Returning Civil Affairs to Special Operations Command would help Defense and Diplomacy

A United States Army Civil Affairs officer and a local Afghan man share a laugh. (Photo Credit: Chief Petty Officer Joshua Ives/Defense Department)

President Donald Trump seems to believe that the United States military is fully capable of solving the majority of our country’s foreign policy objectives. While our military is indeed the most powerful fighting force in recorded history, it cannot do it alone. After all, the United States is most secure when we use all the tools in our kit: defense, diplomacy, and development.

Although Foreign Service officers at the State Department and USAID excel in diplomacy and development throughout the world every day, it unfortunately seems as if these tools have taken a back seat in the administration’s list of priorities. Yet, one glimmer of hope is that our military has units who are fully capable of not only warfighting, but also diplomacy and development: Civil Affairs specialists.

However, the caveat is that Civil Affairs has also taken a back seat at the Department of Defense. In 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld handed the responsibility of Civil Affairs from the command of Special Operations (USASOC) to the “regular” Army. This setup, in order to see Civil Affairs at its most effective, must be reversed by returning Civil Affairs to USASOC. This would not only satisfy the President’s reliance on the military to solve many of our foreign policy dilemmas, but it would also give our foreign policy and national security apparatus the necessary tools it needs to ensure stability throughout the world.

Essentially, moving Civil Affairs back to USASOC would give them better avenues to acquire funding and improve their training, especially in their mission of stabilizing their area of operation by combining diplomatic, military, and economic capabilities.

According to the recruiting website of the U.S. Army, the job of Civil Affairs specialists is to prevent and mitigate civilian interference with military operations as well as to act as the commander’s link to local authorities in his area of operation. With specialists in every area of the government, they can assist a host government to meet its peoples’ needs and maintain a stable and viable civil administration. Plus, the majority of Civil Affairs specialists are Army Reservists, which gives them a distinct advantage in restoring civil society as they can bring their civilian skill sets to bear in a hostile environment. The four percent of U.S. Army Civil Affairs soldiers who are full time, meanwhile, are special operations capable, meaning that in crisis situations, like a major earthquake in an antagonistic atmosphere such as Pakistan, general purpose Civil Affairs teams can be deployed, short term, to make on-the-spot assessments of the region’s critical needs. It would make sense to have follow on, reserve Civil Affairs teams to have the same capability.

All Civil Affairs soldiers are fully equipped to identify non-governmental and international organizations operating on the battlefield, handle refugees and civilians on the battlefield, and determine protected targets, such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals. If this sounds familiar, you are correct. Civil Affairs specialists and Foreign Service Officers play similar roles. In fact, a popular joke amongst the Civil Affairs community is that they are “the armed wing of the State Department.”

Two very senior members of the President’s national security team are both champions and advocates of Civil Affairs: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. In his previous role as CENTCOM Commander, Mattis testified before the Senate Armed Services committee that, “Our efforts require coordination and a spirit of collaboration between highly integrated civilian military teams.” Mattis was also famously quoted as saying, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

McMaster, while speaking at a Civil Affairs Association symposium in 2015, spoke of the importance of Civil Affairs in a Joint Force, declaring, “War is an extension of politics and thus about the consolidation of gains leading to a sustainable and lasting political outcome as much as winning battles.” Simply put, when Civil Affairs specialists are given the chance to do their job, they can succeed in a post-combat environment and possibly prevent future terrorist attacks.

Despite the words of Mattis and McMaster, the President called for a $54 billion increase in Defense spending, which would mostly focus on hardware.

Although we have had a superior technological advantage over our adversaries in our current conflicts, it is the human, not defensive, element that we have come up short on: We have been inconsistent in our attempt to win the hearts and minds of our host nations.

On one hand, Civil Affairs units have served with success in Africa and in Bosnia by helping to rebuild civil society and add legitimacy to local governments. Today, teams of Civil Affairs specialists are conducting dozens of humanitarian assistance and military training missions in Djibouti and Cameroon.

But on the other hand, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have had soldiers who were not trained specifically in Civil Affairs. Although the soldiers performed admirably in setting up medical clinics, establishing schoolhouses, and acting as de facto mayors, they also needed assistance from Civil Affairs in order to really win the hearts and minds of the local population in their work against terrorism. Therefore, a renewed focus on training and equipping Civil Affairs operations is crucial, as this could very well prevent terrorism now and make our country more secure in the future.

As it stands now, Civil Affairs has to fight for their share of the United States Army’s budget. With the number of units in the hundreds, Civil Affairs Commands have to compete for a limited amount of money for training and equipment. However, when Civil Affairs was under the auspices of Special Operations, they only had to compete for funding with seven other entities. Switching the regiment back to Special Operations Command would give Civil Affairs specialists better access to their share of the defense budget. Another benefit to switching Civil Affairs to Special Operations would be to put conventional Civil Affairs specialists on par with their Special Operations brethren, which would ensure that all Civil Affairs soldiers downrange would have the same capabilities across the board.

When announcing his $52 billion defense budget, the President said, “We have to start winning wars again.” With the most powerful military the world has ever known, winning wars is the relatively easy part. Winning and securing a long lasting peace is the hard part. Returning responsibility of Civil Affairs back to Special Operations Command and giving them the tools and training they need would go a long way in securing a lasting peace.

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