Georgia’s State House of Representatives and Senate officially recognized February 7th as Columbus Day, not in honor of Christopher Columbus, but of the city in western Georgia. “This serves to recognize and honor the establishment of Fort Benning on its centennial anniversary,” said Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, during a speech at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, on February 7, 2018.
Fort Benning is home to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which was established in January 2001. After 17 years enhancing the capabilities of defense and security forces in the Americas, U.S. Army Colonel Robert F. Alvaro, WHINSEC’s commandant, feels it’s time to take the institution to the next level. To talk about this and other challenges, Diálogo spoke to Col. Alvaro at his office in the WHINSEC campus.
Diálogo: July 19, 2018 marks the one-year anniversary of you assuming command of WHINSEC. Are your objectives and goals still the same?
U.S. Army Colonel Robert F. Alvaro, WHINSEC commandant: Coming here after 18 years of being a foreign area officer, or working in the Americas, I have a good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish in this hemisphere. First, I studied the environment. What are we doing? What are our stakeholders in Washington D.C.—U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM)—asking of us? And what do we need to do to be relevant, known, and trusted in the Americas? Those are the three pillars of our vision. In cooperation with our leaders, we crafted a new vision and direction for WHINSEC in the future that will make us the premiere educational training institute in the Americas for security and defense, from cadets to colonels. That’s our goal. In order to do that, we discussed our vision with the board of directors last November , which they agreed to and contributed to. From here forward, we will work to accomplish that vision.
Diálogo: Why is WHINSEC still relevant?
Col. Alvaro: Right now, we are managing 15 courses, and we do many activities in the Americas, for example, Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEE), which all need to be relevant to the nation, as well as relevant to the demands of our stakeholders in D.C., NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, etc. If we keep giving the same classes every year, that might not match the needs of our partner nations, so we need a constant conversation with our partners to see what defense and security capabilities they need, and update our curriculum to make sure that we offer an academic curriculum that both meets the demands of our stakeholders and the needs of our partners.
Diálogo: You mentioned defense, but the institution only uses security in its title. Why?
Col. Alvaro: It is just the naming convention, but we are mostly defense. Nevertheless, to clarify, we work security and defense because we have authorities to train police and military from all services, and civilians that work in the ministries of Security and Defense all over this region. We understand that some countries keep security and defense separated, like the southern cone – they don’t like to mix them. Some countries, by way of necessity, have to work security and defense together. Therefore, we understand those sensitivities, and we work to help our partner nations in either security or defense, or both.
Diálogo: How difficult is it to manage such a broad curriculum that includes a broad array of themes, such as joint logistics, interagency, legal, engineering, intelligence, planning, and human rights?
Col. Alvaro: First, I would say that it’s not difficult when you have great leaders to help advise on the future of WHINSEC, by virtue of the board of visitors, which includes the commanders of SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM. I have plenty of good supervision that can help us lead the future of the institution. Secondly, because I have great leaders from the Americas that are handpicked by their militaries, or the ministers of Defense or ministers of Security, to be assigned to WHINSEC. They are the top candidates from their respective nations; they are the future generals of the countries, so I am surrounded by tremendous talent. I am advised by the best advisors I can get, to include Congress. We have a very privileged situation. The best army instructor two years ago was a Chilean, because he came out of WHINSEC. Last year, the best army officer instructor of the year was Salvadoran, because he came out of WHINSEC. This year, the best U.S. Army educator is a Brazilian–also from WHINSEC. So here it’s important for me to demonstrate that we have a good education program that gets our partner nation instructors trained on U.S. doctrine–they learn it, and then go through an education process where they learn to be instructors at the level of the rest of the U.S. Army so they can compete, and you can see those results three years in a row. That’s the type of talent I have. All our courses are validated through the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, meeting all accreditation criteria. We don’t create something out of the blue. They are also accredited by the UN or our peacekeeping operations. In fact, we just finished the inspections and they gave us a verbal “thumbs up” that our accreditation is good for the next three years. We also work with universities like Troy, Emory, and others. We are one of the three organizations in the U.S. Army that can grant master’s degrees. So, it’s really not that difficult.
Diálogo: Roughly, 10 percent of the student body at WHINSEC is composed of women. What are you doing to improve gender integration at the institution?
Col. Alvaro: Plenty of things. We comply with the U.S. gender integration laws; we have seminars on that topic. The last seminar we did, we brought in women who had been in combat to talk about how they had executed combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, as leaders. We have also had seminars with women invited from the Americas to talk. We have been doing academic panels openly through our social media so our partners in the Americas can see what we are doing at WHINSEC, and many women participate. The last one we did on women in peace and security, 6,000 people viewed the event online. Lastly, we encourage our partners when they bring students and instructors to WHINSEC to include women. In fact, if you include the faculty and staff, 25 percent of the folks at WHINSEC are female.
Diálogo: Why is it so important and relevant to have the NCO academy next door to you?
Col. Alvaro: WHINSEC has four schools, and one of those is the NCO academy that is run by my sergeant major. It is in direct support of SOUTHCOM’s imperative for NCO professionalism and development. Those four imperatives basically line up to help professionalize the armed forces in the Americas. Some of them are better than others, but we can all use help from the best military the world has right now–the U.S. military. They understand that and they benefit from our experience. One area that most militaries in the Americas can use some help in is in developing an NCO corps, and we are working very hard to increase our capacity to train NCOs. We are doing events and seminars [in the region] to help professionalize, and we are partnering with SOUTHCOM and other services to increase our NCO professionalism. It’s a great program. Now, the basic course for our new NCOs (E5s and E4s) has been certified for U.S. Army soldiers. So now, a U.S. Army soldier can go to a regular U.S. Army school or can go to WHINSEC. If they go to WHINSEC, they get the same diploma they would get if they had gone to the Army school. Not a difference at all. The only difference is that here at WHINSEC, you have a multinational interagency environment that brings a level of knowledge and experience to share with all the NCOs across the Americas, and we do it in Spanish. They have to learn Spanish. That’s the language that we cater to our partners. But it’s the same course that we give to our own U.S. soldiers.
Diálogo: What do you say to the naysayers or the critics that claim that officers and NCOs that come to WHINSEC are being indoctrinated by the U.S. military?
Col. Alvaro: I don’t know because I haven’t heard of any critics. Every country that comes here wants to learn about the best military in the world, the most resilient, combat-capable, experienced military, ready to adapt to any terrain –that is the U.S. military. There is no other military in the world that matches our experience, and we are also the best trained military in the world, so having them come here is a very big deal for them. I have not heard of any naysayers.
Diálogo: I’m talking about the countries that do not send students here…
Col. Alvaro: The countries that don’t send students here is a result of us not inviting them. We don’t invite them because we’re trying to help professionalize security and defense forces that are based on the same values that we all share. Values of democratic principles, human rights, and subordination of military and civilian authorities. These invited partners are helping set a baseline of security and defense in which the countries can progress economically, alleviate poverty, but a baseline is needed for progress to happen. We are only going to help countries that understand those values and share those values with us. We’re not going to share our techniques or doctrine, and we will not educate militaries that don’t share our values, where they might end up using those capabilities to oppress their own people. That’s why they’re not invited.
Diálogo: What’s missing for you to take WHINSEC to the next level? And what is the next level?
Col. Alvaro: The next step is for it to become the premiere institute for defense training and education in the Americas. That’s the goal we’re heading toward. We will accomplish that by being known, relevant, and trusted. When it comes to being known, there are a lot of things we can do to take it to the next level, for example, our Web page is buried under Ft. Benning’s, and it’s only in English. We received funding and authorization to have our own Web page that we’re going to provide in English and Spanish, that will allow students, or anyone interested in learning about WHINSEC, a better bilingual page. Also, we will be transmitting our academic panels, which we are already doing, live in English and Spanish on two channels. That way our partners in the Americas and our sister academic institutions can participate in those panels to ask the speakers questions, as we did for the women in security.
In order to be relevant, we are going to work with our partners to understand their needs and capabilities so they can take care of their own threats and work cooperatively with the rest of the partners in the region to tackle the transnational networks, and provide regional solutions to regional problems. WHINSEC can help support that effort in cooperation with our partners. We can also be responsive to our Board of Visitors, and what Washington wants us to do in order to advance the interests of the United States. So, it’s a balance between what the region needs and what our stakeholders are telling us to do in order to develop an academic program that keeps us relevant, and keeps morphing WHINSEC into what it needs to be. One of the things we are morphing is the participation of law enforcement at WHINSEC. Right now, about 25 percent of our students are law enforcement, but we can do better than that. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose our identity as a military institution. The majority of the threats in the Americas are under the responsibility of law enforcement and police. They are the main effort in resolving threats in the Americas. We try to be responsive and relevant to the main effort, working with the U.S. Department of State, and the embassies to have a program that is also of benefit to law enforcement in the Americas. We are also going to work with the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, and Border Patrol to have a program that gives capabilities to those that are fighting the threats on a daily basis. That is what we’re doing to take it to the next level.
As for the last pillar of being trusted, we are going to be more transparent than ever, our graduations are being transmitted live, our folks can actually see the academic panels and discussions that we’re doing, and our publications are going to go out. So, we are trying to open the doors a little more, with more transparency. I think all those naysayers that you mentioned, which I haven’t seen yet, can actually see what we do. We have received people from attachés in Washington, army commanders, commanders of the armed forces, for example. They can all see what we’re doing and provide their two cents, expressing what capabilities they would like WHINSEC to help with. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but to guide us going forward, we need to make sure we are known, relevant, and trusted. A lot of people don’t know what or who we are, or what courses we offer, so we need to educate not only our partners but also our own people here in the U.S. to advance U.S. government goals. There are a lot of embassies that are not clear on what we offer here. If we keep tracking on those three things, of being relevant, trusted, and known, I think we can take WHINSEC to the next level and to achieve our goal of being the premiere educational training institute in the Americas.