Small Wars Journal

Civil Affairs Redux

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The Department of Defense can see the future: withdrawal from a decade-plus of engagement in Iraq is sounding the siren song of a ‘peace dividend’.  Translation: the DoD will hear the familiar dictate to “do more with less” as budgetary constraints define force recovery operations.  The gimlet eye will be cast on every military activity.  Everything will be assessed for its contribution to mission accomplishment and the supported commander, and Civil Affairs won’t be spared.  It too will have to validate its mission and re-establish the value of its unique capabilities.  Yet CA should not only survive the coming changes but could even thrive in an atmosphere where resource support relates directly to battlefield significance.  CA branch could take advantage of this critical atmosphere to refine, reinvigorate and, as necessary, reinvent itself as the relevant force multiplier with unique capabilities.  CA has several distinct core competencies to capitalize on, to include long-range and holistic analysis, cultural empathy, negotiation skills, communication skills, ability to discern and relate civilian target values in military terms and fluency among the four stakeholders (political, civilian, military and coalition) present in any modern area of operations.  Each of these competencies should be refined and emphasized as the CA force recovers and reorganizes.  However, in addition to sharpening those strengths there are other issues the Civil Affairs branch could address:

Revisit the role of Civil Affairs in the Interagency ‘system of systems.’  The next few years offer an excellent opportunity for CA to expand its role in the whole of government (WoG) environment.  The years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have firmed expectations that future engagements will be consolidated efforts involving multiple entities across the military, political and civilian spectrum.  Inevitably the turf wars and mission creep seen in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue; all the more reason for CA to forestall such problems by proactively pursuing engagement across the IA spectrum.  CA stands to play a greater role in future Phase 0 shaping activities.  The CA branch should increase engagement with the agencies it’s most likely to encounter in future missions, to include non-governmental organizations that sustain long-term operations in foreign countries.  The top of that list would be the Department of State, USAID and the Department of Agriculture, but recent experience highlights the value of connectivity with agencies like the FBI, the Department of Treasury, the Justice Department, the Department of Commerce and a number of other 3-letter agencies.  Extensive horizontal connectivity is integral in the SOF community and should be emphasized in future CA operational planning.  Further, cross-engagement should also include likely coalition partner forces, particularly those with robust CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation; the NATO term for what we call Civil Affairs) capabilities.  If current political signals hold true, engagement with Australian forces should be high on that list.  Also included should be increased interaction with the Department of International Development (DFID) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA; ACDI in French), the British and Canadian equivalents, respectively, of our USAID. 

However, developing greater Phase 0 capabilities isn’t enough.  CA must also review its transitional effectiveness between phases, i.e., to Phase I activities and later to Phases IV and V.  The Civil Affairs force must inculcate a dependable capacity to manage the tricky transition to and from the long-term battlefield prep of Phase 0 to the armed work that follows.  These transitions, from garrison force to deployed force, will capitalize on the connectivity generated from Phase 0 efforts.

Develop effective project tracking capability.  Project fratricide was so common in Iraq, and continues in Afghanistan, as to become unremarkable.  This could be one of the most important areas where CA could develop a critical capability.  No single database exists that captured even a useful fraction of the many projects underway by numerous agencies in either theater.  The problems sound as if they’d be simple to address:  multiple place-name spellings, differences in project numbering, differences in project definition or classification.  Yet these problems have so far stymied the development of an effective project tracking program usable by multiple agencies.  All agencies already have their own project tracking programs and are unlikely to convert from a program they know, but most agencies are willing to share their project information.   Developing a fuzzy-logic program that could integrate multi-agency information would be an invaluable tool for CA forces.  It would provide a dependable view of reconstruction efforts, could subsidize or refute stabilization efforts, would objectively justify project expenditures and could greatly reduce project fratricide.  Analysis from the program would be valuable to other stakeholders as well, providing an excellent avenue to strengthen cooperation through information sharing.

Pursue greater connectivity of CA to other relevant stakeholders in the Joint/WoG/IA/Coalition arena.  The value of ‘jointness’ has taken root over the past decade and remains a viable model.  When the coming budget reductions take effect, all agencies will find themselves retrenching to core competencies.  This plays to CA’s strength:  PMESII (political, military, economic, social, infrastructure and information) is the essence of jointness, and CA is the embodiment of PMESII.  Peacetime, such as it may be in a future of persistent hybrid threat and greywar, is the time to develop, nurture and strengthen relationships with relevant agencies.  CA branch should: develop assignments that place CA (Reserve and Active Duty) soldiers on tours with other agencies, integrate Reserve CA soldiers into training exercises with agencies in lieu of full-on assignments, support CA soldier attendance at relevant civilian NGO conferences and seek exchange training opportunities with foreign CIMIC forces.  Each of these activities will strengthen CA’s capability to engage effectively with the civilian-military-political entities CA forces will see in future operational spaces.

Is Civil Affairs background-dependent or background-independent?  Must every mission be reinvented to match immediate theater conditions or is there some degree of CA action that can be a universal template?  Military manuals, including the new CA manual, attempt to provide universally-applicable guidance.  But commonly that guidance is most relevant at the highest levels, especially in the highly fluid world of CA work.  While no one wants to have to reinvent the wheel for every situation, often the wheel has to be made of local materials or shaped to local needs.  Ultimately, CA work often has to be crafted fresh to each new mission.  If so, the metrics also have to be determined afresh: timelines for engagement, movement through phases, determinants of success and the very nature of ‘accomplishment’ have to be assessed subject to local conditions.  Equally important, the CA leadership must effectively relate this construct to the supported commanders.  The challenge is to recognize that this is often the nature of CA work and integrate those expectations into Phase 0 operations with supported forces.

Language skills.  True language proficiency, while desirable, is an impractical mandate for CA forces as a whole.  Despite the popular appeal of the idea that CA forces bring language-proficiency to the table, after ten-plus years of engagement how many CA soldiers truly speak effective Arabic, Dari or Pashto?  Though language skills are a positive discriminator for a special ops force, consider where CA forces may be called upon to operate in future missions:  Africa, where estimates of the number of languages spoken across the continent run from 1,000 to over 1,500, with many having numerous sub-dialects; the Middle East (again), where there are over a dozen “most common” dialects in classic Arabic with regional sub-dialects swelling the number further still; China, where there are at least fourteen “language groups” with at least nine more official sub-dialects; the loosely defined ‘pacific region,’ which approaches over 2,000 identified languages and sub-dialects.  Learning formal Chinese or Arabic or “African” is often not enough; regional variations can make even native speakers incomprehensible to each other.  Instead, a decade of practical experience demonstrates that CA forces are far more likely to depend on interpreters.  Attempting to make all CA soldiers even moderately effective in a complex foreign tongue is probably a less-than-optimal use of training funds and soldier time.  Instead, tailor language instruction to the demands of the type of CA assignment: the greater the degree of key leader engagement anticipated for a duty position, the greater the resources devoted to language training for that position.  The majority of CA soldiers should receive extensive training in the effective use of interpreters.  Key CA leaders need that, plus a greater degree of language training, plus additional education in effective negotiation techniques.

Revisit the equation on reconstruction versus stability.  This is a nuanced proposal.  The goal is not to question policy on reconstruction and stability, but to suggest an adaptation to how CA forces approach that mission.  “Reconstruction” and “stability” are not equal missions to be pursued with equal vigor independently.  Rather, reconstruction serves stability; it’s reconstruction ops in support of stability ops.  The newest version of US Army Field Manual 3.0, Stability Operations, identifies reconstruction and stabilization as primary tasks for the military, and the 2009 Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) reinforces the role of the military in these areas by listing relief and reconstruction as basic military activities.  The distinction between approaches to reconstruction and stability may seem subtle but is nonetheless significant.  Reconstruction projects that are rigorously evaluated for their contribution to stability operations will have to rise to a higher standard, so long as the “reconstruction in support of stability” linkage is maintained.  For this to work, CA operators must be given the latitude to say ‘no’ to projects that fail to meet the standard.  Some schools may remain un-built, some wells never dug, but the end result will be reconstruction more effectively tied to stability.  Reconstruction projects should be carrots that encourage stability, not goals unto themselves, and efficiency here will be supported by effective project tracking as discussed above.

The Quadrennial Defense Review in 2010 said planning should focus more closely on scenarios such as irregular warfare, including conflicts involving insurgents or drug traffickers and even humanitarian disasters.  Whether the focus indeed turns to the pacific region or not, Civil Affairs missions will almost surely be conducted in an atmosphere of low-grade, hybrid threats. The risk of large scale war against a homogenous society is practically nil.  Fractured societies, tribal cultures and non-homogenous regional populations remain the most likely background for future CA missions.  Civil Affairs should revisit how it does business and the business it does.  

Categories: civil affairs

About the Author(s)

COL Grimes is currently assigned to Reserve Component Joint Staff in Suffolk, VA.