Releasing the Potential of Marine Corps Civil Affairs

Updated: Feb 9

In 2003, the Marine Corps charged to Baghdad in just 21 days, crushing Saddam Hussein’s army and demonstrating American military preeminence in Phase 3 operations. Months later, an insurgency raged, feeding off complex societal dynamics that had festered for centuries. The Marine Corps found itself, like Captain Gulliver, tied down by a suspicious and fearful population.[1]

In the decades preceding Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the Marine Corps built its formidable capability to project power from the sea in precisely the type of conflict played out in the march to Baghdad. In the years following the capture of Baghdad, the Marine Corps saw that “successful conduct of counterinsurgency operations depends on thoroughly understanding the society and culture within which they are being conducted.”[2] Civil Affairs Marines were an essential resource in developing this understanding and interacting with these societies. Seeing the value of Civil Affairs, the Marine Corps acted to strengthen this capability, growing from two Civil Affairs Groups (CAGs) to four, creating a division-level civil military operations staff section (the G-9), establishing the Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School (MCCMOS), and codifying lessons learned in doctrine.[3]

Now, as the Marine Corps closes the chapters on OIF and OEF, it is necessary to institutionalize the hard-earned capability that we developed in Civil Affairs. While some of the Marine Corps’ proudest moments come from large wars, small-scale stability operations characterized by complex social, economic, and political issues have also dominated its history. TheSmall Wars Manual, published in 1940, points out that “during about 85 of the last 100 years, the Marine Corps has been engaged in small wars in different parts of the world.”[4] In the 75 years since its publication, the Marine Corps has continually engaged in a broad range of operations, from delivering humanitarian relief to suppressing insurgencies. The prospect of continued instability that threatens U.S. interests tells us that Civil Affairs will continue to be a vital capability. Furthermore, Expeditionary Force 21 (EF 21) describes an unstable future operating environment characterized by:

… volatility, instability and complexity … the actions of transnational criminal organizations and violent extremist groups will contribute to regional unrest and instability that directly threaten U.S. interests.[5]

The Marine Corps has a central role in protecting American interests amidst this instability. EF 21 goes on to list six functions tasked to the Marine Corps in public law and national policy; two of which are particularly reminiscent of the Small Wars Manual: conducting “expeditionary operations in the urban littorals and other challenging environments” and conducting “security and stability operations and [assisting] the initial establishment of a military government.”[6]

In order for the Marine Corps to successfully conduct the type of stability operations likely to dominate the near future, it must continue to build its ability to analyze the societies within which it may operate. This capability can act as a force multiplier across the range of military operations. During Phase 0 operations, understanding drivers of instability can help the Marine Corps, along with other elements of national power, to intercede in a way that may lower the chances of conflict. In Phase 1 and 2 operations, as instability devolves into conflict, understanding societal dynamics will allow the Marine Corps to co-opt existing power structures within a society in order to promote stability with employment of minimal resources. In Phase 3, as Marine Corps involvement and use of lethal force increases, and in phase 4, as the Marine Corps works to stabilize the situation, the insights garnered through years of study and engagement will allow the commander and his forces to interact with society so as to elicit the desired effects and, more importantly, avoid undesired second and third order effects. In Phases 4 and 5, that understanding of society will enable the Marine Corps to chart an exit strategy by laying the foundation for sustainable social stability and facilitating transition to local authorities and other instruments of U.S. national power.

Civil Affairs Marines are the instrument through which the Marine Corps builds its institutional knowledge and understanding of societies.[7] They are the primary vehicle for the planning and execution of civil-military operations, which seek to:

... establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relationships between military forces and indigenous populations and institutions, by directly supporting the attainment of objectives relating to the reestablishment or maintenance of stability within a region or host nation.[8]

As Figure 1 shows below, Civil Affairs Marines, grounded in their education and study of societal dynamics, can provide tangible capabilities to the commander through the five core Civil Military Operations tasks: civil information management, support to civil administration, nation assistance, foreign humanitarian assistance, and populace and resource control.[9] Prior to deployment, Civil Affairs Marines plan civil military operations and build area studies that consider the history, culture, and drivers of instability in the area of operations by engaging with academia, interagency partners (including U.S. Agency for International Development and Department of State), non-governmental organizations, and other Civil Affairs forces. Importantly, they can reach out to deployed forces on the ground and act as a conduit to transfer that knowledge back to the commander. Once deployed, Civil Affairs Marines refine their understanding of the society though civil reconnaissance, civil engagements, and liaison with the Interagency, non-governmental organizations, and host-nation civilians. These Marines then execute the commander’s intent through key leader engagements, mentoring local government officials, and executing projects to promote stability; all of which are ways to co-opt society in support of the mission.

Throughout Marine Corps history, the focus and resources dedicated to Civil Affairs have been uneven and, consequently, so have the benefits. Despite the importance of stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, years passed before the development of a campaign plan around lines of operations such as rule of law and economic development. When present, despite the best intentions, these plans oftentimes oversimplified or ignored societal dynamics. Furthermore, because of the high operational tempo, increased demand for Civil Affairs Marines, and minimal development of Marine Corps Civil Affairs forces, commanders’ exposure to tactical-level Civil Affairs was unpredictable. Some commanders received teams composed of individual augmentees prior to the formation of the current formal training pipeline. These teams primarily employed the Commander’s Emergency Response Program through Money as a Weapon System (MAAWS) paradigm. While MAAWS was an important influencer on the battlefield, these individual augmentees were not equipped with the tools to fully understand and leverage societal dynamics on the ground to advance the mission.

However, others had quite a different experience, finding an important resource in teams of Marines who had spent years of their lives—in school or their civilian careers—studying the mechanics of how societies function and fail. In the absence of guidance from above and little formal training, they were able to scrutinize social dynamics, develop a profound understanding of society, and advise the commander on how to engage with local decision makers. Commanders witnessed how skilled Civil Affairs teams could profoundly shape the battlefield.

These experiences have taught us the importance of a permanent, professional Civil Affairs capability. Society is exceedingly complex, “[confounding] linear attempts at prediction and control.”[10] Understanding it requires a multi-disciplinary approach encompassing political science, economics, anthropology, urban planning, and more. Put succinctly, it requires a life-long dedication. We cannot expect Marines to master that complexity at the last minute, with no institutional knowledge or support, any more than we would expect that of logisticians, communicators, or infantrymen in their trade. Furthermore, we cannot expect the full benefit of Civil Affairs when it is assigned as a collateral duty on the intelligence community or the infantry, who have their own vital missions.

Fortunately, the Marine Corps Reserve is well positioned to improve this institutional capability. Over the last three years, the Civil Affairs community has grown over 200 percent, to four CAGs, each with a table of organization of 179 Marines, led by a command-screened colonel. Because of the challenges of integrating the Reserves into active duty planning, training, and operations, the CAGs are aligning with the MEFs by providing liaison officer teams to provide that coordination. Civil Affairs is unique in that it is a specialty that benefits from having the majority of its expertise in the Reserve Component. Oftentimes, what a Marine does in his civilian life directly informs what he will experience as a Civil Affairs Marine. Firefighters, police officers, intelligence experts, businessmen, academics, and others bring much needed versatility to the fight. Because of these unique capabilities, Reserve Civil Affairs Marines are the perfect liaison between these two worlds.

In order to fully operationalize the gains the Marine Corps has made over the last decade in building robust institutional Civil Affairs capabilities, the following actions are required to build on our momentum. First, Civil Affairs should be a primary MOS for active duty and Reserve officers, so they can spend their careers mastering this field. While it is not necessary for Civil Affairs officers to become regional specialists, it is essential that they master the tools to analyze any culture in which the Marine Corps may be called upon to conduct operations. The Marine Corps Civil Affairs community must understand the right questions to ask, frameworks for conducting analysis, and products to articulate those insights to the commander. Second, the active duty detachments at the MEFs should be fully manned with school-trained Civil Affairs Marines in order to provide a first line Civil Affairs capability to the MEFs and act as a bridge to the Reserves. Third, the MCCMOS must continue to develop training that harnesses the knowledge of various disciplines for the Marine Corps’ purposes. This includes creation of a curriculum that trains Civil Affairs Marines to think about societies through the prisms of political science, economics, anthropology, and other disciplines; creation of a generic information requirements handbook to guide collections efforts; and frameworks to analyze the information gathered. Fourth, the Reserve CAGs must be involved in the creation of MEF SOPs, exercise planning and execution, and most importantly deployments, including MEUs, and special purpose MAGTFs, to ensure Civil Affairs is a capability afforded to the commander across the phases of operations. Fifth, the Civil Affairs community must create a robust process to rigorously capture and analyze civil information collected during deployments, cross reference that information with other agencies and organizations, and develop insightful products to be delivered back to the MEFs.[11] Sixth, the Marine Corps should create within HQMC PP&O an O-6 billet for a Civil Affairs advocate who is school trained or has significant experience in the field. This advocate can ensure that at the policy level the Marine Corps is both fostering and leveraging the organization’s Civil Affairs capabilities.

Given global trends and the Marine Corps’ central role in addressing instability, the Operating Forces must further develop a nuanced understanding for societal dynamics. In order to do this, the Marine Corps needs to continue to stress and apply resources to further develop a professional Civil Affairs force integrated into planning, training, and operations. The Civil Affairs community has worked hard to build its capabilities. We must now institutionalize that capability and apply it across the total force. In that way, the Marine Corps will be positioned to release the latent potential of Civil Affairs and never again be bound by an enemy and the society it does not fully understand.

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[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, (London: Motte, 1726), 7.

[2] Field Manual 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency Field Manual, (Washington, DC: U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, 2006), 1–22.

[3] The development of several publications, including the Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (MCWP 3-33.5) and Marine Air-Ground Task Force: Civil Military Operations (MCWP 3-33.1) are considered the foundational documents for the Civil Affairs community. Also important are Applications in Operational Culture: Perspectives from the Field and Operational Culture for the Warfighter, both published by the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL) in Quantico, VA.

[4] U.S. Marine Corps, FMFRP 12-15, Small Wars Manual, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1940), 2.

[5] Headquarters Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21, (Washington, DC: March 2014), 8.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] According to MCWP 3-33.1, although Civil Affairs Marines are the instrument for this mission, ultimately, Civil Military Operations are the commander’s responsibility.

[8] Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-57, Civil Military Operations, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2013), ix.

[9] Five core tasks definitions as per MCWP 3-33.1: Civil Information Management (CIM): The collection, analysis, and dissemination of relevant civil information to maintain influence or exploit relations in any operational area; Support to Civil Administration (SCA): Military operations that help to stabilize or continue the operations of a governing body or civil structure of a foreign country, whether by assisting an established government or by establishing military authority over an occupied population; Nation Assistance (NA): civil and/or military assistance (other than FHA, see below) rendered to a nation by U.S. forces within that nation’s territory during peacetime, crisis or emergencies, or war based on agreements; Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (FHA): Department of Defense activities conducted outside the United States and its territories to directly relieve or reduce human suffering, disease, hunger, or privation; Population and Resource Control (PRC): Providing security for the indigenous populace, mobilizing human resources, denying access to the populace by the enemy, and detecting and reducing the effectiveness of enemy agents.

[10] GEN Stanley McChrystal, USA(Ret), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, (New York: Penguin Group, 2015), 67. GEN McChrystal makes a distinction between complicated and complex:

"Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in relatively simple ways … they ultimately can be broken down into a series of neat and tidy deterministic relationships … Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically … because of the density of linkages, complex systems fluctuate extremely and exhibit unpredictability … complex systems exhibit nonlinear change [and] any number of seemingly insignificant inputs might—or might not—result in nonlinear escalation. Such traits … are found in ecosystems, economies, and political systems."

[11] The Marine Corps developed and fielded the Marine Civil Information Management System, an information technology platform, which is an important step. However, equally important to the information technology platform are the processes and procedures that govern its use.