Integrating Civil Affairs – An Outsider’s View

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

CAT 633 in Syria

Photo of SOF CA Soldier conducting a street-level engagement with civilians in Raqqa, Syria, to reassure the local populace of stabilization efforts following the city's liberation from ISIS.


The 2019 Civil Affairs Symposium issued a challenge to the CA community: how to integrate Civil Affairs into Army, Marine Corps, and wider Joint Force campaigns? This challenge reflects the identity crisis that is playing out within Civil Affairs, whereby the Regiment is attempting to define and deliver a clear value proposition to its customers.

From an outsider’s perspective, there are two straightforward steps that CA could take, which would guarantee its integration into the Joint Force as an essential, consistent, and scalable capability:

1. Establish CA’s core value proposition to the Joint Force as the provision of structured, actionable insights into the relationships between our enemies and the societies in which we confront them.

2. Integrate CA’s analysis of these relationships – the root structure that our enemies seek to establish in the human terrain – into a fully integrated lethal and non-lethal targeting process.

First, CA should embrace its Civil Reconnaissance mandate, and stake an outspoken claim to ownership of “green layer” analysis within the Joint Force. Call it the “human domain”. Call it the “human terrain”. Invent a new term for the CA brand. The jargon is irrelevant. Critically, so is the wider strategic context. It is immaterial whether we are talking about “great power competition”, “irregular warfare”, “stabilization”, “counterterrorism”, or some other trending waypoint on the spectrum of military operations (even the now-unspeakable “counterinsurgency”). In every conceivable operational environment, the Joint Force must contend with local complexity, and map out the connections between an enemy force and local society.

At the operational and tactical levels, for example, we face strikingly similar analytical challenges in our efforts to understand and affect patterns of violence in Iraq (a hybrid of irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations) versus Ukraine (a frequent example-of-choice for discussion of great power competition). In both examples, success demands that the Joint Force anticipate where, when, how, and why enemies like the Islamic State and Russia’s “Little Green Men” will sink their roots into local society, operationalizing fault lines in the human terrain.

There is a well-worn electoral cliché that “all politics is local”. The Civil Affairs community would be well served to remind the entire Joint Force that “all war is local”. In Iraq and in Ukraine, we have failed to anticipate the actions of the enemy at the local level. Having ceded the initiative, we have subsequently struggled badly to uproot our foes, and to effectively mobilize local support. The Civil Affairs Regiment should expose and expound on these failures, and offer itself to the Joint Force as a solution.

Across the spectrum of conflict, CA should be a Commander’s go-to resource to for actionable insights into the relationship between the enemy and local society. This is where CA should hang its hat. The Regiment can still perform other functions, related to disaster relief, humanitarian support, stakeholder engagement, and the rehabilitation of infrastructure. Yet these lines of effort can and should be executed on an ad hoc basis, as demanded by the nuances of each particular operational environment. The common thread that will bring consistency and reliability to the performance of Civil Affairs (and, as a result, enable systemic integration within the Joint Force), will be the core proposition detailed above. In every deployment, in every operational environment, CA will fill a key information requirement about our enemies’ connectivity to terrain upon which we fight.

Second, having staked its claim to the green layer mandate – with a specific focus on connectivity between the enemy and local society – Civil Affairs should press for seamless integration of the analytical processes that drive lethal and non-lethal targeting.

This is a doctrinal and cultural shift that will change how we think about our enemies, and how we go about disrupting, degrading, and destroying them. As argued elsewhere, the network-centric targeting paradigm simply does not work. No matter how efficiently we execute the lethal targeting process via the network-centric approach, our enemies adapt and overcome. This is because the network-centric paradigm has a blind spot – it does not capture the connections between our enemies and the societies in which they operate. As a result, we have been hacking away at the branches and limbs of enemy networks, but failing to eradicate their root structures.

The solution to this problem is to integrate a structured, Civil Affairs-led analysis of the enemy’s (current and/or potential) connectivity to local society into the heart of the targeting process. To broaden the view of the network-centric paradigm, so that the targeting process captures not only the network, but also its root structure in the human terrain. Adding this layer of analysis to the network-centric view would enable a truly integrated lethal and non-lethal targeting campaign, in which CA would be an integral player to analytical and operational matters alike. It would hard-wire into the Joint Force’s central nervous system a structured view of where, when, how, and why features of the human terrain matter in a specific time and place, and it would make CA an indispensable resource.

Efforts are already underway to integrate the training and development of the active duty CA component with that of its SOF peers. The Regiment as a whole should seize this momentum, and drive the process toward an end state where CA is no longer a stand-alone capability that delivers varied and uncertain results – but, instead, is the provider of critical insights into a dramatically more sophisticated and more effective targeting process.

To achieve this, CA will have to make changes to the Civil Affairs methodology. At present, the methodology begins with “Assess”, but offers nothing more than the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk as a means to do so. ASCOPE/PMESII has some merit as a presentation framework, in scenarios where the user needs to compartmentalize pre-existing knowledge. As an investigative framework, however, it is completely unfit for purpose. To become an essential and fully integrated player in the targeting process, CA requires an investigative framework that drives lines of enquiry along structured pathways to explore an enemy’s local connectivity – not a reductive “fill in the blanks” template. Equipped with an updated methodology that fuses intelligence with social science, the entire Regiment could offer an essential, reliable, and scalable capability to the Joint Force, which would ensure its long-term integration.

About the Author

Dr. Nicholas Krohley is the Founder of FrontLine Advisory. He has broad global experience as an intelligence professional and applied social scientist, and he served with distinction in Iraq with the Human Terrain System.

He is the author of The Death of the Mehdi Army: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Iraq’s Most Powerful Militia (Oxford University Press, 2015), which was excerpted in Foreign Affairs, reviewed as "the best recent book on Iraq" and "a stunning example of extraordinary war-time social science research", and short-listed for the Duke of Westminster’s Medal by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Dr. Krohley holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from King’s College London, and a B.A. from Yale University. He has held fellowships at The Modern War Institute at West Point, and the Middle East & Mediterranean Studies Department of King's College London.