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Civil Military Advisory Group: A Strategic Platform to Operate in the Complex Interagency Environmen

Updated: Feb 9, 2020


The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) continues to pose a significant asymmetric, transnational threat to state and non-state actors across the Middle East and North Africa. The United States and its allies are forced to change their strategies in confronting this group because ISIL has introduced a new dynamic into the region: ISIL is conquering and holding large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in an attempt to establish a caliphate. In the areas it controls, ISIL runs schools, provides subsidies for staple food, such as bread, and provides services such as repairing roads and rebuilding infrastructure.[i]

ISIL is not Al-Qaeda. It is important to understand that the strategies that worked against Al-Qaeda, such as drone strikes, will not work against ISIL and their growing affiliates in other countries. The challenge, therefore, is to not only identify and define the threat of ISIL, but to influence a wide network of interagency stakeholders to take decisive measures, as a whole-of-government approach. The United States Army is beginning to better understand complexity and has published recent doctrine that suggests that future armed conflicts will require forces capable of conducting not just large-scale operations, but other flexible, scalable operations that include humanitarian assistance and international disaster relief.[ii]

To navigate complexity and intersubjectivity inside these ambiguous government circles, the United States Special Operations Command has initiated the Interagency Partnership Program, a program in which experienced senior military officers are embedded and liaise within select department and agencies to nest Department of Defense efforts in the whole-of-government approach towards developing robust counterterrorism and countering violent extremism policies.

In support of the Interagency Partnership Program’s efforts is the Civil Military Advisory Group (CMAG). The CMAG was developed by the United States Army Special Operations Command as an effort to synchronize the capacity of civilian subject-matter expertise from across an array of industry that includes the government, academia, and think tanks. In the context of understanding that successful partnerships and strategic outcomes among interagency stakeholders are mostly personality-driven with subjective narratives, it is necessary to define the interagency community as a complex system, with asymmetric feedback mechanisms that challenge the CMAG’s efforts to synchronize mutually supporting lines of efforts in a whole-of-government approach towards degrading the influence of dangerous non-state threat actors, such as ISIL. Thus, the purpose of this article is to educate the reader about complex systems and how the CMAG strives to embrace complexity among interagency stakeholders in order to achieve the desired outcome of becoming a premier, strategic platform in which collective lines of efforts among military and interagency partners become aligned and mutually supportive to counter threats like ISIL.

Interagency as Complex Systems

The concept of the interagency community as a complex adaptive system, although not new, is important to understand as securitization, social structures, and the communication process as a means to influence is explained. Complexity theorist John Holland, in his book Hidden Order, defines a complex adaptive system simply as systems composed of interacting agents described in terms of rules. These agents adapt by changing the rules as experience accumulates.[iii] This is the base from which the interagency is described as a complex system, because the rules will most certainly change due to the numerous interacting agents representing changing agendas. It is worth noting here that in the spirit of defining the nature of interagency involvement in strategic influence, Holland illustrates the concepts of tipping points, which in many complex adaptive systems have the property that a small input can produce major, predictable, directed changes which can have an amplifiable effect. [iv]

Dr. Antoine Bousquet, a lecturer on international relations at the University of London, describes complex systems as dynamic networks of multiple agents acting simultaneously, constantly both acting and reacting to what each other are doing.[v] Bousquet further mentions that self-organizing complex systems are generally categorized as either decentralized or centralized. In contrast to the centralized command structure of the U.S. joint forces, ISIS is clearly the best model for a decentralized self-organizing system that is inherently better equipped than centralized systems to deal with limited predictability and contingency because the feedback mechanisms from sub-commanders or other operational cells are non-linear and independent from external decision-making. [vi] Interagency stakeholders, along similar lines of decentralization, ultimately allocate their resources and assets according to their own self-interests first, which supports the concept that, as a complex system, these decentralized actors are constantly in flux with one another just as ISIS competes with al-Qaeda for similar resources such as external funding and recruits.

There is an uncomfortable truth, however, that the interagency community is constrained by several differing sub-cultures, which, in each sub-system, has its own language and communication process containing symbols that different meanings among each sub-group. The Department of Justice, for example, will typically react to turbulence, such as the fallout from the attacks on September 11th, differently than another sub-group, such as the Department of State. Ideally, these sub-groups eventually adapt to emergence in a similar manner, due to shared meanings within or inherent to the larger system, such as in the case of September 11th, collaborate and identify the terrorists involved. Competing agendas, however, will continue to hinder the manner in which these agents interact, which often results in delayed response, or no response at all to external stimulus such as arriving at decisive points of action.

Narratives are Intersubjective

There is something to be said of how the interagency views securitization through the lens of influencing other groups through politics of humiliation, fear, or shame. Mentioned previously, September 11th had a profound impact of humiliation on the American society because, until that morning, most Americans believed themselves to be living in a relatively safe society, absent from the physical and psychological threat of terrorism. On that morning, a few terrorists managed to strike at the military and economic heart of the United States with the use of commercial airplanes, which exposed the United States’ vulnerability to the world and, as an ordered result, was humiliated by al-Qaeda, another complex system that views itself as betrayed by American foreign policies in the Middle East.

To use national policy against the transnational threat of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, the National Security Strategy of 2015 states that the U.S. “will continue to bolster the capacity of the U.N. and regional organizations to help resolve disputes, build resilience to crises and shocks, strengthen governance, end extreme poverty, and increase prosperity, so that fragile states can provide for the basic needs of their citizens and can avoid being vulnerable hosts for extremism and terrorism.”[vii] The narrative speaks broadly, but what is needed within the interagency system is the realization that the principles of self-organization are quite different.[viii] This also means that as the strategic narrative is published, the outcome of the informed decision cannot be concluded, but rather it must be predicted because these outcomes are generally non-linear. This is problematic because a complex system, such as the interagency, cannot, or will not adapt to the purposes of the National Security Strategy without some semblance as to the priority of mutually supporting lines of effort within the diplomatic, intelligence, development, or financial life worlds, as often published, for example, in strategic documents like the Department of State’s various Integrated Country Strategies.

In the narratives of Islamists, the relationship to the United States, the international dimension, is a contemporary expression of the historical humiliation, betrayal and subordination of people in the region.[ix] It is important to understand, in terms of strategic influence, in that within anarchic international systems, state and non-state actors share a common history, which imprints how historical event, cultural symbols in this case, are interpreted. The security of a state can no longer be thought of in broader generalities, such as entitlement, but belligerent non-state actors, such as ISIS, have done more to upset the liberal balance-of-power than aggressive state actors have done to secure power. It is along this narrative that interagency influence, through select government and non-government entities that specialize in international development or, perhaps, international finance can restore or further imbalance status quo in the international systems. This may not be optimal, but John Holland cautions if optimality can even be defined for the system as a whole, meaning that for this reason, standard theories in physics, economics, and elsewhere, are of little help because they concentrate on optimal end-points, whereas complex adaptive systems never get there.[x]

The CMAG understands that the interagency is not just a metaphor for complexity, but an interdependent complex system, relying on the unequal inputs from individual actors that make up elements of the instruments of national power. For example, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Treasury are all independent actors, with their own agendas, yet all have asymmetric input into the interagency system. The concept of asymmetry is used here to illustrate that outputs from the interagency system are not equal to their inputs, which relates as well to the feedback mechanisms. This is evident from the earlier example of the U.S. strategy dealing with ISIS using nine mutually supporting lines of efforts, yet only three are focused on the military option. This suggests that diplomacy, financial constraints, and intelligence collection efforts are not yet synchronized with air strikes or special operations, at least from an interpretation of the U.S. strategic narrative.

Influencing Lifeworlds

This leads to the concept that interagency interaction, like all complex adaptive systems, possess boundaries that have rules. This is called a lifeworld, where within these boundaries words and symbols are signals and have intrinsic meaning and value. There are signals inherent within all complex systems, so it is equally important to recognize these signals and how they influence as well as the meaning that these messages maintain within the system. There is importance with influencing lifeworlds in comprehending the cognitive dimension, which, as it implies, exists in the human mind and includes the desired perceptions and attitudes of the intended populations of interest.[xi]

This basically means that humans process information they receive within this cognitive dimension, which is filtered through an individual’s unique set of experiences and biases or a lens, which seeks to provide a sense of meaning and context to the received information. The interagency system is flushed with several competing lenses where the same set of inputs will not equate with unilateral outputs, due to feedback in the manner in which these actors interpret information.

The challenge for the CMAG is how to influence interagency partners so that the system outputs meets unified lines of effort, which ultimately results in the decisive action point, whether to commit or not commit or to what degree a commitment is required in actions against groups like ISIL. The complexities of multiple agencies with competing agendas is central to identifying the problem of communication from within the system. This is where it is imperative for the CMAG to understand the multiple realities of the lifeworld. In the lifeworld, the meaning of everyday communication will have different meanings.

In the lifeworld of interagency collaboration with other instruments of national power, unlike the military, international and nongovernment organizations do not use coerce as a means of influence. They use persuasion to be successful. Norm entrepreneurs, or those who are interested in changing social norms, must speak to aspects of belief systems or lifeworlds that transcend a specific cultural or political context.[xii] This is the shortfall to overall outputs in decision-making within the life cycles, or norm cascades, of the interagency system as the lack of political will is most likely the result in norm shifts, which are to the idealist what changes in balance of power are to realists.[xiii] The lack of political will, for better or worse, may lead to a tipping point.

Understanding Tipping Points

The tipping or threshold point is obtained through the mechanism of socialization. Therefore, the adaptive ability to render oneself into a lifeworld and persuade and influence is to also understand the cultural norms, or the shared value within the lifeworld. This means, within the interagency community, pressures are applied against other internal actors through the exchange of competing ideas or leveraging of material aid to countries that would otherwise be denied to conventional military actors. In this case, the fluid ability of Doctors without Borders to gain access and placement into politically volatile countries where the U.S. seeks strategic leverage is the unique strength that soft powers, like the Red Cross, use to check and balance the traditional hard power, such as the U.S Army.

Strategic communication among all actors within the interagency system, in order to adapt progressively towards that decision point of action, needs to nests itself within the concept of intersubjectivity. Symbols have meaning. The value of symbols is dependent upon the system in which symbols share meaning. Denotation, therefore, is an exercise in intersubjectivity, where a singular item can have dual meaning, depending on the relationship. The meaning of stability in Iraq, for example, has differing denotations to sub-cultures.[xiv] The U.S. military, on one hand, tends to view stability as the cessation of hostilities, where new development and progress towards pro-democratic government is the end-state. The typical Arab villager, on the other hand, may view stability as the absence of foreign political or military influence, therefore the absence of an insurgency, in his day-to-day lifeworld.

Intersubjectivity Matters

Intersubjectivity, as it relates to interagency influence, is dependent on the context of meaning. There are three forms of contextuality: biological, social, and temporal and these all factor in how symbols are denoted. [xv] The temporal form is particularly interesting. These interagency actors may be present for a briefing, but due to pre-existing knowledge and experiences in other life worlds, meaning becomes obscured and influence among targeted agencies becomes fragmented. This is also why the process of how the CMAG communicates among all actors is as important as to what the CMAG communicates. In the absence of the shared meaning of symbols, or intersubjectivity, the information output based from a flawed feedback mechanism is reduced, and therefore without actual meaning.

The problem of one, unifying decisive action among interagency actors reverts back to the understanding of mutual causality, where these complex systems involve multiple feedback loops. They range from positive and amplifying as well as negative and sometimes tend to stabilize.[xvi] This also suggests emergence as a collective set of problematic, if not timely, sub-cultural behaviors. Intersubjectivity, should be considered as rational behavior, but given that within the complex interagency model there exist far too much chaos to reach a unifying decisive action point where all agents are in agreement. Stated previously, symbols have meanings. These meanings are meant to relate to the process of communication as a method of influencing.


The interagency model, as a complex system, is highly fluid and the process in which each agent, or actor, adapts to the intersubjectivity and shared norms in sub-cultures as life worlds is important to conceptualize when seeking the collective output to influence non-state actors in anarchic international systems. These systems are ripe with frequent emergence and turbulence and it is therefore incorrect to assume that the interagency model is capable of reaching unified lines of effort in a timely manner to support unified action against violent state or non-state actors, such as ISIS. The CMAG continues to foster new relationships that seek to mitigate this seemingly irrational behavior because complex systems adapt from order to chaos and back again without the need for external inputs.

The CMAG strives to understand the complexity of intersubjectivity. The existence of multiple state and non-state actors with competing agendas within the international system will always be in flux with one another and their sub-cultural life worlds. The key to leveraging interagency stakeholders to commit their resources to mutually supporting lines of effort in global special operations resides in navigating the complex system of life worlds. The CMAG is an innovative strategic platform for influencing these stakeholders because intersubjectivity is du jour and the ability to influence competing life worlds means successfully negotiating the complex nature of strategic communication.

End Notes:

[i] Byman, Daniel. Al-Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015): 175.

[ii] TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1 The U.S. Army Operating Concept Win in a Complex World (Fort Eustis: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2014): 16.

[iii] Holland, John. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. (New York: Basic Books, 1995): 10.

[iv] Ibid, 5.

[v] Antoine Bousquet, “Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization”. International Affairs, 84:5 (2008): 924.

[vi] Ibid, 925.

[vii] Obama, Barrack. The National Security Strategy, (2015): 11.

[viii] Smith, John, and Chris Jenks. “Complexity, Ecology, and the Materiality of Information.” Theory, Culture, and Society, 22:5 (2005): 155.

[ix] Fattah, Khaled, and K.M. Fierke. “A Clash of Emotions: The Politics of Humiliation and Political Violence in the Middle East.” European Journal of International Relations, 15:1 (2009): 75.

[x] Holland, John. “Complex Adaptive Systems.” Daedalus, 121:1 (1992): 20.

[xi] Groh, Jeffrey L., Benjamin C. Leitzel, Dennis M. Murphy, and Mark A. Van Dyke. “Information as Power.” An Anthology of Selected United States Army War College Student Papers. 2012. Pg. 75.

[xii] Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52 (1998): 907.

[xiii] Ibid, 896.

[xiv] Percy, Walker. “Symbol, Consciousness, and Intersubjectivity.” The Journal of Philosophy, 55:15 (1958): 636.

[xv] Morcol, Goktug. “Phenomenology of Complexity Theory and Cognitive Sciences: Implications for Developing an Embodied Knowledge of Public Administration and Policy.” Administrative Theory &Praxis, 27:1 (2005): 8.

[xvi] Wheeler, Wendy. The Whole Creature Complexity, biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006): 99.

About the Author:

Sergeant First Class Robert Schafer is a career Civil Affairs senior Non-Commissioned Officer and currently serves as the deputy director of the Civil Military Advisory Group in Washington D.C. Over a long career, he has deployed extensively to Iraq as well as to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. He is a recent graduate of the National Defense University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Strategic Studies from Henley-Putnam University.

This article was also published in the Small Wars Journal to reach a broader audience:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or the Civil Affairs Association.

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