A mountainous, agrarian, post-conflict country where a variety of ethnic and political groups jockey for power framed a six-year scenario in a recent U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) exercise for American and Nigerian military officers and defense officials.

Photo by Noor Kirdar, USIP

Members of the U.S. Army’s 353rd Civil Affairs Command and the Nigerian National Defence College were among a record 71 participants in a three-day training called the Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise (SENSE). The group convened at historic Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, New York at the request of the 353rd’s commanding officer, who had previously participated in SENSE and wanted the rest of his unit to wrestle with the challenges faced in today’s complex conflicts.

“I wish I would have had this training prior to my deployment to Africa in 2011-2012,” said a Master Sergeant.

The scenario, located in the fictional country of Sokrona, set up an environment designed to reflect challenges confronting transitional countries like Mali. This is the most recent iteration of the SENSE simulation, which USIP’s Academy has conducted for the past 10 years both in the U.S. and abroad for a wide range of participants, modifying the core scenario to best suit specific exercise requirements. This scenario was developed in consultation with the 353rd Civil Affairs Command.

SENSE is a computer-facilitated peace game that immerses participants in a real-world-analogous scenario designed to help them gain valuable experience with and understanding of the complexities of a post-conflict or transitional society. Participants practiced their negotiation, coalition-building, cooperative problem solving, and decision-making skills.

“For this exercise, I was able to include several soldiers of varying experiences and time in the military,” said one colonel. “We realize the tremendous training potential that SENSE affords us and wish to continue our involvement on an annual basis.” Participants also said they gained a better appreciation for the importance of accountability, transparency, and compromise.

In this simulation, participants were assigned roles ranging from the president of Sokrona to Minister of Social Affairs to elected legislative representatives to CEO of a local firm or bank. On the international side, roles included the U.S. Ambassador, a member of the United Nations charged with improving the standard of living in the country, and even a transnational corporation looking to expand its markets.

These roles provided a unique learning opportunity to explore multi-cultural dimensions in transitional environments. The “local” roles were given cultural identities and characteristics. The “international” players needed to navigate the cultural landscape in order to achieve their goals.

“SENSE puts Civil Affairs brain power to the test, simulating a complex environment realistically,” said one lieutenant colonel. “Civil Affairs operations should be doing this as a part of scheduled training.”

While the 353rd initiated and funded this training, the game also drew participants from the 304th and 95th Civil Affairs Brigades, the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and the Nigerian National Defence College (NDC). The college’s involvement was spurred by a former SENSE participant from Nigeria, who returned home afterwards and urged the training institution to take part. USIP is currently working with NDC to formalize a partnership and explore the possibility of establishing a capability for SENSE training in Nigeria.

USIP’s SENSE team is comprised of Game Master Dr. Allison Frendak-Blume, Senior Program Officer Noor Kirdar, Program Assistant Kelly Mader, and Director of Gaming Mike Lekson. Other partners developing and sustaining SENSE are George Mason University’s Peace Operations Policy Program, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Kelly Mader is a program assistant for USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.

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