Small Wars Journal

Sharing the Load: Evaluating Two Civilian and Military Interagency Missions

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:49pm

Sharing the Load: Evaluating Two Civilian and Military Interagency Missions

Virginia Byers

For generations, the roles of governmental agencies and civilian agencies have been defined for each of them. Each department comprises of a leader, mission statement, task orders, and the number of personnel, job descriptions, and assessments within the day-to-day bureaucratic environment. This bureaucratic environment consists of policies, procedures, and objectives. The American people have been under a rule oriented system for many decades but not to the extent of unbearable constraints. If there are too many constraints then there would not be the entrepreneurial creativity and mostly likely, a rebellion would occur within society.  The people expect to accomplish tasks and goals within the parameters of guidelines of an organization if given latitudes. The American people are self driven and goal oriented. A good leader can bring together a number of personnel from various departments to work on a central problem, especially, if he/she understands the personalities of team members, the culture of each department, the political ideologies within, client expectations, and objectives of the mission.

In today’s world, new ideologies, philosophies, and advanced scientific technology have opened the door to new adversaries of the United States.  These adversaries have created confrontations in which the United States has had to address either with diplomacy, sanctions, or military response. Depending on the response, the United States government may require agencies to work under a Department of Defense or a Department of State umbrella to assess the elements of a conflict, how to proceed to eliminate a threat, and upon neutralizing the threat what rebuilding needs to be accomplished.  

From the war in Vietnam to the last war in Afghanistan, agencies have attempted to work together for a common goal. The process has been slow and complex with successes and failures. The complexity of a mission can be as large as rebuilding a nation. On the other hand, one small aspect within a larger mission is the coordination of small cadre units which consist of military, civilians, and local nationals.  In Vietnam the units were called Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and in Iraq and Afghanistan the units were called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). The agencies involved were grouped together to work on specific goals and tasks. As in all processes, there must be a command and control, doctrine, or presidential executive order before work can begin.

Specific Research Question: Using lessons learned from the PRU and PRT teams, how does an interagency organization improve its collaboration and cooperation in future engagements?

This qualitative study will address the background of the PRU and PRT organizations; interagency dynamics of the units; unity of command; objectives for intelligence; the cultural issues within the area of responsibility and within the agency unit; the mission objectives; and the elements of success or failure of the agencies within these small units.  In general, how can agencies, who are brought together for a common goal, improve the overall interagency cooperation and coordination?  By analyzing the various aspects of interagency cooperation and coordination, it will provide an opportunity for agencies to assess and critique the overall mission. From these self assessments, agencies can make suggestions for the improvement for future interagency operations.

Literature Review

There are many resources in the academia world about the interagency cooperation and coordination for addressing conflicts, war, or emergencies. Many have discussed the backgrounds, dynamics of the units, the importance of unity of command, the objectives for unit intelligence, cultural issues within a host country, the unit’s cultural makeup, the mission objectives, and the authority and doctrine.  The material can be overwhelming but this study focuses on one portion of the whole picture.  The lessons learned from the Vietnam War era of the specialized group called Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) as well as today’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The focus is not on the success or failure of these teams but what worked to enhance the success of an interagency coordination and cooperation.


The beginning starts with an overall doctrine from a president and/or congress. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson understood the importance of getting the various departments to work together to overcome the Viet Cong Infrastructure influence. With Johnson’s decision to support, Robert Komer (his chief advisor of the pacification program) was selected to implement the unity of command structure with the military taking the lead but the control would be given to the civilian side (Moyar 1997, 47-48).

The Provincial Reconstruction Teams of Iraq and Afghanistan would enjoy the authority under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of l986 but yet it still did not go far enough. The act would:

“reorganize the Department of Defense and strengthen civilian authority in the Department of Defense, to improve the military advice provided to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense, to place clear responsibilityon the commanders of the unified and specified combatant commands for the  accomplishment of missions assigned to those commands and ensure that the authority of those commanders is fully commensurate with that responsibility, to increase attention to the formulation of strategy and to contingency planning, to provide for more efficient use of defense resources, to improve joint officer management policies, otherwise to enhance the effectiveness of military operations and improve the management and administration of the Department of Defense, and for other purposes” (Public 1986, 2).

Despite the new change, the act did not provide for the level of authority element with the support of the president or specify the civilian organizations role within the Department of Defense in regards to any conflicts, wars, or emergency incidents.

In July 2004, an office was created by the State Department which is called the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization and was supported by the Congress. Its mission was to “lead, coordinate, and institutionalize U.S. Government civilian capacity to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations, and to help stabilize and reconstruct societies in transition from conflict or civil strife so they could reach a sustainable path toward peace, democracy and a market economy” (Bensahel 2007, 44).  This office was also created to interact with the military and international partners for the rebuilding of nations through reconstruction projects. Even though, this office was “designated to be the lead agency in operations of stability and to coordinate interagency efforts it did not have the support of bureaucratic power and did not assert itself as a lead agency” (Bensahel 2007, 45). Today, the Defense Department continues to   be the primary entity for security and stability operations. The state department will need to assert itself more if it wants to take a front seat in reconstruction and capacity building.

The Positives and Negatives

The unity of command organization structure was a positive effect in the Vietnam War setting. The PRUs would fall under this command with an American military leader. Overall, this organization structure would be enhanced with “good logistics, training, operations, financing, and leadership” (Andrade’ l990, 179). Interaction among the teams would be a positive tool and with good leadership the host country nationals would be trained and supervised to American standards.

The PRUs’ strength was its intelligence system and this was due to the fact that members worked in areas in which they had been raised. The PRUs would know family members and friends in which they had grown up with and were able to exploit the intelligence about the members of the VCI (Finlayson 2007). This intelligence was much more reliable compared to the intelligence which would be sanitized and filtered down from the headquarter level in Saigon. This intelligence would be quite old by the time it reached the provincial level. There was no internet communications to speed up the process for timely information sharing during the Vietnam War era.

The PRU leaders would experience difficulty with the language barrier, and the cultural issues from the host country nationals which may arise un-expectantly. Another negative that would have an effect, was that the units’ American commanders may only serve “six month deployments” for operations which could hinder the continuity of the teams which could result in a delay in mission objective/s (Walsh 1995, 126). In some missions, a length of deployment is one year which allows for time to complete projects.

During the Iraq war, Bensahel and Moisan (2007) argued that the leadership had lacked expertise in interagency skills and knowledge to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. If the leadership had these skills, he/she would be able to bring the military and civilian entities together under one common goal umbrella.  It was noted that both, Iraq and Afghanistan, missions lacked the coordination to bring the teams of the Department of State and Department of Defense together (Bensahel and Moisan 2007). This lacking prevented better coordination and cooperation.

The PRT units which were a small organized unit were comprised of military and civilian experts in security, aid, and reconstruction (Cobane 2005). Author Casiano (2012) would argue that the PRT units had improved stability by building the host national government’s legitimacy and effectively provide security and services to the citizens. The positive element of the PRTs was the utilization of the combined resources of the “Army, Navy, Air Force, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of State and the Department of Agriculture” in the Afghanistan mission (Casiano 2012, 7)

In the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan missions, it was the positive tools that helped to break down the walls for reconstruction projects. These positive tools were the “dialogue and liaison” elements of building relationships among the populace (Cobane 2005, 93). The more interaction between the PRT and PRU teams with their host country nationals, the better the chances for improving the security within the area. For good relations would bring additional good intelligence.  With good area security reconstruction projects could be started and finished. This was a way of winning over the hearts and minds of the people.

Caroline Earle (2012) argued that a gap exists right after the military has established good security and enhances the local needs of the populace. This gap is beyond the military’s original scope. The military has the reputation of getting things done in a short period of time but doesn’t have the expertise for reconstruction projects (Hegland 2007).  It is an open hole that needs to be bridged by civilian experts to continue the reconstruction effort. A leader with sound experience and training can push for “civilian experts to bridge this gap which will save time, monies, and personnel” (Earle 2012, 106). Through these literature resources the elements discovered may offer to help future, embedded reconstruction teams to be more effective and develop refinement in interactive agency programs.

Analyses and Findings

It was found that the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) in Vietnam were an effective group who achieve the objective goal/s. This could not have been accomplished without the professional and trained personnel of the Special Forces and SEALS. The training provided to leaders helped to understand the enemy’s Viet Cong Infrastructure, Vietnamese cultural issues, and the motivation of the members of the PRU.

Allowing the Special Forces and SEALS to take the lead over these small units, helped to keep the group focused on legal operations, moral issues, biases and emotions. In place along with a parallel Vietnamese structure, there was a US command staff of civilian and military personnel. The Vietnamese side would be in charge of authorizing a PRU operation request. This allowed a ‘checks and balances’ approach as well as an engagement from the Vietnamese. A unity of command from the US side allowed for the various entities to work hand in hand, share information, utilize resources more effectively, and understand the culture of each.

The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars had taken a step further into the interagency coordination by utilizing members from the USAID, Military Civil Affairs unit, Department of State, and other experts in law enforcement, construction, and infrastructure fields. The authority to coordinate the efforts of agencies came from the Gold-Water Nichols Act of l986 but it had not addressed the civilian role in the equation. Despite this, the PRTs were able to operate in an interagency setting. The teams were, also, able to corroborate with “local leaders to enhance the national government authority, promote economic growth, and security” (Abalo, 2009, 18).

The PRTs would still encounter the language barriers within the Iraq and Afghanistan missions as well as cultural issues which would rise un-expectantly. More emphasis has been put on learning the language before teams are deployed as well as language classes within the mission. Overcoming the language barrier would enhance the relationship of the teams with the local populace.


Ultimately, the president and/or the congress must set the tone for the interagency cooperation and coordination among military and civilian agencies. The support may come in the form of congressional acts or presidential directives. This next step should provide for more detail on the role and authority of the civilian entities while partnering with the military.

The larger the mission the more complex the issues will be. It is important that entities (from the top to the ground level) are informed of the ultimate goal/s and objectives with continual focus. New teams who arrive in country must have a proper handover so new teams can continue the program without starting over at ground zero.

A civilian-military organizational structure with military taking the lead and civilian entity taking control in capacity and reconstruction building would enhance the coordination and cooperation. International partners would fall into the same structure depending on their military or civilian status.  It is easier for entities to coordinate if there is a unity of command and support from the president and/or the congress.

It is recommended that small groups such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (civilian and military) should train together before deployment to build team unity. The members should encompass experts for the various infrastructure projects, and security entities in order to provide better productivity. This team building would help to establish a common vocabulary, cultural understanding of each entity, political ideologies, expectations of the client, and the objectives of the mission.


Abalo, Caries. 2009. Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Citizen Airman: The Official Magazine of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve 61 no. 5 (October):16-19.     4c7dbf5e0e528dc642de%40sessionmgr112&hid=128&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=tsh&AN=45119807 (accessed January 27, 2013).

Andrade, Dale. 1990.  Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books.

Bensahel, Nora. 2007. Organising for Nation Building. Survival 49, no. 2 (Summer):43-76. (accessed January 20, 2013).

Bensahel, Nora and Anne M. Moisan.  2007. Repairing the Interagency Process. JFQ 44, (1st quarter): 106-108. (accessed January 20, 2013).

Casiano, Michael. 2012. The S-4 in a Provincial Reconstruction Team. Army Sustainment 44, no 2. (Mar/Apr): 7-9. (accessed January 27, 2013).

Cobane, Craig T. 2005. Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Security Assistance: Comments on an Evolving Concept. DISAM Journal of International Security Assistance Management 27, no. 4 (Summer): 91-97. (accessed January 27, 2013).

Desai, Sunil B. 2005. Solving the Interagency Puzzle. Policy Review, no. 129 (Feb/Mar): 57-71. (accessed January 14, 2013).

Desjarlais Jr., Orville F., Mark Gibson, Joe Campbell, and Sara Wood. 2006. On the Road Reconstruction. Airman 50, no. 4 (Fall): 30-35. (accessed January 27, 2013).

Earle, Caroline R. 2012. Taking Stock: Interagency Integration in Stability Operations. PRISIM Security Studies Journal 3, no. 2. (March): 37-50. (accessed January 14, 2013).

Finlayson, Andrew R. 2007. The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-1970. Studies in Intelligence 51, no. 2: 59-69. (accessed January 27, 2013).

Gentry, John A. 2000. COMPLEX CIVIL-MILITARY OPERATIONS. Naval War College Review 53, no. 4 (Autumn):57. (accessed January 13, 2013).

Hegland, Corine. 2007. Why Civilians Instead of Soldiers? National Journal 39 no. 17 (April 28): 33-34. (accessed January 27, 2013).

Moyar, Mark. 1997. Phoenix Program and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Pope, Robert S.  2011. Interagency Task Forces the Right Tools for the Job. Strategic Studies Quarterly 5 no. 2 (Summer): 113-152. (accessed January 20, 2013).

Pruett, Jesse P. 2009. The Interagency Future: Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Task Force Marne. Military Review 89, no. 5 (Sep/Oct): 54-63. (accessed January 14, 2013).

Public Law 99-433. 1986. Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of l986.

Walsh, Michael J., LT. Commander, USN (Ret) and Greg Walker. 1994. SEAL! New York: Pocket Books.

About the Author(s)

Virginia Byers has a 17 plus year career in domestic law enforcement in Wyoming with over 2200 P.O.S.T. certification hours.  She also has 7 plus years in international  law enforcement missions (Iraq 2004-2005; Kosovo 2006-2008; and Afghanistan 2009-2013) working with Department of State and Department of Defense. These missions included mentoring or advising host country law enforcement in democratic policing principles. She is currently attending American Military University for a Master’s in Intelligence Studies emphasis in Intelligence Analysis.



Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:15pm

Yes, Mike, you are correct in your statement. Virtually, at every level, CORDS picked the military/civilian as senior advisor except for the CIA’s. Actually, it was the CIA that convinced Komer they would function better if they were independent of 'the rest'.
Virginia Byers

Mike in Hilo

Thu, 01/30/2014 - 2:22am

The author cited Komer's appointment as head of an effective inter-agency organization in Vietnam. That would have been CORDS. The PRUs were under the operational control of CIA, which, for reasons of operational security, remained outside the CORDS organization.