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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 and toward collaboration with positive outcomes.[25]

Because social bonds discourage contentious tactics,[26] a strong civil society with connections spanning identity groups, high levels of social capital, and a sense of common group membership and mutual dependence will be better equipped to resist the tendency for conflict to become destructive.[27] Identification with a larger community serves to moderate the tactics parties use when disagreements with other community members arise.[28]

The breadth and depth of social relations fluctuate according to the level of mutual trust between elements of society. Local civil society networks require high levels of trust and participation among individuals whose mutual interests incentivize compromise and cooperation.[29] Civil society organizations can help bridge the divides between individuals and promote stability by establishing relations among people based on trust, reciprocity, and self-interest.[30] The resulting overlapping networks and interests help to build resilient communities able to resist the pressure to resort to violence when conflicts emerge.[31]

In sum, civil society can mitigate the destructive effects of conflict and create pathways to stability.

Civil Affairs Operations, Civil Society, and Effective Engagement

Civil Affairs forces seek to deter and defeat threats to civil society by engaging the populace and mitigating the underlying causes of instability; however, CA forces must go beyond the traditional model of top-down, state-centric interventions. They must also utilize bottom-up approaches that draw on the complete set of resources in the human domain to secure local buy-in and address the drivers of instability. Nesting these approaches with local customs, cultures, and norms is essential if interveners wish to gain the support of local communities, and tapping into civil society is critical to accomplishing this task.

Some CA professionals have already identified the need to work more closely with civil society.[32],[33] However, to fully realize the latent potential of CSOs to contribute to long-term peace and stability, CA forces must deliberately seek to understand and engage civil society, both as a critical part of the OE and as a vehicle for addressing instability or risk failing to account for the full array of actors and drivers of conflict shaping the OE.[34] Such failure can result in missed opportunities to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems develop the capacity to manage conflict peacefully and prevent the resurgence of violence—thus failing to support strategic stabilization objectives and potentially creating the need for additional US resources and interventions.[35]

Besides contributing to a more stable OE, working with civil society enables the cultivation of networks for long-term, persistent engagement. Civil society organizations can extend the operational reach of CA forces by providing a pool of individuals that can be mobilized in a crisis. Civil society networks stretch across time and space. They provide a ready reserve of individuals who can serve as a source of information and can be leveraged to influence and shape perceptions, both horizontally across social groups and vertically between elites and grassroots organizations.[36]

Civil Society Engagement in Action: CAT 721 in Sulu

Civil Affairs forces have worked successfully with civil society in the past. In 2008 in the Philippines, CAT 721 focused on developing connections with local stakeholders through civil society. The team found a willing partner in a local Imam, whose knowledge of the individuals and social networks in the area gave the team a thorough understanding of the OE. CAT 721 was able to leverage CSOs and the local government to mobilize thousands of people toward solving complex, collective action problems. Knowledge and access to civil society and its key leaders made this achievement possible.[37] Working through CSOs enabled the team to leverage indigenous mass to build local capacity to peacefully address shared problems while avoiding the need to deploy large numbers of troops and resources.

CAT-A 721

Above photo, members of CAT 721 work with local Imam, Philippine Marines, and civil society leaders on the island of Jolo.


Civil society provides opportunities for constructive engagement, but challenges remain. Depending on the fault lines or rallying points involved, CSOs can threaten the unity of the state and local communities.[38] Some CSOs coalesce around identity and adopt exclusionary practices.[39] This increases the risks of narrow interests co-opting civil society and using their influence for exploitative or violent behaviors—hence, creating an “uncivil society organization.”[40] Militant, extremist, or criminal organizations can hijack civil society and bend it toward their own purposes by tapping into existing aspirations, grievances, and social networks.

Additionally, CSOs can be co-opted by individuals and groups seeking to exploit local power structures (political and socio-cultural) through coercion and social relationships to gain personal advantage at the expense of unity within society at large.[41] Consequently, it is important to prioritize and foster cross-cutting connections between segments of society to increase social capital, build resilient networks, and create stability. It is also important to identify malign actors and either seek to reform and integrate them into civil society or isolate them to limit their negative impacts on the OE.

Civil society can also reinforce local power centers at the expense of building state capacity. When a viable government is lacking, this may be a necessary tradeoff in the short-term; however, failing to integrate local power structures into the broader national government can result in “warlordism” and further devolution of the state. When seeking to enable formal governing institutions, striking the proper balance of power between efforts to empower civil society and the state can be difficult.[42] Therefore, efforts to bolster CSO should seek to tie them into formal governing institutions and processes when possible. Civil Affairs forces can leverage their connections to both formal and informal networks and institutions to bridge the gap between society and the state.

Another roadblock is the difficulty involved in fostering civil society where it lacks local roots. Efforts to create civil society “out of thin air” carry the risk of empowering local elites who are more interested in manipulating third-party interveners than creating durable networks within society. And when external support dries up, these pseudo-CSOs tend to have little permanence.[43] Additionally, these efforts are susceptible to securitization,[44] which results in the subordination of civil society to security interests and often entails funneling resources through CSOs as a way to legitimize the state. While state security interests are important, viewing civil society solely as a means to bolster state legitimacy, especially through service delivery, can be counterproductive and undermine its legitimacy.[45] Instead of relying on service delivery to buttress civil society, efforts should focus on fostering CSOs that can contribute to long-term peace and stability, with local roots and legitimacy.[46] This strategy may prove especially challenging since it requires long-term investment and grassroots support.

Additionally, developing CSOs capable of managing wide-ranging interests is made more difficult by the tendency for them to factionalize. Disagreements over strategies, tactics, or goals can emerge when CSOs are composed of individuals and groups with different identities and different points of view. Larger and more diverse organizations tend to have more general interests and objectives. Conversely, smaller, homogeneous CSOs may easily find consensus, but they can also be more susceptible to being co-opted by parochial interests and existing power structures.[47] The proper balance between efforts to build large coalitions and the need to maintain a unified vision differs within each context.

A few additional roadblocks stand out as well. First, there is a bias toward training on the capabilities required for high-end, conventional warfare.[48] These skills are vital to US national security; however, this organizational preference affects the way military forces train for and, thereby, conduct stabilization and counterinsurgency operations—when civil society engagement is especially important.[49] This can be especially challenging for CA forces working with conventional forces who do not share the same level of enthusiasm for working in the civil environment. Civil Affairs professionals must be prepared to overcome —sometimes circumvent—skepticism and resistance to engaging the civil environment.

Time horizons are a second challenge. Building relationships requires more investment than a quick-impact development project. Working with civil society requires a long-term commitment. Furthermore, the payoffs for such investments can be difficult to measure and subjective. Other challenges, such as rotation schedules with frequent personnel changes and perverse incentives that can encourage the starting of one’s own projects over continuing someone else’s efforts, exacerbate this problem.[50] Overcoming these barriers requires leaders to remove incentives that reward activity (or the appearance thereof) over results and to ensure civil society engagement strategies survive personnel rotations.

Way Forward

Implementing these proposals requires both conceptual and cultural changes for CA forces—changes not easily accomplished through a DOTMLPF-P crosswalk.[51] However, three areas within this framework stand out: 1) Doctrine, 2) Training, and 3) Leadership and Education.

Doctrine should reflect the role civil society plays in overcoming conflict, stabilizing the environment, and achieving sustainable peace. Subject matter experts (SMEs) with both a theoretical grounding and real-world experience can help with this. These SMEs can be readily found in organizations the Regiment already has a working relationship with, including the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of State. Academics from the fields of conflict resolution and peacebuilding and a multitude of university research centers and institutions are another source of knowledge waiting to be tapped. These SMEs can provide the foundation needed to build the necessary operational capabilities within the Regiment.

Training should incorporate the aforementioned doctrinal changes through realistic scenarios that incorporate and emphasize the role of civil society. Civil Affairs forces can easily include this element in their training events. A larger challenge is creating this level of detail in training environments with conventional forces. For example, the Army’s Combat Training Centers feature stability tasks and a civil component; however, these elements are minor parts of the overall training scenario.[52] The Regiment must play an active role in advocating for more focus on the civil domain, because it will continue to be central to warfare going forward.

The third area, Leadership and Education, is central to developing a cohort of Civil Affairs professionals who understand how civil society functions within different contexts and how CSOs can be leveraged to consolidate local gains into wider, long-term successes. Training with interagency partners and academics with expertise in civil society interventions can provide a quick payoff in the near-term, but a long-term solution requires investing in the building of an organic base of knowledge within the Regiment. Additionally, cultural and language skills should continue to be a priority investment since they are critical requirements for engaging with civil society partners on the ground.

The 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review makes it clear that the US must be more selective in when and where resources are expended. The SAR emphasizes that an indirect approach utilizing targeted, small-scale interventions driven by host nation governments and local communities is better at achieving favorable local outcomes and building momentum.[53] Civil Affairs forces should lean into this opportunity to play a key role in this bottom-up approach to stabilizing areas affected by conflict.


Civil Affairs forces engage, influence, and shape the civil environment to set the conditions for military operations and consolidate long-term security gains; however, they have failed to take full advantage of the opportunities available in the OE. Civil society provides an ideal resource for developing a timely situational understanding, synchronizing efforts across space and time with multiple partners, building indigenous mass for solving difficult problems, and developing networks for persistent engagements that translate battlefield successes into sustainable political and civil outcomes favorable to US national interests.

The argument presented here provides a starting point for correcting a shortcoming. The proposals articulated above can be implemented at any echelon, by any component or service, during any phase of an operation, and regardless of how CA forces are organized. The good news is that the means for correcting this deficiency are well within reach; however, this change will require cultural and cognitive shifts. Despite these difficulties, such an effort is necessary if the Regiment is to succeed across the full spectrum of operational environments into the future.

Author Bio

CPT Nicholas Ashley is an active duty Army Civil Affairs officer currently serving at the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade in the Human Network Analysis cell. He recently completed the Advanced Civil Schooling program at The George Washington University, where he earned an MA in Security Policy Studies. Previously, he served as a Team Leader in the 84th Civil Affairs Battalion.


[1] Cleveland, Charles, Benjamin Jensen, Arnel David, and Susan Bryant. Military Strategy for the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition. Cambria Press: New York, 2018, xvii.

[2] Department of the Army. Civil Affairs. FM 3-57. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2014, 1-1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The intent of CAO is to enhance stability, to mitigate or defeat threats to civil society, and to assist in establishing local government capacity for deterring or defeating future civil threats. Civil Affairs, 1-3

[5] CA core tasks are primary tasks that CA forces are capable of planning, supporting, executing, or transitioning through and with outside actors to mitigate or defeat threats and vulnerabilities to civil society. Civil Affairs, 3-1.

[6] Disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating (DDR) former belligerents into civil society. Civil Affairs, 3-26

[7] Civil Affairs, 1-1.

[8] Ibid, 3-27.

[9] Defense Support to Stabilization, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, April 2018.

[10] Kumar, Krishan. "Civil Society - an Inquiry into the Usefulness of an Historical Term." British Journal of Sociology 44, no. 3 (1993): 375-395. doi:10.2307/591808, 376-377.

[11] Layton, Robert. Order and Anarchy: Civil Society, Social Disorder and War 1st ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 3.

[12] Howell, Jude and Jeremy Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy: Aid, Security and Civil Society After 9/11 in Afghanistan." The European Journal of Development Research 21, no. 5 (2009), 719.

[13] Ehrenberg, John. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea, Second edition. New York: New York University Press, 2017, 273.

[14] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 3.

[15] Howell and Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy,” 719.

[16] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 7.

[17] Ibid, 7.

[18] One example of this phenomenon is the commingling of inter-clan disputes—rido—with separatist organizations, i.e. the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in the southern Philippines. See Torres, Wilfredo. “Letting A Thousand Flowers Bloom: Clan Conflicts and their Management” in Challenges to Human Security in Complex Situations, ed. Merlie Mendoza and Victor Taylor, 46-58. Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network, 2010. Another example comes from David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla. In Kilcullen’s model, opportunistic violent extremist organizations exploit breakdowns in governance that occur due to state weakness, armed conflict, or humanitarian crises to establish a presence in the area. See Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 34-36.

[19] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 46.

[20] Ibid, 119.

[21] Ibid, 135.

[22] Ibid, 134.

[23] In a security dilemma, one party’s defensive actions are viewed by the other as a threat. In response, the second party takes a defensive action that the first views as a threat. This process can continue until each side is fully mobilized against the other. Pruitt, Dean G., and Rubin, Jeffrey Z. Social conflict: escalation, stalemate, and settlement 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1986, Chapter 2.

[24] Ramsbotham, Oliver. Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts, edited by Woodhouse, Tom, Hugh Miall. Fourth edition. ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, 274.

[25] Pruitt and Rubin. Social conflict, Chapter 1.

[26] Ibid, 68-69.

[27] Ibid, 69.

[28] Additionally, individuals from different groups that are connected via CSOs are a potential source of mediators when conflict arises due to their membership in multiple groups. Pruitt and Rubin. Social conflict, 69.

[29] Ehrenberg. Civil Society, 276.

[30] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 168-169.

[31] Menkhaus, Ken. “Making Sense of Resilience in Peacebuilding Contexts: Approaches, Applications, Implications.” Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, Paper no. 6. Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding. 2013.

[32] Holshek, Christopher ed. 2016-2017 Civil Affairs Issue Papers: Leveraging Civil Affairs, volume 3. Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI): Carlisle, PA: 2017.

[33] David, Arnel. “Civil Society Engagement in the Sulu Archipelago: Mobilizing Vibrant Networks to Win the Peace.” Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013.

[34] Karlsson, John and Michael Karlson. “There are More than Two Crayons in the Box.” 2016-2017 Civil Affairs Issue Papers: Leveraging Civil Affairs, volume 3. Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI): Carlisle, PA: 2017.

[35] Defense Support to Stabilization, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

[36] Ramsbotham. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 215-216.

[37] Cleveland, Jensen, David, and Bryant. Military Strategy for the 21st Century, 154-155.

[38] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 17.

[39] Andrieu, Kora. "Civilizing Peacebuilding: Transitional Justice, Civil Society and the Liberal Paradigm." Security Dialogue 41, no. 5 (2010): 537-558. doi:10.1177/0967010610382109, 553.

[40] For example, the Klu Klux Klan. See also Chambers, Simone, and Jeffrey Kopstein. "Bad Civil Society." Political Theory 29, no. 6 (2001): 837-65., 1.

[41] Fukuyama, Francis. “Social Capital, Civil Society and Development.” Third World Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2001), 17.

[42] Somalia demonstrates this challenge. Efforts to create a centralized state have been frustrated by the realities on the ground. The lack of a functioning national government for close to twenty-five years has left local communities on their own to work out their problems. Development assistance aimed at local institutions has had success while national level programs have little to show for their investments. This dynamic creates an asymmetry between local (formal and informal) and national power structures. Strong communities are good for local security and development, but they cannot solve national level problems that can threaten regional and global security. See Menkhaus, Ken. “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping.” International Security 31, no. 3 (n.d.): 74–106.

[43] Fukuyama. "Social Capital, Civil Society and Development," 18.

[44] Securitization is the tendency to define problem by the potential for them to threaten a state’s security interests. This has led to interventions that seek to address and transform conditions causing state weakness and by extension threatening international security. A side effect of securitization has been the security-development nexus and the linking of military, state-building, and humanitarian operations. See Perrin, Benjamin. Modern Warfare Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations, and the Law, edited by Perrin, Benjamin. Vancouver B.C.: UBC Press, 2012.

[45] Marchetti, Raffaele and Nathalie Tocci. “Conflict Society: Understanding the Role of Civil Society in Conflict.” Global Change, Peace & Security 21, no.2 (2009), 202-203.

[46] Howell and Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy,” 718-736.

[47] Ehrenberg. Civil Society, 279.

[48] Cleveland, Jensen, David, and Bryant. Military Strategy for the 21st Century, 149.

[49] One explanation for this preference is “First War Syndrome,” which is the major conflict(s) that a military organization upholds as the archetype for education and training. It becomes deeply rooted in the organization’s culture and is resilient over time, even in the face of a changing environment. For the US, and the US Army in particular, the Civil War and World War II provide that archetype. Long, Austin. “First War Syndrome: Military Culture, Professionalization, and Counterinsurgency Doctrine.” Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010., 450-451.

[50] Poor handovers when units rotate can result in relationships slipping through the cracks and opportunities missed. The desire to get a good performance evaluation can incentivize incoming CA forces to start their own projects instead of investing in those that are already in place. David. “Civil Society Engagement in the Sulu Archipelago,” 3.

[51] David, Arnel. Email with the author. August 22, 2018.

[52] This statement is based on the author’s experience working with a Stryker Brigade Combat Team at the National Training Center. Ashley, Nicholas. “Civil Affairs Support to Decisive Action: Challenges and Opportunities.” Civil Affairs Journal. June 7, 2016.

[53] Ibid, 7.

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