, which I used as "implementing or earning out a task." In southern Slidan, this word was understood to mean "to kill a prisoner," and applying it to tasks was confusing; I was carekil to use implement instead. I also encountered military phrases that simply did not translate well into Arabic, such as Standing up a unit - our way of saying we are establishing a new unit. By being conscious of these misinterpretations and the use of our military terms, I was able to make more appropriate word choices and more clearly convey my message.
This issue was significant, as it also affected POI development. The graduates of the inaugural course were to become the SPL A's first "organic" NCO academy instructors. Thus their comprehension of the entire course was crucial. An essential first step was to vet these students for English-language skills. With that completed, I found it was still necessary to employ translators. The SPLA provided six junior officers who had been tested by the U.S. Consulate staff for attendance in the International Military Education and Training Program. The integration of these officers proved invaluable and allowed the NCOs to clearly comprehend the information being presented. At the end of the inaugural course, 51 of the initial 66 students were selected to become the SPLA's first NCO leadership course cadre.
Additional observations during my trip indicated the need for every individual not only to know the mission, but also to have cultural awareness of the various groups involved. Without knowledge of the differing groups, U.S. soldiers risk assuming that the partner-nation acts as a unified whole, when often internal barriers to communication and cooperation exist.
Southern Sudan consists of more than 200 ethnic groups, and the SPLA reflected that diversity. The SPLA was also divided among those committed to animistic beliefs, denominations of Christianity, and combinations of Christianity and animism. These differences made for great conversation and allowed me to understand some particular behaviors 1 had noticed. For example, many SPLA soldiers had an aversion to drinking water throughout the day as their culture saw this as a sign of weakness. This understanding made it apparent that to prevent heat injuries, I needed to require that all students drink a specified volume of water during breaks to avoid the possibility that some individuals might be viewed as weaker than others. These mixed-group sessions also provided much-needed interaction between the varioLis cultures that was beneficial in team-building efforts.
Although ethnic and religious differences proved to be cultural issues that needed to be accommodated, they affected the course far less than the milita iy culture of the SPLA, which has a class system of servitude embedded in the rank structure. As in many militaries around the world, subordinate ranks are viewed as existing to serve the senior ranks, rather than the superiors existing to provide the subordinates with necessities and direction. Being in a training center added the additional dynamic of the class system - participants traversed the staff-student boundary as well as the officer-enlisted boundary. This affected the soldiers' morale and, in many cases, their academic progress. As a result of the caste system, students were often forced to skip class to carry water when the staff failed to ensure that the water-storage tanks were filled, carry staff correspondence several miles and back, and polish the superiors' boots. (These are just a few examples.) Although quickly identified and addressed, the issue took the better part of six weeks to rectify. Only through direct observation of the students' improvement and increasing initia rive did the staff realize that their support directly affected the soldiers. By graduation day, the staff had all but ceased pulling students from class and had begun to reliably provide necessities (food, shelter and health care). Students were being trained, and the staff had begun exemplifying the phrase from the U.S. Army's NCO Creed: "My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind - accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my soldiers."
The last point to emphasize is the need to balance top-down and bottomup approaches in security sector formation. I have noted the tendency for states to drive change from the top down. While the top-down was effective in some ways in Sudan, on its own it was inefficient and did not produce lasting results. I have observed that including a bottom-up approach allowed those working from both of the spectrum to meet in the middle. That, too, was inefficient, however, because two key demographics - the junior officers and senior enlisted soldiers - were left without the education required to make the changes institutional. This void was highlighted when a student asked me what they, the NCOs, should do when they return to their units and the officers would not allow them to practice their new skills. This message was passed to the U.S. Consulate, and dialogue to design both a senior NCO course and a basic officer's course intensified.
My departure from the MTC and Sudan did not mark the end of the SPL A's transformation into a more professional security force; it was the beginning of the next phase in training. NCOs from the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa were arriving to jointly mentor the NCO academy cadre with the DoScontracted instructors and to ultimately assume responsibility of the NCO academy mentorship program.
Three key "take-aways" stand out. In a perfect world, a military linguist - or personnel fluent in the local language(s) - would be present to assist with the interaction between hostnation and U.S. personnel. This is rarely practical, so soldiers must exercise alternative methods of communicating. Learning some of the local languages is highly useful, but requires significant patience and understanding. Similarly, developing an understanding of the culture(s) of the many people involved creates a better understanding of the things they do. This understanding will aid in implementing agreed-upon changes. Finally, it is imperative to have a holistic approach to secure the stability that will bring peace throughout the states and regions we are assisting. If we do not work at all levels inside an organization and across the full spectrum of government activities and initiatives, the resulting imbalance could potentially cause more harm than good.
The views presented in this article reflect the opinion of the author alone and should not be interpreted as the opinion of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or any service branch or command.
By MSG William B. Bertelson
MSG William B. Bertelson is the first NCO member of the U.S. Africa Command Commander's Action Group. His military service includes tours in Korea and Germany, which included deployments to Sudan in 2009. He has seived in multiple locations in the United States from which he has deployed to Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and twice each to Iraq and Niger.…