by David C. Litt
POLAD: A Global Warrior-Diplomat
I served as the State Department’s Political Advisor (POLAD) to two US military combatant commands during a watershed moment of the post-Cold War era: 1998-2004. To make these political-military assignments even more compelling, I found myself inside the two most intensely active military commands of the time: US Special Operations Command (1998-2002) and US Central Command (2002-2004). As POLAD I sat inside the cockpit of the inner leadership of the commands and worked directly for the commanding generals. My mission was to be a two-way window between the Combatant Commander and relevant leadership at the Department and in embassies. In that era of increasingly frosty relations between State and DoD, my role acquired increasing importance, as America ramped up for armed conflict and then launched.
In the 1990s, the POLAD assignment was not viewed with excessive admiration by the Department and the Foreign Service promotion system. The POLAD jobs that came closest to foreign policy prominence were in the Balkans and in Operation Provide Comfort for Turkey and northern Iraq, but even those were unknown to, or at best under-appreciated by most people at State.
My service in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai in the mid-80s and Abu Dhabi in the mid-90s) gave me a different appreciation for the relevance of political-military work to the Foreign Service. In the UAE, we worked very closely with the US Navy and the US Air Force during and after the Iran-Iraq War and Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Broadly speaking, US government civilian agencies worked closely with US military counterparts, but suffered from mutual misperceptions between the two organizational cultures. I came to the realization that we did not speak the same organizational language (“diplospeak” vs. “milspeak”), and did not share the same organizational values (tolerance for ambiguity, need for “end-states” and “planning”). Even our “home base” concept was different (e.g., “forward deployed” in embassies vs. garrisoned in mostly Stateside military bases).
Unlike the State Department’s attitude, the uniformed military very much valued having a senior diplomat as a liaison officer embedded within their headquarters. In the 1990s, General and Flag Officers who led geographic combatant commands (like US CENTCOM) or functional combatant commands (like US SOCOM) began to seek out former ambassadors as their foreign policy advisors or POLADs.
That’s the job I wanted; and one that was coming available in 1998 seemed to be kind of interesting. I had seen movies and read books about Green Berets and Navy SEALs. Little did I realize how much more impressive was the reality of the Special Operations community. I didn’t even know there were Air Force Special Operations commandos.
US SOCOM has a global focus. In those days Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployed in small squads to 70 or 75 countries routinely. Their principal tasks involved training with their counterparts to improve host nation capabilities to defend their country. Threats involved not just external enemies, but organized criminal gangs, terrorists, drug lords, and so on. They also trained local peacekeeping forces for UN and other international missions. SOF personnel were culturally mindful and often language qualified; their instruction always included the importance of subordination to civilian authority and respect for human rights.
I traveled regularly with the SOCOM Commanding General (first Gen. Peter Schoomaker and subsequently Gen. Charles Holland) to all corners of the world. Part of my job was to become fully conversant with US foreign policy issues and other State Department concerns regarding the countries we were visiting, and conversely to inform State about SOF. As a long-time NEA hand, my visiting the Middle East and Southwest Asia was a cakewalk. Not only did I know personally most of the players at State and at embassies, but I knew some of the host nation actors as well. Not so for other Bureaus, embassies and governments. Before our overseas travels, I always consulted in the Department at the DAS and Country Director levels, receiving the latest updates on our policies and programs, and sharing information—appropriately—about ongoing or planned Special Operations activities in the area.
One of the highlights of the POLAD assignment was to introduce all newly minted US ambassadors to the world of Special Operations. The two-week Ambassadorial Seminar at FSI devoted one full day to a session at Ft. Bragg, NC, and I regularly accompanied the ambassadors on their visit. SOF leaders and commandos provided the ambassadors insights into the unique and awesome SOF capabilities. In turn, the ambassadors came to appreciate that SOF was a valuable and multi-faceted tool at their disposal as Chiefs of Mission. This was a partnership, not an imposition.
Following September 11, 2001, the command shifted into high gear, and I was swept along with it. Afghanistan and Pakistan assumed a much larger proportion of the attention of SOCOM leadership. Fortunately my wife, Beatrice, and I had served in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, just before the Soviet invasion, so the terrain, culture and issues were all familiar to me – not much had changed in two decades. Furthermore, all of the other global SOF portfolios did not disappear, so we stayed focused on them as well: Colombia, Philippines, Horn of Africa, Kosovo, Arabian Gulf, etc. But clearly the center of gravity was shifting in the direction of counter-terrorism operations.
By 2002 I was ready to walk across the street at MacDill Air Force Base to become the POLAD to US CENTCOM’s Commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. The winds of war were already beginning to blow in the direction of Iraq. Plus, the CENTCOM theater included mainly my Foreign Service backyard, the Arab World, as well as some of the areas important to US SOCOM – Horn of Africa, and the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, my SOCOM experience helped make me battle-ready for CENTCOM operations. But that is another story.
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