Strategic misfire: The Army’s planned reduction of Civil Affairs forces
Understanding should precede action, yet a prime area of strategic weakness for the United States is its inability to understand the local social-political context of conflict and war.
By Maj. Arnel P. David and Maj. Clay Daniels, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnists
Understanding should precede action, yet a prime area of strategic weakness for the United States is its inability to understand the local social-political context of conflict and war. After failing to achieve any enduring strategic outcomes for this century, the Army returns to a state of suspended animation under the blissful blanket of combined arms maneuver. Rather than preserve human engagement capabilities that, dollar for dollar, do more to win the wars of today and the peace of the future, the Army is divesting itself of a large number of civil affairs forces. The 85th Civil Affairs Brigade is being deactivated. It is one of only two active duty civil affairs brigades, reducing nearly half of the force structure for the Army’s active duty civil affairs.
Built from the battlefield demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade was created to aid the Army and Joint Force with unique civil-military operations — ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster response to supporting major campaigns. Soldiers trained in foreign languages, culture, mediation, and negotiations, with an organic expeditionary medical component, provided crucial support to missions like Operation Unified Assistance to combat the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, among others.
The U.S. government invested significant time and money to train and educate civil affairs soldiers, only to cut these small but effective elements from the Joint Force to preserve America’s preferred way of war: a relentless amount of overwhelming, lethal force under the auspices of decisively executing combined arms maneuvers and then, in afterthought, performing “ancillary” activities required to win the peace. Sadly, as such subsidiary tasks were largely deferred, so was success in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States is in doubtless need of a comprehensive reform of its national security strategy, including a better balance of capabilities leading to a qualitative advantage in future warfare. If war is the continuation of politics and politics are about people, then why not maintain the forces best trained to contextualize this critical aspect of strategy? More importantly, powerful states have an inherent responsibility to pursue conflict resolution before electing to commit the use of force, particularly in environments where the nation is not engaged in direct war. As a recent series of issue papers on civil affairs explain, this national strategic capability has as much use in preventing wars as much as ending them.
The current fiscal environment allows the military to once again reforge Maslow’s hammer — the one that thinks everything looks like a nail. It has provided the convenience of reverting to more “traditional” notions of applied power in another era of post-conflict downsizing. Unfortunately, the obsession with stand-off weaponry furthers a way of fighting that only perpetuates the cycle of violence and cultivates a hatred of the West. We’ve allowed our force to re-default to what comes easy and naturally to it — fire and maneuver — rather than maintain relatively inexpensive elements that understand the local dynamics of conflict. The growing interconnectedness of the world warrants a renewed examination of our assumptions about applied power. UAV feeds rarely offer an opportunity for a maneuver element to recognize and address social or political volatility.
If strategy is the art of creating power, then the U.S. Army should consider the implications on the changing personality of warfare. Traditional power structures are in decline and a new super-empowerment of individuals is on the rise. New forms of power need to be built and projected — partner-prone and people-centric. Civil affairs forces regularly operate to extend the reach of U.S. embassy country teams in remote and contested areas. Understanding the social drivers of conflict and the regional issues at play in the tactical, operational, and strategic realms require dedicated specialists who understand the local, regional, and cultural context of our adversaries. Humans matter more than hardware, and a network of complex relationships yield unparalleled opportunities to mobilize the masses to take collective action against complex problems. Reducing the force explicitly designed to understand and address societal disequilibrium inherently weakens our force and reduces the ability to defeat our adversaries in our preferred battle space — their homeland.
We’ve seen this movie too many times. Since World War II, Civil Affairs forces have been repeatedly identified as a critical need, created, and employed — only to be cast aside. With no real ownership of civil affairs forces across the Joint Force, its talents, skills, and years of operational experience will evaporate until the next major conflict, again reconstituted as a critical requirement. Today’s Army remains unable to see its strategic value, even if employed operationally and tactically. Preventing and winning wars require constant, effective engagement, an understanding of the local political and cultural context, and a cohort of military professionals dedicated to employing the full range of national capabilities. That’s not a job for just anyone.
Major Arnel P. David is an active duty civil affairs officer, presently as the commander’s initiative group chief for special operations joint task force-Afghanistan. Major Clay Daniels is an active duty civil affairs officer commanding Delta Company, 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion. They have served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, Asia, Central Asia, and Pacific. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.
Photo credit: Chitrapa/Wikipedia
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.