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.