If the Corps of Engineers can’t do it, who will?” asked Don Kisicki, deputy chief of Interagency and International Services (IIS) at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, referring to a vast array of international work that has become a vital – and growing – part of U.S. foreign policy. The goal ranges from improving relations with emerging nations in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa to helping those nations build internal capacity to help themselves, decrease poverty, and stabilize their societies.
“We work with non-DoD [Department of Defense] entities domestically, including, to a limited extent, state and local governments and Native American tribes. Internationally, the IIS role is much larger, encompassing all support the Corps of Engineers provides that is not in direct support of U.S. forces,” he explained, although IIS’ efforts typically are in cooperation with combatant commanders.
“We support all the COCOMs [combatant commanders] and have liaison officers with all of those who help with contingency efforts and work with those commands on their partnership programs. One of the most beneficial programs for national interests the COCOMs perform is the humanitarian assistance work done overseas, which falls under International Services,” Kisicki said.
IIS’ non-DoD partners include the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the U.S. State Department, and others involved in humanitarian relief or infrastructure-improvement programs.
“This is the way the talent and expertise of the Corps of Engineers can be used to support those other agencies’ programs, both domestically and internationally,” Kisicki said. “For the Corps, I think it is very interesting work, very challenging work in some ways and a good way to attract new talent by offering not only our traditional programs, but also the opportunity to work on critically important programs for the nation.
“It also helps keep our skills sharp. We haven’t had to worry about not having enough work to do in the past decade, but in slower periods, IIS work helps us enhance abilities for the future,” he added.
Most of those working on IIS projects – some full time, some part time – are located in the Corps’ district offices. The districts have an understanding of the local culture and the differences with the overall Corps’ culture.
“Sometimes, engineers can be rather rigid and see only the engineering part of the problem, while other agencies might have a different perspective, so it is a blending,” Kisicki said. “When we support USAID, their main interest [is] not engineering but helping other nations, so they bring in the whole suite, from governance to institution building. But while we bring in the engineering piece, we also have to understand the other parts of the problem.
“Capacity development applies to what we do overseas – a concept of teaching others ‘how to fish instead of just giving them fish.’ You might say we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job because it is important for them to learn how to plan and develop their own infrastructure. With that infrastructure comes economic development and, with that, stability; it’s poverty that creates instability.”
The largely civilian Corps functions primarily in the role of finding contractors to do the work, then monitoring their progress. To the extent possible, they look for local contractors – or, if the size, complexity, or timing require an experienced outside company, one that will use as many host-nation workers as possible. That is especially true in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a top focus of the U.S. effort is capacity development.
“It really depends on the nature of the project, on a case-by-case basis. Where we do hire large international contractors, our contracts sometimes require that they provide capacity development for the host nation, which can be done by hiring and training local workers, teaching them how to do project management, how to make contract proposals as a company, how to win contracts, [and] how to perform well on projects,” Kisicki explained.
Depending on the nature of the activity, IIS workers typically go into the host nation for very short periods of a few days or for much longer durations of a year or more, providing technical advice, contracting and construction, or engineering contractor management at levels higher than those inherent in other agencies.
“Any international work is probably going to be more challenging and difficult than work in the U.S., including a higher level of danger in some areas,” Kisicki said. “If we are going into a country, we always work with the U.S. Embassy, including U.S. military at the embassy and often USAID. In some cases, we can work with the host nation’s military, where they provide labor.
“The ideal state is to send in someone with knowledge of the local language and culture. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy to do. In supporting the MCC in certain parts of Africa, they may ask if we have a French-speaking road engineer, which may be hard to find on the schedule required. Africa probably presents a greater problem than other areas, due to the wide variety of languages there. But our overall goal is to blend in as best we can with the language and culture of the nation we’re in,” he added.
The Corps’ international operations have grown substantially since the end of the Cold War, especially with nations that were behind the Iron Curtain.
“One of our first IIS projects after the fall of the Berlin Wall was to renovate buildings in 10 central Eastern European countries to serve as U.S. embassies, often while State Department people were working in them,” he said.
“Currently, one of our most successful efforts is the Civil Military Emergency Preparedness [CMEP] program, where the U.S. government wants us to work with other countries in preparing for any kind of disaster response. A lot of the focus is on getting countries to cooperate regionally and to get the civilian and military agencies within their own governments to work well together. The Corps has conducted more than 75 CMEP events, with a current focus primarily on Eastern Europe but expanding as Emergency Management International into Africa and Latin America. The COCOMs see this as a great tool for diplomacy, holding workshops based around disaster scenarios and getting neighboring countries to work together.”
IIS is not a line item in anyone’s budget; actual project work is fully funded by whichever agency enlisted IIS assistance. The office has no authority to spend USACE funds on projects for another agency and is not allowed to make either a profit or a loss.
In 2009, IIS performed about $2.5 billion in work for non-DoD agencies, compared to about $2.1 billion in DoD projects, such as CMEP, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and Foreign Military Sales (FMS). FMS was by far the largest – about $2 billion for major military facilities’ construction, mostly in the Middle East.
“One of the most interesting IIS projects under consideration will be to complete the ring road in Afghanistan, which will be at least a $500 million project that is critical to Afghanistan’s future. Our customer there will be the Asian Development Bank, which, if negotiations are successful, will be the first major project we’ve done for any of the international development banks,” Kisicki said. “I also see growth in the area of water and security, with water strongly linked to individual nation and global stability.
“In the past decade, there has been an increase in IIS work, especially on the domestic side. A big chunk of that in 2009 was for Customs and Border Protection along the border with Mexico. But even without that, we have seen a generally steady increase in the amount of IIS work the Corps of Engineers does. Although there will be fluctuations, we think the IIS program will be a very important part of the Corps’ future.”
This article was first published in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.