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Updated: Feb 9, 2020

If the conflicts of the 21st century have made anything more apparent, it’s America’s pathological

problem with ending or preventing wars rather than with fighting them. This is largely because of inconsistent investment in national civilian and military land power capabilities to translate military into political gains and “win the peace.”

Nowhere is this better played out than with civil affairs. We’ve seen this movie many times: After the outbreak of war, civil affairs forces—which act as liaisons between the Army and civilian authorities and populations—are hastily assembled and deployed, only to be largely cast aside until the next crisis.

In this latest sequel, the Army has cut reserve civil affairs proportionate to that component, as if strategic and operational values were equal to other “enablers.” On the active side, the Army is deactivating all its general-purpose CA capability and half its CA force by deactivating the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade. The Navy entirely disbanded Maritime Civil Affairs. Only the Marine Corps is bucking the trend by strengthening its civil affairs groups.

With no real singular ownership of Army civil affairs—as there is for maneuver, fires or intelligence capabilities, for example—the talents, skills and hard-earned wisdom of the most operationally experienced CA force since World War II is evaporating more quickly than it was built.

Funding for reserve component civil affairs, comprising 85 percent of the Army civil affairs force and all of the nation’s strategic and operational CA capacity, has dwindled to individual readi­ness-related training. As a result, there is little left for reserve CA rotations at combat training centers and in overseas engagement operations. These rotations would help this CA mainstay remain integrated with supported commands and stay regionally plugged in. They also are vital to building and maintaining relationships and networks critical to understanding and mitigating drivers of conflict and instability. That, in turn, helps counter the threats that emanate from them before they metastasize.

The larger impact: The U.S. continues to get what it pays for. Or as Army CA officers Maj. Arnel P. David and Maj. Clay Daniels wrote in a May Foreign Policy blog post: “Preventing and winning wars require constant, effective engagement, an understanding of the local political and cultural context, and a cohort of military professionals dedicated to employing the full range of national capabilities.”

Many commanders have come to appreciate the value of civil affairs in the field. But given the largely tactical mindset that still pervades the American way of war and peace, CA remains widely misconstrued as a “force multiplier” in the pursuit of “winning hearts and minds” and other public relations gimmickry rather than as a strategic enabler. Yet since its inception nearly two centuries ago in military government, civil affairs has long been the major method the nation—let alone the Army—has for transition management from conflict to peace, and from military to civilian administration. Its mission to “secure the victory” after major wars has steadily evolved to where its role in conflict analysis and prevention is as important as in conflict management.

Beyond its post-conflict civil administration legacy, civil affairs is ideally suited for the 21st century peace and security environment. As Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and deputy commander, futures, at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, explained in Impunity, a National Defense Center for Complex Operations study, “Effective strategies to address the challenge of weak states must begin with an understanding of the factors that drive violence, weaken state authority, and strengthen illicit actors and power structures.”

CA has long inhabited the horizontal world of collaborative leadership and working “the spaces between” that retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams exhorts much of the rest of the Army to join. Or, as former civil affairs officer Jeff Danovich blogged in The Huffington Post, “Civil affairs embodies smart power.”

The low-tech solu­tion to low-tech problems, civil affairs remains the force of choice to work with civilian agency, nongovernmental, civil society and private-sector actors whose capacities best mitigate drivers of conflict and instability and promote peace. Especially at the theater strategic level, civil affairs is most useful to political-military strategies in operational preparation of the environment as well as planning and conducting peace and stability operations; supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations; countering violent extremism; and performing security cooperation and security assistance missions, including building partnership capacity for regionally aligned forces.

CA is both general purpose and special operations. In addition to synchronizing with other military engagement capabilities such as military information support, information operations and foreign area officers, it is the only part of the joint force specifically suited for peace and stability operations under joint stability operations doctrine and the U.S. Army Functional Concept for Engagement. (The total sum of all these forces, by the way, is not more than one-half of 1 percent of the entire U.S. military. The rest is dedicated to more industrial, kinetic forms of warfighting, or to supporting them.)

In addition to enabling the strategic end state, civil affairs helps minimize the expense of large-scale use of conventional forces for low- or high-intensity combat operations. This is especially true of “persistent engagement” missions such as Joint Special Operations Task Force-South in the Mindanao area of the Philippines, which for decades has been steadily eroding the base of power of extremist insurgents there as well as in Africa and Latin America.

Around the world, civil affairs operates to extend the reach of U.S. embassy country teams in remote and contested areas, serving as a political-military multiplier. This unique strategic economy-of-force impact, paradoxically, helps preserve combat forces for their core missions. In many ways, then, civil affairs is an essential instrument of American strategic land power.

Citing his own experiences in the Balkans, Iraq and Africa, retired Gen. Carter F. Ham, president and CEO of the Association of the U.S. Army, recalled at a Civil Affairs Roundtable at West Point, N.Y., in the spring of 2015 how a small number of civil affairs professionals had a “disproportionate effect” on leveraging “positive outcomes with relatively minor investment.” Because “war and conflict are inherently human endeavors,” he said, the out-of-the-box mentality and civilian-acquired proficiencies and cross-cultural and regional understanding of CA describe “the forces needed well into the future” in people-centric and political warfare.

Later, at a Civil Affairs Symposium in San Antonio, McMaster cited war’s immutable nature. In addition to being fundamentally human and political, it is also a contest of wills and, in essence, as psychological as it is physical. It is also uncertain, requiring adaptability, endurance and a willingness to learn.

McMaster and Ham reached the same conclusion: Civil affairs is an ideal interdisciplinary learning organization in an interdisciplinary environment requiring adaptability and anticipatory play.

In this way, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs Anne Witkowsky stated at the symposium, civil affairs “remains more capable and relevant than it was on 9/11, a key capability in comprehensive, whole-of-government transition management.”

CA needs development more than dismantling. Because it is among the least understood military capabilities, both major commands and civil affairs itself must do more to make it an integral part of all joint and Army planning and operations. Beyond the need for the Army to better manage and resource civil affairs, McMaster pressed civil affairs to “help the broader Army think, learn, analyze and implement solutions to the Army’s Warfighting Challenges that help the Army and the Joint Force consolidate gains and achieve sustainable outcomes in future conflict.”

To do that, CA must become more conversant with the concepts and planning and operations frameworks and languages of the Army and the joint force it supports. That comes best through constant, well-programmed steady state engagement with those commands through training and current operations.

All of this requires greater interactive learning among commanders and staffs and CA, not just in training events but also by greater inclusion in the core professional military education curriculum. It also requires an effort to overcome legal, budgetary, and programmatic and policy impediments to leveraging Reserve civil affairs in particular, including its functional specialists the Institute for Military Support to Governance at Fort Bragg, N.C., is currently revitalizing.

In response to McMaster’s challenge, civil affairs is coordinating and collating its contribution to the Army Operating Concept, Functional Concept for Engagement, Army Warfighting Challenges, Joint Concept for Integrated Campaign­ing, and Human Aspect of Military Operations. For the last three years, it has begun to more purposefully shap­e discussion and analysis of doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leader development and education, and personnel interim solutions for the future civil affairs force through an annual cycle of professional development seminars and workshops, beginning each fall with a symposium and ending each spring with a roundtable. The main deliverable from these exercises is the annual volume of Civil Affairs Issue Papers, available for download at the Civil Affairs Association and Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute websites.

“The objective of employing this crowdsourcing method is to give young leaders and the upcoming generation something not previously done in a systemic way, an opportunity to have a voice in the future of a force in which they have arguably the greatest interest,” said retired Col. Joe Kirlin, Civil Affairs Association president, in the latest volume. “So far, it’s been paying off very well.”

Additionally, the operational and strategic capabilities of civil affairs have gone fallow and require restoration. By improving its own understanding of the strategic context for its work, civil affairs can provide comprehensive support to commanders at all levels by striving to identify the sources, distribution, and use of political and informal power in order to mitigate the drivers of conflict and instability, not just threats. This helps civil affairs further its longtime role as a major national strategic capability for ending and preventing wars.

Given the constraints of a complex and dynamic peace and security environments that are inducing new thinking about applied power, along with budgetary restraints forcing national security leaders to consider capabilities that, dollar for dollar, do more to win the wars of today and the peace of the future, both the nation and the Army would do well to take civil affairs more seriously as well as strategically.

Restructuring civil affairs forces in a big way is imminent, unavoidable and, indeed, necessary. But unless American and Army leaders learn to see the national strategic value of civil affairs, history will not only repeat itself, but the consequences in a far more interconnected world could be much less forgiving.

About the Author:

Col. Christopher Holshek, USA Ret., is a senior civil-military adviser to the International Peace and Security Institute and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. He is also program director for the annual Civil Affairs Symposium and Roundtable and edits the Civil Affairs Issue Papers. He has bachelor of arts degrees from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; and master’s degrees from Boston University and the U.S. Army War College.

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