Updated: May 9, 2021
By: Chris Liggett
This article highlights Special Operations Civil Affairs’ (SOF CA) unique ability to support the U.S. Military’s governance mission in Northwest Africa and to claim the potential for a Civil Affairs-commanded Task Force and Company Headquarters in the region. While Civil Affairs (CA) units currently serve a supporting role within Northwest Africa’s Special Operations Task Force (SOTF-NWA) and Advanced Operations Base (AOB Sahel)–the Army’s only company-level command in the region–this discussion asserts that the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion should participate in the command rotation with 3rd and 19th Special Forces Groups. With governance as their primary operational focus and with extensive, uninterrupted presence on the continent, the 91st Battalion (in command) would better address the U.S. Military’s mission in Northwest Africa and further integrate Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations soldiers into effective Cross-Functional Teams.
This is a recommendation to the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), 1st Special Forces Command (1st SFC), and Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) to consider hiring the 91st CA BN as a command element in Northwest Africa. It is also an appeal to the Department of State to request such a command.
SOCAF’s Governance Mission in the Sahel
The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is the Department of Defense headquarters that provides command and control for all U.S. Military forces within the geographic region of Africa. Subordinate to AFRICOM is Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) which is specifically responsible for controlling U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) on the continent. SOCAF’s mission is to conduct “persistent, networked, and distributed special operations” across Africa’s Sahel region through its subordinate battalion-level command called SOTF-NWA. In the scope of Great Power Competition, SOTF-NWA competes in the under-governed spaces of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger as a part of United States Government efforts to protect our nation’s influence and interests in the face of aggressive expansion by competing nations. As SOCAF leverages socioeconomic and military partnerships to maintain access, build capacity, mitigate instability, and defeat violent extremism, it is clear that the 91st Battalion–designed to incorporate military, government, and civil society into stability operations–is well suited to lead the fight. While Civil Affairs Teams continue to achieve effects on the ground, a Civil Affairs-commanded SOTF-NWA would further unify Special Operations Forces in support of theater objectives and amplify strategic-level effects across the region.
Changes in Strategy
SOTF-NWA’s history has been characterized by change. After the 2017 tragedy in Tongo Tongo, Niger, where we lost four SOF service members as they were ambushed by extremist fighters, the Task Force has responded to dramatically shifting priorities and seen leadership rotations distributed amongst battalions from 3rd and 19th Special Forces Groups. While it continues to focus on countering Violent Extremist Organizations (counter-VEO), SOTF-NWA is now additionally called to address “Global Power Competition,” expanding the aperture to include China and Russia in a strategy previously dedicated to countering terrorism.
With these changes in mind, AFRICOM directs that “the counter-VEO fight is a key component of Global Power Competition” along with building partner capability. In his 2020 Posture Statement to Congress, the AFRICOM Commander (General Townsend) explained that counter-VEO, building partner capability, and Great Power Competition are “not mutually exclusive.” Counter-VEO “addresses immediate partner needs” that China and Russia do not, and “enduring relationships built while we develop partner capabilities provide us with the long-term strategic alliances we need to address future challenges.” This nuanced change in strategy requires an equally nuanced operational approach: one that Civil Affairs is already enacting.
In the Sahel, Civil-Military Operations are the main tools used by U.S. SOF to counter violent extremists and “achieve and maintain influence with our African partners” to “[set] the theater.” Civil Affairs operators work closely with U.S. Embassy Country Teams, exercise the greatest freedom to travel throughout the region, maintain long-term relationships with host nation leaders, and solve problems using a wide array of socio-economic tools–as exercised in accordance with the principles of good governance. While direct military action in Northwest Africa remains limited, Civil Affairs soldiers are the most effective assets on the ground as they integrate with ongoing Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) efforts to support stability through diplomatic and developmental means. While China provides equipment to African governments (requiring expensive contracts to maintain over time) and develops large infrastructure projects (with an influx of Chinese workers who sideline local African laborers), the U.S. Military’s SOF Civil Affairs are competing with a more indigenous approach. By combining the efforts of U.S. and Host Nation Security Forces with local government, economic, and social sectors SOF Civil Affairs integrates with a small footprint, builds reliable relationships, and develops effective plans that address critical vulnerabilities in under-governed spaces: an approach that rivals the more unilaterally beneficial strategy of our competitors.
The 91st Civil Affairs Battalion
While much has changed in the Sahel, there remains an element of consistency: the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion. Operationally tasked to serve in Africa, the 91st Battalion is the only SOF element to maintain an uninterrupted presence in Northwest Africa since 2009 (to include during the COVID-19 pandemic). With a long record of consecutive deployments to the continent, the battalion maintains unique operational knowledge, enduring access and placement, and an Africa-focused headquarters that supports the mission in ways that other SOF elements such as 3rd Special Forces Group do not. Employing the Battalion Headquarters to support operations and assess their effectiveness over time, and deploying Company Headquarters as liaisons to SOCAF, the battalion remains intricately connected to the mission. Operationally, they integrate Civil Affairs (CA) Teams–some of the only SOF elements permitted to operate outside of partner force bases–with government and military institutions throughout the Sahel to directly addresses global competition and regional instability. The teams have the freedom of movement to go where our competitors are, the skills to assess the effectiveness of their projects, and the connections to coordinate partnered efforts to compete. From reconnaissance to operational design and execution: these teams have the access, placement, and continuity to follow a project through from start to finish.
Across all echelons, the 91st Battalion is enduringly tied to the mission in Northwest Africa, yet they have not had the opportunity to command. With SOCAF relying on Civil-Military Operations and an indigenous governance approach to compete, Civil Affairs leaders should serve as regional commanders in rotation along with their peers in Special Forces: They should command SOTF-NWA and AOB Sahel.
Civil Affairs Team Success
While Civil Affairs battalion and company-level leadership are underutilized in Northwest Africa, CA Teams are some of the most active units in the region: regularly holding high-level engagements and serving as ground force commanders on Joint-SOF missions. Well positioned within the interagency and multinational environment, CA Teams have built strong government partnerships that provide access to under-governed spaces where political power is highly contested. Notably, Team Mali was awarded the State Department’s Meritorious Honor Award by US Ambassador Hankins in 2019 for their work with the embassy and their access to military partners in the field. Likewise, and in the same year, Team Burkina Faso planned national-level stability operations with Burkinabe commanders and government officials to counter violent extremists along the nation’s eastern border with Niger. As the only operational SOF team in the country, Team Burkina Faso participated in the mission from planning to execution and helped MEDEVAC injured Burkinabe soldiers en route to higher levels of medical care. Supported by Ambassador Young (currently serving as AFRICOM’s Civil-Military Engagement Deputy), the operation exposed extremist funding networks and served as the first large scale military response to the country’s devastating insurgency. This ongoing partnership has transitioned across multiple teams and continues to this day: it is a lasting relationship, steeped in sweat and blood, the likes of which our competitors simply are not building.
Additionally, after their time on a team, Soldiers from the 91st Battalion have been known to transition to three-year tours of duty within the Offices of Security Cooperation in Northwest African embassies (such as Mali, Niger, and Ghana): creating even longer-term government partnerships extending beyond a typical 6-month deployment.
The Need for Commanders
With established access and placement throughout the Sahel, CA Teams are well positioned to continue the mission, but their effectiveness toward counter-VEO and Great Power Competition would dramatically increase if Civil Affairs commanders served at higher levels in the regional U.S. command structures. Civil Affairs commanders leading from Northwest Africa’s battalion and company-level commands could emphasize their Civil-Military-focused core competencies to better synchronize SOF efforts in line with the region’s strategic governance approach.
This concept (placing Civil Affairs in command) is not entirely new, but it has not been fully pursued. In 2019, a Company Headquarters from the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion commanded partner SOF as an AOB during the international training event Exercise FLINTLOCK’19. The company commanded hundreds of U.S. and international forces as they traveled throughout Burkina Faso during a time of broadening instability and increasing violence. The nation had just experienced a sweeping overhaul of parliament, and an insurgency was quickly encroaching on the capital, but the Civil Affairs Company developed contingency operations with quick reaction forces to mitigate operational risks and accomplished the mission without incident. This successful Civil Affairs-led AOB, while operating in Burkina Faso during the exercise, was never rotated to assume command of operational SOF partners outside of FLINTLOCK: They never went on to command AOB Sahel. No Civil Affairs Company has. Similarly, the 91st Battalion’s Lieutenant Colonels, most of whom have spent their developmental years in various commands in Africa, have never served as a SOTF-NWA Commander. Chosen by the Army’s Centralized Selection List, both prepared and qualified for command, and armed with a battalion of French speaking, tactically proficient, and governance-focused Soldiers, a 91st Battalion Commander would lead SOTF-NWA to better address the mission if entered into the command rotation along with his or her Special Forces peers.
This new opportunity will do more than improve operational effectiveness. It will also allow 1st Special Forces Command to develop innovative cross-functional capabilities at the Task Force-level in an appropriate theater of operations (a non-combat theater): enabling 3rd Special Forces Group to recuperate from heavy deployment cycles and more sustainably meet deployment-to-dwell ratios intended to maximize rest and training before returning to theater.
A Battalion Primed to Lead SOTF-NW
The 91st Civil Affairs Battalion should command SOTF-NWA. As Task Force Commander, the 91stBattalion Commander would use years of experience strengthening institutions on the continent to better focus operations to achieve developmental, socioeconomic, and stability objectives. Designed for the interagency environment, a Civil Affairs command is effective in unifying efforts across SOF, conventional military, Department of State, non-government organizations, and indigenous populations and institutions to affect under-governed sectors within the Sahel that drive regional instability. Integrating both Special Operations and conventional partners into the staff and commanding effective SOF Teams, the Civil Affairs Task Force Commander would focus on governance objectives as the main effort while incorporating Special Forces’ partner training operations to achieve greater effects and responding to regional threats as necessary. Additionally, (considering that Civil Affairs is not a combat arms branch) he or she would exercise command authority and leverage a cross-functional staff to lead the Task Force in the event of a kinetic event requiring clearance of fires or direct-action engagements: employing subject matter experts depending on the given situation.
As for concerns about the battalion’s organization and equipment, although the 91st and its companies are structured differently than their Special Forces counterparts, they can accomplish the mission in Northwest Africa all the same. AOB Sahel already receives extensive support from collocated U.S. Military units that bear logistical burdens and augment the Company’s Headquarters. With the proper coordination, a Civil Affairs Company Headquarters can assume the same partners and accomplish the same tasks. Fortunately, the AOB’s location, with broad infrastructural support, is conducive for a Civil Affairs Company that would otherwise struggle to meet requirements if operating alone. This same concept (falling in on the existing augmentees and partnerships that comprise AOB Sahel) applies equally for SOTF-NWA. Many of the Task Force personnel are not organic to the Special Forces Battalion that is in command. They are cross-functional partners from other units that can easily support Civil Affairs in the same way. Additional options to address manning limitations include shifting personnel from within the 91st itself (with an increasing mandatory rest cycle there will likely be Soldiers looking for deployment experience), and requesting logistics or staff support from within 1st Special Forces Command as necessary.
The 91st Civil Affairs Battalion is ready for the challenge of commanding SOTF-NWA. In the winter of 2020, the Battalion Headquarters executed Operation STALKHM, a battalion-level exercise to command and control subordinate Civil Affairs units at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. The battalion deployed three subordinate Civil Affairs Companies with 15 Teams on the ground, and the headquarters coordinated multiple aviation platforms along with chemical, logistics, and communications assets to maximize combat power in support of the mission. As outstanding as the event was, it needs improvement to serve as a legitimate validation exercise. Operation STALKHM was a Civil Affairs internal event, and the next step is to work closely with 1st Special Forces Command and 3rd Special Forces Group to build a cross-functional exercise to validate a cross-functional Task Force. When the 91st works with 3rdSpecial Forces Group for validation, the organizations will learn from each other, establish new best practices, and build an even more effective SOF enterprise that cannot fail to bring continued success in theater.
About the Author: Chris Liggett served as the Assistant S3 of the 91st CA BN and deployed to Northwest Africa as a Team Commander in 2019. He entered SOF Civil Affairs after serving as an Infantry Platoon Leader with the 101st Airborne Division during OEF ’14.
 “A Vision for 2021 and Beyond: Cross-Functional Teams (CFT),” 1st SFC Vision,https://www.soc.mil/USASFC/Documents/1sfc-vision-2021-beyond.pdf
Note: See the “Competition Vignette” on page 12 for an example of a CFT (including a 91st CA Team) working in Northwest Africa to counter Chinese efforts.
 “Major Engagement,” SOCAFRICA Home Page, https://www.socom.mil/socaf
 Note: “Great Power Competition” is the terminology used by 1st SFC as referenced from the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The term “Global Power Competition” is used by AFRICOM in the 2020 Posture Statement to Congress. The two are used interchangeably in this article depending on which organization is quoted and the context of the discussion.
 “Command Vision,” SOCAFRICA Home Page, https://www.socom.mil/socaf
 Note: the 91st CA BN conducts Civil Affairs Operations: actions planned, coordinated, executed, and assessed to enhance awareness of, and manage the interaction with, the civil component of the operational environment; identify and mitigate underlying causes of instability within civil society; and/or involve the application of functional specialty skills normally the responsibility of civil government (FM 3-57 pg. 2-1, JP 3-57, GL-6). https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN16448_FM%203-57%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
 “2020 Posture Statement to Congress: Global Power Competition,” AFRICOM Website, https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2020-posture-statement-to-congress
 “2020 Posture Statement to Congress: Counter-VEO,” AFRICOM Website, https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2020-posture-statement-to-congress
 “2020 Posture Statement to Congress: Priorities and Partners,” AFRICOM Website, https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2020-posture-statement-to-congress
 Note: MAJ Travis Clemens details Chinese and Russian foreign policy objectives and explains how SOF CA enables the United States to compete in Great Power Competition. He suggests that “SOF CA forces should conduct reconnaissance to understand the civil environment and how the [Chinese] diaspora and worker populations interact [with] and are influenced by the local populations.” This is a means for SOF CA to “engage and influence those communities to counter PRC [People’s Republic of China] efforts that conflict with U.S. national policy” (JSOU Report 20-4, pg. 64).
MAJ Travis Clemens, “JSOU Report 20-4: Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs in Great Power Competition,” Joint Special Operations University Press, August 2020. https://jsou.libguides.com/ld.php?content_id=56753304
 Below is a Washington Examiner article detailing the MEDEVAC operations in Burkina Faso.
Trent Reedy, “Many Shades of Grey,” Washington Examiner, January 30, 2020. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/many-shades-of-gray
 There is much discussion concerning what a CA-commanded element should be called. This stems from the fact that a CA Company HQs is not organically capable of creating an AOB (like an SF Company) and there is mixed precedence for calling a CA commanded entity a SOTF, an AOB, or any other such term (because it is not often done). Doctrine does not preclude the term SOTF or AOB when CA is in command, and while CA has developed a liking for the term Civil Affairs Task Force (CATF), it is overly restrictive: How can we continue to change the names of command organizations simply because a different unit is in charge, and what would you call a CATF that has SF and PSYOP Soldiers working within it? Perhaps we can use the term Cross-Functional Team (CFT Sahel) as a solution, or maybe we will determine that a CA Company can become an AOB with the appropriate augmentations. Time will tell.
 Eric Schmitt, “Where Terrorism is Rising in Africa and the U.S. is Leaving,” The New York Times, March 1, 2019.
*This article discusses the limited U.S. presence in Northwest Africa and the rising threat of violent extremist organizations. It highlights Operation Flintlock ’19 and the temporary influx of hundreds of American and partner nation soldiers for the exercise, but it fails to recognize that before and after the exercise a 4-person Civil Affairs teams was the only operational SOF element in the country. It also fails to recognize that the company command entity coordinating all of these Special Operations training events was a Civil Affairs Company from Bravo Company in the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion. Also, note that the Civil Affairs Team traveled to the town of Bargo, further North and closer to the enemy threat than any other elements (which largely remained in training environments near large cities in the South and Southwest.