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Civil Affairs in Institutional Capacity Building: Conceptualizing Security Force Assistance

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

(Kenyan Parliament Buildings, Nairobi. Photo by Shutterstock)

Robert Schafer

Shafi Saiduddin


One of the greatest challenges faced by the U.S. and its allies and partners is adversaries choosing to contest the U.S. through non-military instruments of power to erode the western rules-based international order. Some narratives about the American way of war convey a resolute belief in hard power necessitating precision firepower, large scale maneuver, and unmatched lethality. Although irregular warfare is integrated within U.S. military doctrine, cultural bias hinders its acceptance, particularly the use of non-kinetic capabilities. This bias is particularly evident in security force assistance (SFA), where the overwhelming focus is on tactical training and equipping of partner forces and often at the expense of building capacity in the institutions that provide an armed force with legitimacy.

The U.S. experience in Afghanistan illustrates the lopsided focus on kinetic capabilities and how it ultimately cannot compensate for gaps in governance and civilian institutional resilience. It also illustrates the challenge of attempting to build this resilience in a conflict situation. Typical military assistance provides the opportunity to address institutional resilience “left of bang,” yet this opportunity is currently being squandered by those force structures within the Department of Defense (DoD) that are responsible for effective and efficient SFA employment.

Moreover, economic factors, such as institutional corruption are endemic in most countries in the Global South, and are leveraged by revisionist countries, like China, who prefer winning without resorting to hard power, relying instead upon soft power approaches towards weaker countries, such as the Belt and Road Initiative.[1] Revisionist countries have leveraged institutional corruption as an instrument of their national strategy. The scope and scale of corruption have made it an important tool of political warfare. However, the DoD has few tools in the toolbox to address this issue. Civil Affairs, DoD’s governance experts, are often misused with the majority of the force being oriented to a supporting role in large scale combat operations (LSCO).

Addressing these approaches requires expanding our conceptualization of irregular warfare and prioritizing the other instruments of national power, such as further developing the role of commercial entities and civil society organizations to recognize and counter adversarial activities against not just the U.S. and its allies and partners, but against other countries that are not presented with similar irregular capabilities or other options to counter potentially hostile actions, often initially veiled as development or economic reforms, from revisionist state actors.

Given existing pathologies in governance structures in most of the Global South, for example, we argue that developing institutional resiliencies, a measure of performance in institutional capacity building (ICB), involves a multitude of stakeholders from various sectors of government and industry, but should also include greater inclusivity of purpose-built governance experts: Civil Affairs. Civil affairs is typically defined as those designated active duty or reserve units specifically trained to conduct those actions planned, coordinated, executed, and assessed to enhance awareness of, and manage the interaction with, the civil component of the operational environment.[2] Thus, the purpose of this article is to argue that Civil Affairs inclusion into ICB activities will gain a significant advantage to U.S. strategic competition with revisionist states. In doing so, the roadmap of this article will briefly describe the current state of competition with revisionist states, then define, describe, and recommend an SFA approach of applying Civil Affairs capabilities into ICB activities.

Competition with Revisionist States

Competitors, particularly China with its Belt and Road Initiative, take advantage of widespread corruption in fragile states to gain access and placement within fragile societies and advance their own predatory economic agendas. Central to this method is the skillful integration between the national security apparatus of China and its commercial entities. This integration provides access to critical infrastructure and favorable trade arrangements for China.[3] The long-terms impacts of leveraging corrupt governance institutions makes use of such programs as the Belt and Road Initiative strategic in both design and employment.

An often overlooked second or third order effect of malign economic practices is the undermining of institutions that support partner nation security forces. Changes in the global information environment have made the civil and defense sectors of most nations closely interconnected. The United States has seen time and again that tactical success in training partner nation security forces does not translate to long term stability if widespread corruption undermines the legitimacy of state institutions in the eyes of the populace.

That China has enabled the Belt and Road Initiative to prosper globally and within multiple domains, should signal to U.S. policymakers that as a grand strategy the U.S. needs to do more to counter the debt-inducing incentives offered by China by developing institutional resiliencies that mitigates the temptation for fragile states to become de facto client states of revisionist powers. It seems, however, that civil and defense institution resilience is viewed as a supporting effort rather than as a prerequisite, which by itself can be predictive of whether SFA efforts will be successful.

Security Force Assistance Writ-Large

Historically, the U.S. addresses institutional resiliencies by developing better capabilities and bolstering greater capacity in partner nations by advising and assisting partner nations through SFA. Since 2017, these activities have become the bread and butter of purpose-built Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs). SFABs are renown military advisors, training with foreign security forces across the globe, but the SFABs do not have a monopoly on SFA. This monopoly is, however, shared collectively among the Combatant Commands (CCMDs), most of whom, if not all, are well informed of Civil Affairs capabilities in addressing institutional resiliencies, especially in developing countries.

SFA is defined as those DoD activities that support the development of capabilities and capacities of foreign security forces and their supporting institutions, whether of an ally, partner, or an international organization.[4] The emphasis to their supporting institutions is, of course, added, but this is also an indicator that there is more to SFA than the perception of merely training with friendly foreign forces at rifle ranges. One problem with this terminology is that while the institutions may be “supporting,” that support forms the bedrock of legitimacy supporting the foreign security forces. Thus, efforts to boost the resilience of defense institutions cannot be viewed as merely a supporting effort. SFA is a suitable option for the U.S. to mitigate corruption within weak partner nation governance and defense institutions as a form of U.S. grand strategy, similar to containment during the Cold War, but with the application of core Civil Affairs capabilities, such as civil network development and engagement and what is now known as civil knowledge integration, SFA in institutional capacity building can lead to amplifiable, desired outcomes.[5]

Moreover, it needs to be made clear that SFA is linked to, though distinct from, foreign internal defense (FID). It is a common misconception that the two are the same, but in reality, SFA and FID are different in their development and in application, but similar in execution. In doctrine FID is more clearly framed in terms of supporting a nation’s internal defense and development and FID doctrine addresses the participation of both military and civilian agencies. In practice, however, FID also suffers from many of the same misconceptions as SFA, often equated with military training for armed conflict. This is why it is difficult for the average observer to differentiate between the two, but as the doctrine for SFA continues to evolve and reform, there needs to be a stronger linkage between Civil Affairs and ICB.[6]

Civil Affairs in Institutional Capacity Building

ICB is the Title 10, Chapter 16 §332 authority in which the DoD is authorized to carry out a program to assign civilian employees and members of the armed forces as advisors to the ministries of defense of foreign countries or regional organizations with security missions to assist such ministry or regional organization in building core institutional capacity, competencies, and capabilities to manage defense-related processes.[7] This activity is commonly referred to as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA) Program, but to be clear, this article is not advocating for Civil Affairs strategic advisors under the MoDA Program, but rather the capability for Civil Affairs to establish responsible defense governance and internal controls in order to help build effective, transparent, and accountable defense institutions per §332 (b)(1)(A)(ii). That said, if the resilience of indigenous civil institutions provides legitimacy for foreign security forces, then Civil Affairs, the DoD’s purpose-built force to build indigenous civil resilience, needs an expanded role in the security cooperation enterprise writ large, but narrowly focused with ICB related activities.

Addressing institutional corruption requires engagement with civil society organizations and commercial entities, which is well outside the scope and mandate of traditional military organizations or foreign security forces. While it can be argued that addressing corruption in partner nations is the responsibility of U.S. civilian agencies such as the Department of State or the Department of Justice, it is also clear that these agencies do not represent the equities of DoD in security cooperation activities. Civil Affairs, in its traditional role of defense support to expeditionary diplomacy can bridge gaps and facilitate unified U.S. government efforts in countering the malign economic activities of revisionist competitors.[8]

Expanding the use of Civil Affairs to provide the foundation of ICB will require re-conceptualizing how Civil Affairs is used. The Civil Affairs force is often pigeonholed into a supporting effort in LSCO focused on dealing with dislocated civilians and minimizing civilian interference with combat operations. When considering the capabilities resident within the Civil Affairs force, to include the recent development of the Military Government Specialist career field, this focus on LSCO is likely misplaced when the mission of minimizing civilian interference can be conducted by military police without the extensive training in governance and capacity building that Civil Affairs requires.

Early U.S. approaches to training partner nation forces were far more robust in terms of integrating capabilities. In the 1960’s Special Action Forces (SAF) were stood up in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. SAFs organizations built around a Special Forces Group and augmented by Civil Affairs, Military Intelligence, Army Security Agency, Engineer, and Medical units.[9] The SAF was built on “the presumption that counter-insurgency programs (also known as ‘internal defense programs’) should not be limited to military measures but should also involve as necessary such additional dimensions as economic development, police control, and effective local government,”[10] SAF Asia and SAF Latin America were both forward deployed, maintaining persistent engagement with partner forces. SAF Asia in particular was noted for its success in integrating tactical training and civic actions. Unfortunately, the SAF program became a casualty of the post-Vietnam drawdown, and the SAFs were all inactivated.[11]

Army Special Operations Forces continued to integrate Special Forces, Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, evolving into the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) and the cross-functional team concept. However, with only one brigade of special operations capable Civil Affairs the ability to scale persistent efforts in advising and assisting indigenous governance is limited. This level of integration is not replicated on the conventional side with SFABs lacking any Civil Affairs force structure other than staff positions. This needs to change.

Thus, an approach in U.S. grand strategy to mitigating corruption and conditions that attract adversarial soft power within weak governance or security institutions requires expanding the current conceptualization of Civil Affairs in SFA, even to a degree that re-examines the second and third order effects created from Leahy vetting.[12] SFA, mostly thought of in terms of training with foreign security forces, should incorporate all elements of our national power to various degrees but this also signals that the U.S. needs to develop and prioritize better DoD capabilities that incorporate partner nation civil society engagement into theater campaign plans that support SFA activities and country-specific internal defense and development plans, similar to ICB. That said, when required, reforms to SFA should be innovative and creative and should consider, for example, how the U.S., along with its considerable network of allies and partners, develops realistic approaches to capacity and capability building or incentives that offer better alternatives to lesser developed countries who are considering China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


The U.S. has a long history of using the military instrument to engage civil networks and pursue economic advantage. The Corps of Discovery, known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was one of the Army’s first civil reconnaissance type missions. The primary objective of the expedition was the establish diplomatic relations with native tribes to gain competitive advantage for the U.S. commercial sector in the fur trade, while denying this advantage to great power competitors Britain, Spain, and France.[13] DoD capabilities that enable irregular warfare activities, such as Civil Affairs, have the potential to develop and engage with civil networks in fragile states that can still disrupt a competitor’s efforts to leverage corruption within weak institutions.

To be clear, this article advocates for greater inclusion of Civil Affairs activities in ICB, not a recommendation for Civil Affairs as strategic advisors as part of the §332 MoDA Program. The framework needed to mitigate corruption within weak institutions requires ICB and requires the integration of conventional forces, special operations forces, and civilian agencies. Despite recent advances in doctrine and force structure supporting SFA, there are still gaps in how institutional resilience is conceptualized and supported. The goals from this framework are achieved through irregular applications such as, for example, targeted Civil Affairs activities that support the overall operational preparation of the environment, to include ICB activities, which relies upon timely civil military engagement, civil reconnaissance, and civil network development and engagement, all of which need to be tied into CCMD campaign plans.

Finally, corruption in weak institutions is an area where the interests of the U.S. Executive Branch and the U.S. commercial sector intersect. Succeeding in competition requires removing the myriad of obstacles and stovepipes that blunt our instruments of national power through a more expansive understanding of irregular warfare and developing realistic integrated deterrence campaigns, where the instruments of national power are working collectively in concert and are on full display for everyone to observe, especially our adversaries.

About the Authors Robert Schafer is a retired Civil Affairs senior non-commissioned officer who has over two decades of experience in governance and populace-centric network engagement and development activities in the CENTCOM and EUCOM Theaters. He is currently the lead security force assistance analyst for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. He holds a Master degree in Strategic Security Studies and a Master of Education degree from the National Defense University and the University of Illinois at Chicago respectively. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He also is a member of the advisory board for Third Order Effects, a non-government organization focused on providing cultural-specific advising capabilities for stability, security cooperation, and governance activities.

Shafi Saiduddin is a retired Civil Affairs field grade officer. He has over two decades of experience in Army Special Operations Forces, including service in a Foreign Internal Defense/Unconventional Warfare (FID/UW) Civil Affairs battalion, and SOF deployment experience in the CENTCOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM, and PACOM theaters. In his civilian career, he served in law enforcement and the intelligence community and now owns a risk advisory and investigations firm.

Both Schafer and Saiduddin are co-Editors-in-Chief for the Eunomia Journal, an online defense journal that focus on those conventional and special operations civil affairs activities that broadly support irregular warfare and conventional large-scale combat operations.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components.

[1] Sutter, Robert G., Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics since 1949 (Second Edition). (Lanham, Roman and Littlefield, 2019), 146-148.

[2] JP 3-57, Civil Military Operations (9 July 2018), GL-6.

[3] Economy, Elizabeth C., The World According to China. (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2022), 118-120.

[4] JP 3-20 Security Cooperation., II-3.

[5] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations (2021), defines civil knowledge integration as the “actions taken to analyze, evaluate, and organize collected civil information for operational relevance and informing the warfighting function.” Note that this source document no longer makes any reference to what was once known as civil information management, which was last defined in doctrine under Joint Publication 3-57, Civil Military Operations (2018) as the “process whereby data relating to the civil component of the operational environment is gathered, collated, processed, analyzed, produced into information products, and disseminated.”

[6] Matelski, Thomas R., Developing Security Force Assistance: Lessons from Foreign Internal Defense. (Fort Leavenworth, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, 2008), 3.

[7] Public Law 114-328, §332 Friendly Foreign Countries: International and Regional Organizations: Defense Institution Capacity Building (a)(2).

[8] Expeditionary diplomacy is a recently coined term that typically refers to the efforts of U.S. diplomats serving in war zones or areas of conflict where there is no established U.S. Mission.

[9] Grez, Christopher, Modernizing Army Special Operations Civil Affairs for Strategic Competition. Eunomia Journal. December 4th, 2022.

[10] Piasecki, Eugene, Special Action Force Asia. Veritas 13(1)


[12] The Leahy Act is important legislation, but it is worth noting that in countries in where some foreign security force partners are excluded from attending advanced military training due to gross humanitarian violations, adversarial countries, such as China and Russia, are content to replace the U.S. as the partner of choice of excluded partner nation security forces.

[13] Saiduddin, Shafi, and Robert Schafer, Civil Reconnaissance on the Frontier. Eunomia Journal. February 28th, 2021.



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