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.