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Official Lauds State Partnership Program, Pairing Process

By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2013 – As fiscal constraints require more teamwork on the world stage, the National Guard’s State Partnership Program supports U.S. national and security interests through military, socio-political and economic partner nation engagement.

Thomas Niblock, a senior foreign officer detailed by the U.S. State Department to serve as foreign policy advisor to the National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Frank J. Grass, said recent missions with Bosnian, Polish and Estonian troops highlight the program’s beauty and its methodical pairing process.

“There’s no other part of our government, civilian or military, that can put the same individuals on task year after year to build these enduring, personal relationships,” Niblock said. “It’s a very broad network of personal connections, a deep understanding of different societies, cultures and their histories [that produce] a lot of very positive outcomes.”

The most tangible of those outcomes, he said, involves the 21 partner countries currently providing thousands of deploying troops who reduce the burden on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“It’s significant, reduces the requirements for U.S. forces, and, frankly, pays back many times over the modest financial investment we’ve made into the program,” Niblock said.

During the program’s 20-year evolution, the State Department, the National Guard, and geographic combatant commanders have developed a formal bidding and vetting process, Niblock said. All State Partnerships are an integral part of the combatant commander’s theater engagement plan. The pairing process begins when a country requests a partnership through its defense ministry to the U.S. embassy’s defense attaché. The geographic combatant commander notifies the National Guard Bureau chief. The NGB chief then informs the state adjutants general, he explained.

The relationship with Colombia is an important one for the United States, Niblock said.

“Quite a few states,” he said, submitted comprehensive bid packets for the State Partnership Program with Colombia.

"We have strong relations with the Colombian government and people,” Niblock said, “and Colombia is an important partner in the fight against illegal drugs."

The states describe the historical, institutional, cultural and linguistic ties which would make them a good partner. Factors such as similar terrain and special military competencies might also be considered. National Guard Bureau officials review bids, which are then also reviewed by a special committee of adjutants general who make their own recommendations.

Ultimately, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau considers these and other factors and selects which state gains the partnership with the requesting nation -- in Colombia’s case, South Carolina.

This framework has helped dozens of foreign security partners contribute to global security in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and through participation in numerous United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. The participation by thousands of Guardsmen in these programs, who take their experiences back to their states and communities, provides very important “connective tissue” between defense and the American public, Niblock said.

“They explain the world to their communities, to their civilian-side peers … and help articulate why America’s global role matters,” he said.

“It’s not just the United States to serve as the global policeman in the decades ahead,” he added. “It has to be a community of nations that have shared interest in global stability, trade relations and … combating disruptive forces of terrorism.”

The State Partnership Program also helps nations repair old wounds. Recently, Army Maj. Gen. Raymond F. Rees, Oregon’s adjutant general, who served as a company commander at the end of the Vietnam War, traveled to Hanoi to sign the documents establishing his state’s partnership with Vietnam.

“For him to go back to Hanoi to sign this historic document was full circle,” Niblock said. “It was an emotional and moving experience for him, and I think for the Vietnamese as well.”

But despite the deep sense of ownership that states and nations in the partnership program have, Niblock acknowledged that challenges sometimes arise from some foreign militaries’ efforts to relate to the size and scope of the United States.

“It’s difficult sometimes for smaller foreign countries, especially, to engage with the United States writ large,” he explained. “There’s an asymmetry as a nation; we can be overwhelming in terms of size, the sophistication of our economy, and our military systems.”

But the State Partnership Program, he said, offers a clearer lens, allowing our partner nations to see America through a more personal and human dimension. A senior security official from Kosovo commented during a recent visit to the Pentagon that, “All of Kosovo knows Iowa [Kosovo’s National Guard Partner]. Iowa flags are all over the country, and our people have come to understand about America through this relationship.”

“We hope to see a greater sense of collective ownership of the security challenges we face in the 21st century -- collective action against collective threats,” Niblock said. “We use these relationships to encourage leaders in other countries to be responsible global citizens and to take seriously what they can do as part of the global community of nations.”

As new missions and partnerships in northern Africa and the Asia-Pacific region call for closer bilateral relationships, Niblock maintains that the partnership program and similar ventures will help the United States avoid more serious involvement in future conflict.

“Building these trusting relationships is extraordinarily cost-effective,” he said. “It’s just plain a great value for America, and we can hardly afford not to do it.”


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