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Joe Collins: Career Officer, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary

By Casie Vinall
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2003 – When the Army commissioned Joseph J. Collins as a second lieutenant in 1970, the Long Island, N.Y., native never dreamed his service career would take him to the top echelons of the Pentagon.

"I was just your standard typical M-1, A-1 infantry officer," Collins recalled of his early days in uniform, referring to the old model military rifle. Over the next 28 years, along with command and staff positions in infantry and armor units, his military career encompassed teaching at the United States Military Academy and the National War College. He also served as chief speechwriter for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as an Army staff officer for NATO and Central European issues.

Retiring in 1998 as a full colonel, Collins began a new life in the civilian world. Or so he thought.

Beginning with a research job at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and as a consultant for media organizations such as ABC News Radio, Collins began settling into the private sector. But as it turned out, Uncle Sam wasn't yet finished with the retired officer. He was en route to a job at National Defense University when the Defense Department called him back to service in February 2001.

"The deputy secretary asked me to come back and help him with his confirmation, which I had previously told him I knew how to do and that I could be useful, and I haven't found the door yet."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz asked Collins to serve as his special assistant. Shortly thereafter, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed Collins as deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. His duties range from addressing congressional inquiries on war crimes to coordinating the shipment of Sesame Street programs to Afghan schoolchildren.

By definition, Collins explains, stability operations are "military operations outside of combat, which usually take place in a post-conflict situation." The joke around the office, he added, is that "stability operations are operations in unstable places."

In many ways, he noted, his office is the "junk drawer of OSD Policy" due to the number of miscellaneous activities that fall into this category. The umbrella for stability operations encompasses everything from noncombatant evacuations to civil-military relations, humanitarian mine action, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

"Most of the conflicts we're engaged in today are taking place in areas where there is a full-blown humanitarian crisis going on," he noted. "Today, by definition the people in a belligerent country are considered not to be enemy, but are considered to be innocent."

War and recovery are inseparable, according to Collins. War, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction "go on almost simultaneously." Each year, he added, the Defense Department provides humanitarian assistance to the tune of about $50 million worldwide.

The Defense Department, however, is not the nation's lead organization for humanitarian affairs, he stressed. The military works in conjunction with the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, which are, in turn, supported by international organizations associated with the United Nations and by nongovernmental organizations.

"The U.S. military arm for getting involved in all of this," he said, is primarily the military's civil affairs units, which serve as a connection with outside organizations as well as providing assistance independently.

The Coalition of Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force in Afghanistan, for example, has coordinated projects involving over 150 schools, benefiting 230,000 students; 40 medical facilities, benefiting more than 3 million people; and 600 wells, all the while, employing 40,000 Afghans.

Afghanistan has been of special interest to Collins long before he became involved with stability operations there. He said he developed an intense curiosity about the country in the late 1970s and studied the history of the Afghan people to better understand how they came to be where they are now. In the 1970s, prior to the Soviet invasion, he said, Afghanistan was a poor, but developing country.

"It had roads. It had airports. It had industries. It had colleges. It had connections with the outside world," he said. "There were foreign schools in Afghanistan. Many Afghans went to study abroad. Some stayed there and some took the information home."

Although his Afghan study began as a hobby, Collins eventually produced a dissertation focused on Soviet policy in Afghanistan. He did not realize just how integral being an "Afghan watcher" would be in his future role as deputy assistant secretary.

After the events of 9-11, Collins said, "it became clear that Afghanistan had become a failed state and, in effect, had become the captive of a terrorist group, the al Qaeda. In many ways, under the Taliban, Afghanistan was a wholly- owned subsidiary of an international terrorist group." To confront global terrorism, "we were going have to start in Afghanistan."

"The reconstruction of Afghanistan, which is in many ways, the construction of Afghanistan," Collins said, has been generally positive, but perhaps not as quick as some would like. Considering how many years Afghanistan had been at war and how long the country was under Taliban rule, he said, "we've made a lot of progress in the first year and a half of reconstruction." On the flip side, he added, much more needs to be done.

Collin's focus has now expanded to stability operations in Iraq. Even though torn by the Iran/Iraq war and recovering from the recent regime change, the more-developed Iraq is in a better state than Afghanistan, he said. One key difference between the two is the higher degree of education and wealth due to oil resources in Iraq, which gives it "the potential to sort of pull itself up by the bootstraps."

From infantry officer to Pentagon official, Collins' career has taken him from the halls of academia to the frontlines of world conflict. For most of the journey, his interest in international affairs has been a mainstay.

"There hasn't really been a distinct interruption between the kinds of things I looked at when I was a soldier, a strategy guy working in the Pentagon, or teaching international politics," he said. "The businesses we're in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction these are all part and parcel of the business of national security."

(Casie Vinall is an intern working for DefendAmerica.mil in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDeputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations Joseph J. Collins shows reporters a new vinyl wrapper for humanitarian daily rations at a Pentagon news briefing Feb. 25. Collins briefed reporters on some details of the humanitarian relief planning for Iraq should force become necessary. Defense Department photo by Helene C. Stikkel  
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