Counterterrorism expert talks foreign policy with UW students

Years before becoming the first American officer to direct Russian forces in counterinsurgency missions, an award-winning author, and widely recognized authority on counter-terrorism, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer was “that kid.”

“That kid” had an intense curiosity about Central and South Asia.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Schaefer
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Schaefer

When he was 12 years old, for instance, Schaefer had scant interest in playing on the Florida beach where he and his family were vacationing. Instead, he read The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s philosophical novel about a 19th-century Russian family.

Years later, he embarked upon a military career that has enabled him to develop his childhood interests into expertise. For more than 25 years, he has served in various special units, and amassed extensive experience with counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations.

A highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) officer, Schaefer now serves as chief of the Central and South Asia Branch for Army Central Command, where he leads a team and works with government and military leaders around the globe. His job description, he says, is ultimately “making good things happen.”

He recently visited the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus to talk with students about various aspects of foreign policy. He sees making students aware of their opportunities as part of his job and a vital service to his field. And he hopes that some of these “bright, smart people” will work for him someday.

“If someone would’ve told me that as an undergraduate, that, ‘Hey, you can do these types of things,’ I’d be like, ‘Wow,’” Schaefer says. “Letting folks know what’s available to them is important. You can’t make good decisions about what you want to do in life unless you know what’s available.”

‘Carrying the ball for foreign policy’

Schaefer, who has participated in almost every U.S. foreign operation since 1990, describes his job as similar to that of a quarterback.

“What you’re really doing is you’re carrying the ball for foreign policy,” he says. “My desk officers, they’re the ones I’m throwing the ball to, they’re scoring touchdowns.”

His duties include drafting policy and meeting with diplomats and officers in other countries.

Working abroad often has its perks, he says. For example, he once had a position at the Marshall Center in Germany. “Tough job,” he says sarcastically. “I used to go skiing at lunch every day.”

At the same time, being involved in foreign policy has its challenges.

“I spend 50 percent of my time managing egos,” he says. “Sometimes, in my job, I have to punch above my weight. … I know when my majors or my captains talk to me that I need to listen to them, because they’re experts. But when I go and I tell some of the folks in our leadership circles sometimes what they need to do or what they should do, because I am just a lieutenant colonel, a lot of times they don’t listen to me.”

He adds, “It’s getting people to understand what is important and why, when it’s not necessarily something that they’re conversant with.”

Despite the frustrations, Schaefer regards being involved in developing relationships between countries, with positive outcomes, as extremely rewarding.

“We get to do great things for other countries,” he says. “We get to make up programs that [are] things that they want to do, things that will help them, things that the United States wants as well too.”

Recognized for work in former Soviet Union

Schaefer has lived and worked in many countries of the former Soviet Union – the region that attracted his interest as a child. He has had diplomatic roles in Russia, Ukraine, and, most recently, Estonia – where he received three awards – a distinction that no other foreigner has achieved in modern Estonian history.

He also worked with Russian airborne forces in planning and executing counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the Caucasus region. There, the U.S. Special Forces team under his direction became the first American unit to collaborate in operations on behalf of Russians since World War II.

This achievement earned Schaefer the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the Office of Strategic Services Society’s Award of Excellence (the Singlaub Award) as the U.S. Special Operations Command Person of the Year in 2001.

His knowledge and experience in the region has led to his next major assignment, as an NBC Caucasus correspondent during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“My job is to tell some of the news crew and some of the production crew and staff, to give them some background and context on the insurgency that is going on in Russia right now. And it’s not very far from the site where the Olympics are going to be,” Schaefer says.

“If something happens, if there is an event, I’m sure I will be commenting on that.” He adds, “Hopefully there will not be an event; hopefully, you won’t see me a lot on television.”

Schaefer has plenty of experience working with the media. He has been a frequent contributor for major news organizations (e.g., NBC, BBC, CNN and NPR), as well as a consultant for private industry, universities, think tanks, and government agencies.

He serves on the Editorial Board for the Caucasus Survey, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. He has written a chapter about Russian military reforms in an anthology, The Fire Below, How the Caucasus Changed Russia (Bloomsbury, 2013), and authored an award-winning book, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Praeger Security International, 2011).

CREECA can help prepare future experts

Schaefer advises UW–Madison students who share his interest in Central and South Asia and want to gain expertise to get involved with the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia (CREECA), which gives students a focused look at the region’s culture in a way that few other programs can match.

“All the geography stuff, all the stuff you get in a multi-disciplinary program like CREECA is what gives you legitimacy so you can actually do your job,” he says. “One of the main reasons I have been very successful in my job is that I know how to drink a lot of vodka with Russian generals, and do it in the right way… When we talk about literature, I can talk about the same writers that they know, and I can talk to them about their own history.”

In addition, Schaefer recommends that students who aspire to a career in foreign policy learn a language (“if you want to be taken seriously,” he says), earn an advanced degree, and perfect their writing skills.

“You have to pay your dues and do your time,” says Schaefer, who earned his master’s degree in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia studies at Harvard University.

Ultimately, individuals who fulfill these requirements and become well-versed in Central and South Asia will be approached with job offers and assignments.

“You’ve only got so many people in this field. People are going to come talk to you,” Schaefer says.

Specialists in Central and South Asia are highly valued, he says, because the region always will be a significant part of U.S. foreign policy.

“Whether [the countries in the region] are our friends or whether we’re at odds with them about a particular subject, the fact that they have a major insurgency going on in [the area] is always going to be a problem,” he says. “So us being able to understand what’s going on over there is important.”

In general, Schaefer encourages students to explore the world and engage with countries and cultures that they find captivating.

“You’ve got to figure out what excites you,” he says.

— by Haley Henschel

Read an interview with Lt. Col. Robert Schaefer posted January 20, 2012 in The New York Times At War blog.