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Strengthening Civil Affairs is Key to Winning the Fight Against Extremism

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

It was reported that the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade is going to be deactivated. Along with the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, the 85th is one of two active duty Civil Affairs units in the United States Army. Their unique skill set makes them valuable in both war and peace, but they are often overlooked in battle planning. Author and military historian, Tom Clancy noted that Civil Affairs is, “ of the smartest commands in the Army.” History has taught us that we need to plan for winning the peace as much as we need to plan for winning the war. Civil Affairs, if given the right atmosphere, can do accomplish this.

The mission of Civil Affairs is to act as the field commander’s link to the civil authorities in his area of operation. With specialists in every area of the government, they can assist a host government meet its people’s needs and maintain a stable and viable civil administration. Civil Affairs soldiers are fully equipped to identify non-governmental and international organizations operating on the battlefield, handle refugees, civilians on the battlefield, and determine protected targets such as schools, places of worship, hospitals, etc. When you see the “feel good’ stories of the Army building hospitals, constructing schools, setting up youth sports leagues in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, that is the work of Civil Affairs. Civil Affairs Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) bring their civilian skills to bear and use them effectively throughout the world. With this unique skill set, Civil Affairs assets are a huge part of stability operations.

The vast majority of Civil Affairs operators are Army Reservists. You will see a professor of History at a mid-western university is also a Major for a Civil Affairs Unit who heads up the Antiquities Team. His job is to identify historical sites and artifacts and make sure they are properly guarded and maintained. You may also see a middle school guidance counselor who is also a Major heads up the Education Team and oversee new school construction in her area. On the side, this officer may even head up the Women’s rights team with the hopes of empowering local women. An NCO in their unit may be a judge in the city of Philadelphia in the civilian world, and a liaison with the State Department in the military. These actions, though small, can have a lasting impact on the areas they serve. A Civil Affairs soldier, working side by side with the locals, improves the image of the American soldier. It also has a tangible impact on the battlefield. Civil Affairs embodies smart power.

Mind you, Civil Affairs isn’t just about being “Warrior Diplomats”. There is a serious warrior aspect to them as well. Their training is conducted by the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, the same schoolhouse for US Army Special Forces. A great number of Civil Affairs soldiers are also trained and qualified as paratroopers. Once fully trained, you can often see Civil Affairs units working hand in hand with Special Forces teams on Foreign Internal Defense/Unconventional Warfare (FID/UW) and Humanitarian Assistance (HA) missions. Active duty civil affairs teams have a unique capability to be the first boots on the ground in an emergency situations. In crisis situations, like a major earthquake in an antagonistic atmosphere such as Pakistan, general purpose Civil Affairs teams can be deployed, short term, to make on-the-spot assessments of the region’s critical needs. The most pressing needs, such as shelter, medical care and clean water can be handled with the help of the local population by language trained, Special Operations capable Civil Affairs soldiers. They can then pass along that knowledge to follow on Civil Affairs Army Reserve units, or other organizations.

Civil Affairs operators are indeed a force multiplier. If given the right atmosphere to grow and thrive, Civil Affairs can become an invaluable asset in both war and peace. The first thing that must be done is to reintegrate Civil Affairs back into Special Operations Command. The Army announced on May 16, 2006, a decision to immediately transfer operational command and control of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, its Army Reserve civil affairs and psychological operations forces and resources from U.S. Army Special Operations Command to the U.S. Army Reserve Command. This move has put considerable strain on Civil Affairs units to acquire funding for training and equipment. A move back to USASOC, especially if the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade is to be deactivated, would improve the quality and effectiveness of Civil Affairs operations now, and in the future. Another small procedural change would alter the perception of civil affairs and create a more effective tool for civilian and military leaders: embed Civil Affairs in the upper echelons of the State Department, USAID, the Joint Staff and the rest of the Defense Department. In theater, house DoD civilians and Foreign Service officers (from both State and USAID) with civil affairs in a Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC).

Civil Affairs is an invaluable tool in the war on extremism and it has the potential to become even more effective. Effective stability operations can prevent vacuums in which organizations like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Al Shabab can succeed. Stability operations, along with asymmetric and irregular warfare will be a cornerstone of military operations across the globe in the 21st Century. A civil affairs forces, fully capable, will meet and exceed that challenge.

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