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Civil Affairs Redefined

Civil Affairs Redefined

by Dennis J. Cahill

Photo by 1st Lt Samuel Otto, of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Daniel Gilliss, noncommissioned officer in charge, Civil-Military Assistance and Advisory Team, Security Force Assistance and Advisory Team 7, Company A, 486th Civil Affairs Battalion, Oklahoma Army National Guard, based out of Tulsa, Okla., introduces himself to Laghman provincial line directors at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam, May 18, 2013. Pnina Levermore, (sitting at the head of the table) sub-national governance adviser, United States Agency for International Aid.

The U.S. military definition of civil affairs, found in Joint and Army doctrinal publications, has long been problematic for those trying to understand the term. The published definition used in the latter part of the twentieth century was wordy and complex, focusing on “activities of a commander,” how that commander manages “relations between military forces and civil authorities,” and how, when, and by whom these activities, which include “functions normally the responsibility of local government,”1 are conducted. The current published definition is poorly written, has a circular error problem, and fails to provide a mean­ing that is useful. This version essentially says that civil affairs are military forces that conduct civil affairs operations.

One would think that, at the very least, the definition would reflect a combination of the two words that make up the term - the plural noun, affairs, and its modifying adjective, civil - ending up with something that describes the interest or activities of civilians encountered in a military operation. If one consults the online Merriam-Webster’s Un­abridged Dictionary, one would find a definition, most likely developed during or immediately after World War II, that comes closer this common sense approach: affairs and operations of the civil population of a territory that are supervised and directed by a friendly occupying power.2

In 2016, the civil affairs proponent began the process of re-evaluating the roles, functions, and capabilities needed for the civil affairs branch to remain relevant in future operations. Two years later, in a published white paper, titled “Civil Affairs: 2025 and Beyond,”3 designed to gain U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support for a full-blown assessment of the tasks, capabilities, gaps, and solutions required to transform the civil affairs force for future multi-domain operations,4 the proponent’s Force Modernization Directorate proposed the following, two-part definition for consideration by the Army:

Civil affairs - (1) the interests, functions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of populations, civilian institutions, and interorganizational partners that exist at all levels and phases of military operations; (2) the forces specifically organized, trained, and resourced to address civil affairs and to incorporate civil considerations and resources into military operational requirements before, during, and after military operations.5

The first part of this definition acknowledged the existence of tangible elements within the civil component of the operational environment that shape the way resident populations, government institutions, and civilian partners respond to existing and changing conditions in the areas in which military forces operate.6 These tangible elements - interests, functions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities - influence the actions and reactions of each group to internal and external pressures, activities, events, and other influencers. They are not static; they change over time according to changes in political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, physical environment, and time conditions.

The white paper went on to explain each of the elements in some detail, summarized here:


­o Resident civilian populations are generally interested in living in conditions that promote a safe and secure environment, established rule of law, social well-being, stable governance, and a sustainable economy - conditions identified by Army Doctrine Publication 3-07, Stability, as “end state conditions in stabilization efforts.”7

­o Government interests vary by the level and type of formal or informal governance institution, but generally include maintaining the integrity of the governance structure and the sovereignty over activities within its defined boundaries.

­o The interests of interorganizational partners range from promoting organizational, national, international, or coalition objectives - which include stability that promotes peace and economic development - to building markets and making profits.


­o Resident populations tend to organize themselves into the individual and collective or institutional (for example, government, private, or commercial) functions required to achieve resiliency in stability end state conditions.

­o Government functions include providing for the safety, health, education, and welfare of its citizens; preserving law and order, culture, and religious expression; developing and maintaining communications, public works and utilities, and transportation facilities; and promoting industry, economic development, and commerce.

­o Within the context of military operations, and subject to partnership agreements, civilian partner functions may be broad or limited in scope, generally coincide with their organization’s interests, and range from leading or supporting specific sectors or lines of operation to operating semi-independently of others in pursuit of their own objectives. Capabilities

­o The capabilities of resident populations depend on age, education, and physical attributes, as well as the resources and opportunities available to the various groups within the populace, and will include communication skills, organizational skills, commodity production, and self-governance.

­o Government capabilities to execute the functions of governance vary and depend upon the resources available to the governance institution and the prioritization of those functions against available resources.

­o Civilian partner capabilities vary based on the priorities established by their organizations and the resources provided for the operation.


­o The vulnerabilities of individuals or groups of people within resident populations depend on a number of factors related to resiliency and will often be associated with their ability to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, or recover from one or more of the typical threats to human security (e.g., economic, food, health, personal, community, and political security).

­o Government organizations are vulnerable to lack of resources, lack of public confidence and support, and the activities of internal and/or external individuals or groups who intend to disrupt or replace the existing government for a variety of reasons.

­o Civilian partner vulnerabilities vary based on the amount of preparation made by the organizations and their individual representatives prior to entry into the area of operations.

Since these elements may or may not be compatible with the military objectives of an operation, they must be continuously understood, assessed, leveraged, and/or mitigated before, during, and after the introduction of military forces into an area of operations. The second part of this definition acknowledged that the term would be applied to the forces designated to focus specifically on the civilian component of the operational environment. Civil affairs forces provide a uniformed source of skills associated with the functions and well-being of civilian communities in a maneuver or maneuver support commander’s area of responsibility. They carefully study history, language, culture, demographics, and other elements of the human geography in a designated area of operations to understand the interests, functions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of the various groups that reside or operate there.

When possible during periods of competition, and in coordination with joint, interorganizational, and multinational (including host nation) partners, civil affairs forces physically visit areas of potential future military operations to assess the existing civil affairs and to establish relationships with people and organizations that may provide critical information and resources for later use. During large-scale combat operations, tactical civil affairs forces accompany lead combat units, helping commanders sort out friendly and neutral elements from threats encountered in the civil component, and ad­dressing issues of immediate concern to the people and governments of newly occupied or liberated territo­ries.

Ideally, this latter task will simply involve assisting in the activation of existing emergency management plans or the mobilization of local resources against local problems for which the populace could not fully prepare. Over time, these early stability operations will expand to include participation by operational- and strategic-level civil affairs forces and civilian partners to stand up temporary military governments and transitional civil authority until these responsibilities can be transferred to other authority.8

The white paper definition was used throughout the civil affairs force modernization assessment (FMA), formally conducted by the Civil Affairs Force Modernization Directorate from March through October of 2019 with representatives from TRADOC’s centers of excellence, the civil affairs proponent, and the operational civil affairs force. As the FMA progressed through various stages of analysis, culminating in a functional solutions analysis, the first part of the definition was refined to:

The interests, functions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of populations, government institutions, and interorganizational partners that reside or operate in and around an area of operation.

This definition will be included in the next edition of Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, and incorporated into future civil affairs training and professional development programs, Army functional concepts, and doctrinal publications.

The way the U.S. military chose to define civil affairs in the past has confused civil affairs soldiers and their supported commanders for several decades. Redefining the term is an important step towards understanding the connection of civil affairs to military operations and the importance of having forces dedicated to civil affairs. The journey to complete understanding and integration of civil affairs into multi-domain operations requires more than one new term.

The whole concept of civil affairs operations and the forces needed to execute them must also transform. The civil affairs FMA took a comprehensive look at the capabilities and resources required by the total civil affairs force of the future. The civil affairs proponent is working closely with Army Futures Command, TRADOC, the Department of the Army, and the operational civil affairs force to implement multiple solutions over the coming years. In addition to the new definition, the Army of 2028 and beyond will see new civil affairs doctrine, organizational structures, training tasks and courses, materiel solutions, leadership and education programs, and personnel policies. As a result of this total makeover, civil affairs is truly being redefined.

The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government or the Civil Affairs Association.

About the Author

Dennis J. Cahill is a retired U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer who currently works as the Director of Civil Affairs Force Modernization at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS) and Special Operations Center of Excellence (SOCoE). He is the author of the Army’s Civil Affairs Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures manual, published in 2003, and has written extensively about civil affairs issues for internal Department of Defense use and for numerous Army, Joint, Defense Department, and Civil Affairs Association publications since 1992. He can be found at Endnotes:

1 Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 23 March 1994, As Amended Through 10 January 2000. 2 Dictionary, s.v. “civil affairs,” accessed September 18, 2014, The observations in these first two paragraphs were first made by the author in a paper titled, “Redefining Civil Affairs,” published in the 2014-2015 Civil Affairs Issue Papers: The Future of Civil Affairs, available at

3 2018. “Civil Affairs: 2025 and Beyond.” U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence, Civil Affairs Proponent, November 6, referred to as the CA White Paper.

4 The Army introduced the term multi-domain operations in TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, on December 6, 2018. At the time of writing this article, the Army is considering changing the term to joint all-domain operations to be consistent with joint terminology.

5 CA White Paper.

6 The CA White Paper describes the following:

Resident populations: as the aggregate of all those encountered in a defined geographic area, which often consists of a mixture of people with long, historical ties to the geographic area and more recent arrivals, including migrants and groups displaced from nearby areas.

Resident government institutions: as the formal and/or informal governance systems that may be classified as democracy, republic, monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorship, traditional, shadow, or some combination according to the methods used to distribute power.

Civilian partners: as U.S. and allied government agencies, international and nongovernment organizations, and the private sector.

7 Army Doctrine Publication 3-07, Stability, July 31, 2019.

8 Department of Defense Directive 5100.01, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, December 21, 2010, lists, as one of the Army’s specific functions, “Occupy territories abroad and provide for the initial establishment of a military government pending transfer of this responsibility to other authority.”

1 comment


Much improved definition. Definitely been a problem for some time now. Kudos to the FMA team. I look forward to an updated 3-57.

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