Falling Into AFRICA OSC Traps

AFRICA OSCs serve at the behest of the Secretary of Defense and United States Ambassadors. We are professional senior military service members stationed forward to the “point of the spear” as strategic scouts. Our families deploy forward with us and serve more than most military families. We are a distinct group of officers who think slightly different as we are required to make strategic through tactical decisions throughout every day. Unfortunately, our forward-deployed small outposts are often overworked in stressful environments. Sometimes we don’t realize that we are falling into well-known AFRICA OSC traps.

What is an AFRICA OSC trap? It isn’t something that lures you in with tasty meat like an animal and then snaps you into a different reality or death. Or is it? It may be something that you set unknowingly and actually, fall into later. Sometimes AFRICA OSC traps are personal issues that expose themselves due to the stress of living in a third world. Sadly, some are family-related. Other times they show a lack of available AFRICA OSC mentorship that with some advice could easily overcome a special Ambassador or subordinate in your office.

This article hopes to highlight some traps observed during my time as an AFRICA OSC, through which our young AFRICA OSCs can learn to avoid. It is self-reflective in some parts but includes stories all of us have heard or experienced. Overall, this article proposes six AFRICA OSC traps which everyone should avoid.

They are:

  1. Forgetting who you work for;
  2. Believing you are the only expert on your country;
  3. The Africa love trap;
  4. Alcohol, sex, vehicles, and ignoring your health issues;
  5. IRT – it isn’t a year on vacation;
  6. Don’t be the Angry Staff Officer or AFRICA OSC;

Forgetting who you work for – The Combatant Command

This is the single biggest AFRICA OSC trap you can encounter. #1 and I mean #1. Take some time to look at your rater’s evaluation report and see who is on it. Then take some time to look at your evaluation report and look at who the two persons are who are on it. Who you work for should never be more explicit.

This is important because ever few weeks you send a report to them. Reporting back to one’s higher command is the single most crucial factor of success for an AFRICA OSC. Emails to this command are equally important before you hit send – think about the message you are sending them. You are an executor of policy, not a decision-maker of it, although you can influence it if you know how to do so.

Don’t get mad because some other AFRICA OSC has an exercise in their country and you don’t. Understand why the CCMD chose to do that. You are a way through which the Department of Defense accomplishes its Ends. It determines the Ways that are important, not you. Taking some time to understand and accept where you are in your location, and the perspective of the members in the CCMD on your host nation is the single most important concept you must achieve as an AFRICA OSC.

If you don’t know what your CCMD’s priorities are in your country, then perhaps you should go talk to your desk officer, again. The best fix to this trap is a phone call from the CCMD’s representative, or maybe an unwelcomed TDY to the headquarters.

On the other hand, because there are always two hands (or more) in Africa, if you are in a country where the Combatant Command is overly focused on you, forgetting the other four to five hats you wear is equally disastrous. You also work for the Ambassador, DSCA, and other agencies or organizations. Those agencies and people comment back to the CCMD, so learning to get along well with everyone is at the key of success of an AFRICA OSC.

Believing you are the only expert on your country (or Africa)

This one is funny because often our AFRICA OSCs think because they are living there, they know everything. More often than not, they are talking to two categories of personnel. Those who are currently wearing a uniform more than likely don’t know more than the AFRICA OSC that is speaking, and in fact, absorb everything they say without question. Those that are wearing civilian clothes more than likely are retired military members working now as a civilian, or a civilian working with another agency that is involved with whatever the AFRICA OSC is discussing. These persons have been around the block per se for a few AFRICA OSCs (think 10 years). They have a decent working knowledge of the region or countries they are assigned to and are most likely primarily interested in executing their programs on time. They have a hidden bias based upon prior experiences either with other AFRICA OSCs or the partner nation. Some have worked a specific country for over a decade. This is not to say that times do not change, and the past cannot become the past. Basically, access and information do not make you the expert; but your insights are significant. Your ideas are things you should key into, but be aware not to confuse access with insights. The key to avoiding this trap is to understand who you are talking to, what information they are looking for, and to provide the appropriate assessment at the right time for the right situation. The best fix to this trap is an assignment on the CCMD or Component’s staff.

Once you spend a few years on staff, after being an AFRICA OSC, you will understand the perspectives of the team and headquarters. You will come to find that you do not know our strategic thinking, campaign plans, and senior leader’s views as much as you think you do. You will find, however, that you know Africa way more than anyone else on the staff. Those insights are strategic.

A sub-aspect of this trap is the AFRICA OSC who has had extensive counterterrorism programming experience and then moves into a staff job at the CCMD or a Component. The nuances this AFRICA OSC has experienced are critical to the success of any Counterterrorism (CT) program, and any lessons learned in this area should be absorbed and executed in all of the future CT programing. However, the passion the prior AFRICA OSC may bring to the staff will be immediately ignored or potentially disregarded. The prior CT AFRICA OSC who goes onto a staff next must accept some fallacy within the execution of the program, and take or hope for a 51/49 % rule. 51% of the program was successful, and 49% of it had some impact. There are simply too many variables in US’s and our partner nation’s systems to achieve anything more than 52%.

The Africa Love Trap

This portion of the blog some people might not like, but it is essential to discuss. Every now and then an AFRICA OSC starts to fall into the poverty or native trap in Africa, and associates with it too much. It is hard to work in Africa after growing up in the United States. Every day in Africa, poverty displays its reched heart, and after hundreds of days, it wears on anyone. When an AFRICA OSC begins requesting programming that is not in line with the CCMD’s priorities, and when denied, displays emotion as to why it should be funded…then perhaps it is time to move on and go back to the United States and re-green for a bit. This trap is sometimes seen with those who begin to wear African clothing daily to work, perhaps those who have married Africans, adopted African children, purposely volunteer for multiple back to back assignments on the continent, or overall have moved into a lifestyle that alienates them from where they came from. The best fix to this trap is a three-year assignment in the United States or retirement. I’ve captured a lot in these last few sentences, and I surely hope not to offend anyone.

My overall point is living in Africa time and time again makes us susceptible to this trap. One has to view oneself always as an American, and when you start associating your thoughts with another civilization, it is alright to do so for comprehension reasons, but to begin to live it, then it becomes an issue. I am not saying that marrying an African during your posting or adopting one is wrong. People’s lives are their lives and who they meet and choose to love is not something anyone should ever criticize. I acknowledge that several of our AFRICA OSCs have successfully done all of these without any issues. I highlight this issue because sometimes people “go off the reservation” per se, and it causes problems.

Alcohol, Sex, Vehicles, and Ignoring Your Health Issues

I’ve spoken a lot on this issue because it is always at the heart of our return to service personnel. Check out the following blogs covering this, which provide too many details of this trap.

The “Should” List
Remembering who you are when you are far from home
Who are you as an FAO and Army Officer?

Overall:
Don’t drink and drive (especially in GOVs)
Don’t cheat on your spouse, or bring your girlfriend to the USMC ball
Don’t get drunk at an Ambassador’s event (or any other embassy event)
Don’t ignore your health issues
Don’t work too much, take a vacation

Do – live a healthy life, take vacations quarterly or regularly, go home at 1700, and ask, “Does this have to be done right now or can it wait until 0800 tomorrow?” Put the phone down and read a book, or whatever. I promise you, 90% of it can wait until tomorrow.

IRT – It isn’t a year on vacation, or is it? – Your reputation does matter or does it? – What is your brand?

I haven’t written a blog on IRT yet, as I don’t really need to because a fellow FAO has already written a book on it: “In Region Training – Travels in SubSaharan Africa.”

During this section, I would like to write a bit about what I have seen on new FAOs coming in during my time; however, I’m not overly ready to do that yet. I will then briefly outline some expectations of IRTers that I have.

IRT is a significant change from the tactical to strategic level in one year to three years, at a very young point in one’s career and age. We demand that shift, and we selected you because we think you can make it. We understand this is not an easy change, and we provide you with years of training to accomplish it. However, you must transition, or not.

IRT is in itself inherently an AFRICA OSC trap, no matter what service you are in. You will travel around the continent and do things most military members are never allowed to do. You will do it with the least amount of guidance and the least amount of directed expectations. On IRT you are free from the flag pole, yet it is that exact freedom that displays who you are as an AFRICA OSC.

During IRT, you will learn about Africa and hopefully also yourself; and your senior leaders will observe you. What you do during this period displays the officer you can and will be during your future embassy tours. IRT in Africa is the most significant and most prolonged interview you’ve ever had – it’s a series of meetings over a year, 70 days, or a few months. Bonne Chance.

Don’t be the Angry Staff Officer or AFRICA OSC

Oh the angry staff officer or AFRICA OSC. I have been both before, and thankfully, I have not self-sacrificed myself too much during each tour. I rant almost every other day about something, it is in my bones, but I do not do it in emails, in meetings, or on the phone with a principle. I get immediately frustrated when I detect dysfunction in some system or person, and I want to automatically fix it because of course I know everything and have the best solution to whatever event or situation I am reacting to (I hope you have understood the sarcasm inserted purposefully)! I’ve learned that especially in the interagency and joint environment, beauracratic dysfunction has deep roots. Changing that takes stars, and most of us don’t have those or the courage on our shoulder boards.

One must understand that change is regular when dealing with staffs. Change is not always right, but it does take about two years to comprehend and measure the effectiveness of that change. If you are in the middle of a Commander’s change, don’t fight it, own it and try it out (even if you think it is bullshit). You may find that the new Commander was right, or wrong; either way, no one likes a Negative Nancy. Everyone loves a Creative Solutions Solver (CSS) to a very complicated situation, or even better the Field Grade that can manage an OPT to solve a Four-Star level problem. Management is key here. On a staff, and as an AFRICA OSC, sometimes you are not leading you are managing a group. You must realize that you may not know the answer, but you probably have a staff member around you who does. The transition from tactical to operational is understanding you don’t have to solve the problem, you just have to lead the person with the answer to the question to the right powerpoint presentation with the proper context for the Commander to say “Yeap that is good.” As an AFRICA OSC learning how to influence your desk officers; and another CCMD, Embassy, and Interagency personnel is part of your challenge as an AFRICA OSC.

Conclusion

The best professional advice I have ever been given is: perform where you are planted. If you avoid the traps I have outlined and wake up every day, and put your boots on, and try to accomplish the National Defense Strategy of the United States, then you are more than likely headed in the right direction. Some of the best AFRICA OSCs I have worked with so far learned to work well with others, with limited resources, to accomplish our National Defense Strategy; and most of the silverbacks enjoyed it along the way. I hope you do as well.

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