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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4][5] 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.[6]

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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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.[9]

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 Fas