Civil Affairs and Civil Society: Harnessing the Latent Power of Social Bonds

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

CA forces in Syria

Above photo, a SOF CA soldier prepares to conduct an assessment of a primary school in Raqqa, Syria. The school was previously used as a training camp for the "Cubs of the Caliphate" (a branch of ISIS child-fighters), but was reopened following liberation through the local council. This school has since been rehabilitated through the assistance of interagency partners, and now provides education to over 800 children.

Civil Affairs and Civil Society: Harnessing the Latent Power of Social Bonds

"This prioritization of lethal targeting…over the fashioning of indigenous solutions through partnering, engagement, and shaping…leaves a knowledge and capability gap in the US arsenal…DoD continues to let this gap go unaddressed, forcing neither the conventional force nor SOCOM to address these fundamental challenges."

—Charles T. Cleveland, LTG(R)[1]

Civil Affairs (CA) forces engage, influence, and shape the civil environment to set the conditions for successful military operations.[2] Central to these efforts is the ability to understand, engage, and influence the civil component of the operational environment (OE). Accomplishing this requires CA forces to identify and work with a variety of stakeholders ranging from US and foreign governments, international and nongovernmental organizations, and communities and individuals at the local level. Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) are the primary means for accomplishing this objective and “are a cornerstone to the successful execution of stability tasks.” [3] Civil Affairs forces have largely succeeded in performing these tasks under challenging conditions around the world. Yet these same forces have failed to fully leverage an important component of the OE: civil society.

Civil Affairs and Joint Doctrine allude to civil society’s important role within the OE. However, the concept receives little attention outside of a few brief mentions, including: defeating threats to it,[4] mitigating vulnerabilities to it,[5] and reintroducing former combatants into it.[6] Civil society is addressed in neither practical nor theoretical terms. This lack of attention carries over into CAO and civil-military operations. As specialists in the civil domain, CA forces must correct this shortcoming and engage civil society networks to maximize the joint force’s ability to understand and shape the human domain, consolidate gains in the civil environment for long-term advantage, and build and sustain broad networks for persistent engagement.


An increased focus on working with civil society organizations (CSOs) will set the conditions for military operations and consolidate military gains into long-term success,[7] address the drivers of instability,[8] and manage conflict peacefully while preventing the resurgence of violence.[9] This essay argues for CA forces to work toward this end and offers a way forward toward achieving these objectives.

The first section defines civil society and examines how CA forces can leverage the resources within it to mitigate conflict, shape the security environment, and prevail in military operations. This section includes a vignette describing how Civil Affairs Team (CAT) 721 employed civil society engagement in the southern Philippines to mobilize thousands of people to work with each other and the local government to address collective action problems. The next section identifies some of the challenges of working with civil society and proposes strategies to mitigate potential negative effects. The conclusion provides recommendations in accordance with the Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities and Policy (DOTMLPF-P) framework.

Ultimately, the goal is to spur a conversation that advances the CA mission and increases the Regiment’s value to the joint force.

Civil Society and Civil Affairs Operations

What is Civil Society?

Civil society is a broad concept whose meaning has evolved over time; consequently, some ambiguity surrounds the term. Classical definitions of civil society viewed it as synonymous with the state, but over time the concept shed its strictly political dimension and came to include voluntary associations as well.[10] To avoid confusion, this essay defines civil society as the social organizations that occupy the space between the household and the state and enable people to coordinate the management of resources and activities.[11] Civil society has no overarching, universal form; therefore, understanding CSOs in their local context is critical.

Civil society forms a unique sphere separate from the state and the market, but it is not a completely autonomous arena.[12] Indeed, civil society shapes, and is shaped by, the broader political, economic, cultural, and historical context within which it is situated,[13] and depending on the context, can be constructive, destructive, or a little of both.[14] Civil society organizations enable collective action by lowering the barriers to participating in solving shared problems. They include a variety of formal and informal actors and organizations with diverse agendas, such as trade unions, advocacy groups, religious organizations, sports clubs, and political parties.[15]

Civil Society and Conflict

When states are weak or have poor governance, they may lack legitimacy and the capacity to control their territory, leaving a vacuum for conflict to emerge. Consequently, civil society can be leveraged to achieve security objectives.[16] However, conflict erodes social orders and can empower “conflict entrepreneurs” who exploit this environment and the instability it produces to further their own malign agendas and implement their own visions of society.[17],[18] When a social order breaks down, individuals may narrow their definition of community and turn inward toward family, tribe, and clan groups, thereby producing a zero-sum environment with an “us versus them” dynamic that creates pathways to violence.[19]

Violence erodes trust,[20] obliterates cross-cutting ties,[21] and forces individuals to seek other strategies for ensuring their survival that are unacceptable under normal conditions.[22] It can destroy the very foundations of society. These factors can lead to a conflict spiral and create a localized security dilemma that results in ever-increasing levels of violence.[23] Breaking this destructive cycle—overcoming conflict, stabilizing the environment, and achieving sustainable peace—requires empowering societies affected by violence.[24]

Civil Society and Social Bonds

Conflict does not have to be destructive; instead, it can overcome injustices and create a more equitable, stable social order in the long-term. However, conflict’s ability to serve as a constructive force depends on how it manifests in the environment. If individuals choose contentious tactics—i.e. efforts to resolve a conflict without taking regard of the interests of others—conflict can become increasingly violent and quickly escalate out of control; however, if individuals choose to collaborate, conflict can be beneficial. A robust civil society can help channel conflict away from destructive pathways an