DoD Finally Gets the Point of Women, Peace, and Security
US-Australian Joint Military Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015 shows that incorporating Women, Peace, and Security considerations into military operations significantly enhances overall peace and stability outcomes.
Despite having spent much of the last 20+ years dealing with “civilian” issues in conflict zones, it’s clear that the American military needs to improve the way it addresses 21st century security challenges. Its experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria alone attest to it. One solution is to more earnestly implement the 15-year old UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, a landmark international legal framework that addresses the particular impact of war on women, as well as the decisive role women should and do play in conflict management and sustainable peace. Women in conflict have been almost completely ignored notwithstanding substantial evidence pointing to the fact that– like men – they also actively contribute to conflict as well as promote peace. Overlooking these key players means that “knowing your enemy” will be impossible, and opportunities to facilitate peace and stability will be missed.
UNSCR 1325 provides a relevant framework for integrating gender considerations throughout a country’s defense, diplomacy, and development processes. Countries implement 1325 by creating National Action Plans (NAPs), detailed road maps outlining ways to address the specific effects of conflict on women and girls as well as increase women’s participation in rebuilding from conflict. Although the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, instituted by Executive Order 13595, requires the Department of Defense (DoD) to do this, its pace has been rather glacial. To date, the vast majority of the DoD’s implementation efforts have revolved around research, studies, and discussion forums. Essentially, there has been a fair amount of talk, but not a lot of walk.
Some long-awaited “walk” finally became evident in the recent biennial, joint Australia-U.S. military exercise Talisman Sabre. For the first time ever in its 12-year history, this exercise included a WPS component. And that’s a big deal considering this large-scale exercise involves more than 30,000 participants across multiple locations in Australia and the U.S.
Training exercises – or war games - are critical to ensuring military readiness; they represent a principal way to integrate and, eventually, operationalize new ideas. It’s important to socialize new concepts through education, but when they become part and parcel of how military operations are conducted, then ideas become real. Talisman Sabre 2015 made WPS real. For instance, UNSCR 1325 highlights the fact that women and children account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). While many in the military know this, Talisman Sabre required participating units to directly deal with this issue by liaising with humanitarian aid organizations to ensure that refugee and IDP camps could logistically access assistance that met the particular needs of women and children.
In addition, military exercises serve to certify and validate units for capabilities such as deployability and readiness. Talisman Sabre 2015, for example, served as the U.S. Army I Corps' certification as a Land Force Component Command headquarters. Since integrating WPS was a one of the exercise’s top training objectives, evaluating I Corps’ performance as a land force headquarters included assessing its ability to competently plan for and respond to WPS-related issues.
So why after 12 years was WPS finally included in Talisman Sabre? The short answer is that Australia’s Defence Implementation Plan for the country’s NAP on Women, Peace, and Security expressly requires it. Recognizing the importance of war games, someone in Australia had the common sense to require using military exercises as a means to constructively implement UNSCR 1325. In comparison, the U.S. NAP only calls for incorporating “NAP objectives into appropriate DoD strategic guidance and planning documents,” rather than explicitly requiring that they also be incorporated into military exercises. There’s a lesson in this: if NAP Implementation Plans are specific, specific change will occur. If they are vague, there’s no chance to benchmark. In addition to including WPS implementation as an integral part of the exercise, the ADF also designated it as one of the top three training objectives, virtually guaranteeing a serious and committed response from all participating units. Again, there is a lesson in this: if commanders take WPS seriously, serious attention will be paid.
Integrating WPS adds much needed realism to large-scale military training exercises. For too long, the military has ignored the fact that women are active agents who both contribute to as well as mitigate conflict. As a result, many military professionals focus their efforts on war fighting capabilities that presume an exclusively male enemy, assuming that peace will likewise become a reality through the efforts of men alone. Talisman Sabre required participants to dispense with these long-held and inaccurate assumptions concerning violent conflict by acknowledging and wargaming an array of real-world issues including conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, and women peace builders.
While there remains considerable room for improvement, significant gains were made during Talisman Sabre with regard to both the ADF’s and US military’s obligation to implement UNSCR 1325. This occurred in large part because of appropriate staffing. A Gender Advisor was appointed in each unit at all levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. Further, recognizing that a single Gender Advisor would be insufficient to adequately advise the hundreds-strong land forces headquarters staff, U.S. Army I Corps decided to establish a WPS Cell consisting of a three-person team: one civilian WPS expert as well as an Army Colonel and Sergeant Major, both of whom received WPS training prior to the exercise. Likewise, the land forces’ higher command, Combined Task Force 660, appointed two Gender Advisors to provide adequate support.
Equally important to appointing Gender Advisors was ensuring that they were located in the appropriate staff section. There are many moving parts in a military operation and each staff section is responsible for handling specific issues like intelligence, logistics, communications, etc. Because WPS is cross cutting, a Gender Advisor needs to be located in the Operations section since this is the section that coordinates all aspects of military operations from preparing for combat to actual fighting to conducting stability operations. Gender Advisors have often been mistakenly assigned to the Civil-Military Operations (CMO) section, meaning that they are only called upon to address stabilization issues like health and education rather than all phases of military operations. This misstep guarantees that UNSCR 1325 will be, at best, only partially implemented. Furthermore, by incorrectly assigning Gender Advisors to the CMO section, military planners – the backbone of effective military operations -- are precluded from adequately preparing for WPS-related events that occur during combat thereby creating unnecessary risk to soldiers.
Because the main objective in war is to end violent conflict and foster enduring peace and stability, achieving anything less means that soldiers will be called on to continue to fight and take casualties. Failing to prepare for and appropriately respond to WPS-related issues virtually guarantees the latter since research shows that the security of women is a vital factor in the security and hence, stability of states. During war fighting, for instance, high rates of conflict-related sexual based violence further destabilize already-traumatized communities creating a significant roadblock to achieving the desired peaceful end state. In addition, failing to recognize that women, like men, provide critical support to the enemy in the form of food, shelter, and medical care and, moreover, also serve as combatants, similarly increases soldiers’ risk. An inability to know the enemy equates to an inability to effectively subdue the enemy.
Talisman Sabre 2015 played a pivotal role in educating military leaders and their subordinates about the importance of implementing UNSCR 1325. Senior U.S. General and Flag Officers acknowledged this and were very open to integrating WPS considerations into future plans, exercises, and operations. However, the U.S. military’s current lack of capacity to effectively do this – the vast majority of military members, including Gender Advisors, have had little to no WPS training – constitutes a significant impediment to achieving this aim.
To overcome this barrier, DoD should require basic WPS training for all military members with a select cadre of senior officers and non-commissioned officers receiving advanced WPS training. In addition, integrating WPS considerations into all U.S. military exercises should be required, not optional. Doing so would give soldiers the chance to operationalize concepts learned about during training. The Australian Defence Force is to be commended for including WPS as a top-three training objective in Talisman Sabre 2015. The U.S. military should take a lesson from their playbook.