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News | March 25, 2022

A Diplomat’s Perspective on Operation Allies Welcome and the Importance of a Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Perspective

By Dr. Holly Peirce

In mid-July of 2021, I found myself serving as the Department’s sole Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).  This was when the crisis planning began for evacuating our Afghan allies, which eventually brought almost 80,000 Afghans to safety in the United States.  Together, the senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) representative and I worked together to explain the intricacies of visas and humanitarian parole, along with the underlying legal authorities to the Command’s planners.

This kind of close coordination to bridge the gap between diplomacy and defense is of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy and national security.  In a world that is facing the effects of climate change and other increasingly complex transnational challenges, we may have more operations like this in the future.  To support such efforts the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) and its Office of State-Defense Integration (SDI), which oversees the POLAD program, helps facilitate the crucial exchange of personnel between the Departments of State and Defense.  Nearly 85 POLADs are assigned to mid- to senior-level positions in the Department of Defense, from the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commands, such as NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

POLADs help bring a State Department perspective to military operations and ensure that commanders and other military staff benefit from diplomatic expertise.  Similarly, the State Department benefits from nearly 100 mid- to senior-level military officers detailed to Foggy Bottom as Military Advisors (MILADs).  They bring important perspectives and expertise to American diplomacy.

As the operation progressed, both the Department of Defense (DoD) and State found creative workarounds to enormous challenges.  We developed Lily pads, or small military bases, overseas to temporarily house evacuated Afghans, prior to their arrival in the U.S.  Meanwhile, the Departments of State and Defense worked to overcome early systems integration challenges to track arriving passengers.  USNORTHCOM, which was originally tasked to house 20,000 Afghans, quickly became responsible for 50,000 evacuees.  In addition to basic housing, we provided medical and other support services for our guests, and capacity grew closer to 65,000 across eight DoD safe havens.  Impressively, planning for Afghan resettlement started before operations had even stabilized, as DoD supported DHS’ overall effort.  Helpfully, USNORTHCOM’s Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) team stepped up to ensure gender advisory support was included.

USNORTHCOM’s WPS team initially did not have biodata that we would normally review to prepare a full mission gender analysis, but in the interim, we prepared and utilized an initial concept of operations on how to protect vulnerable populations.  For the first time, DoD employed its emerging cadre of Joint Staff WPS trained professionals, including myself, to serve as Gender Focal Points and more senior Gender Advisors.  USNORTHCOM operationalized the WPS mission through a pilot program that placed trained volunteers to provide gender advisory support at all eight safe havens.  The USNORTHCOM lead team that I worked with provided on-site expertise on how to integrate gender-based considerations into DoD support to Operation Allies Welcome.  Some safe havens, such as Task Force Liberty at Joint Base McGuire, Dix, Lakehurst, where I had the honor of serving, formed inter-agency Female Engagement and Community Outreach Teams (FET).  These teams worked to ensure equal access to information and services and protection of vulnerable populations.  From ensuring equal access to winter clothes, appropriate maternity care and nutrition, to English classes and education on U.S. cultural norms and expectations, our engagement teams were there and happy to help.

I feel privileged to have participated in this on-site implementation firsthand after working on Operation Allies Welcome at the headquarters level for months.  Both DHS and the inter-agency now fully recognize the value of gender advisory support and have requested its continuation.  On December 29th, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the appointment of two senior officials at the State Department focused on supporting the civil and human rights of Afghan women and girls — both those remaining in Afghanistan and resettling in the United States.  With these initiatives, we now have the opportunity to translate informal feedback from those on the ground into formal and more permanent lessons learned across the inter-agency.  This will help us to operationalize inter-agency gender support for future domestic and overseas humanitarian assistance responses so that it is routinely incorporated into guidance for defense planning and deployments.

About the Author: Dr. Holly Peirce is a FS01 State Department Management Officer. She is currently the J5 (Policy, Plans, and Strategy) Deputy Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) at NORAD and USNORTHCOM.