The Defense Department is increasing its use of Army Civil Affairs teams as
the war in Afghanistan moves into a reconstruction phase. These highly specialized
units—part of the U.S. Special Operations Command—work with local
governments and civilian aid organizations to rebuild infrastructure and restore
stability in areas stricken by war or natural disasters.
At last count, about 200 Civil Affairs soldiers were operating throughout Afghanistan,
according to Joe Collins, deputy assistant defense secretary for stability operations.
Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, they have built 127 schools,
400 wells and 26 medical clinics, he told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing
in late December.
“Our soldiers have also refurbished the National Veterinary Center and
the National Teachers College in Kabul,” he said.
In Herat, a Civil Affairs team, using local labor, de-silted more than 250
kilometers of irrigation canals, allowing thousands of farm families to do their
In the Orgun Valley, another Civil Affairs team—headed by Capt. Britton
London, of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), based at Fort Bragg,
N.C.—enlisted the help of friends, family members and church groups back
in the United States to supply thousands of Afghan students with pens, pencils
London’s team also collected enough baseball gear for two teams and introduced
Afghan youngsters to Little League baseball. This attracted the attention of
President Bush, once part owner of the Texas Rangers professional baseball team.
“Captain London is a man after my own heart,” he said in a recent
speech focusing on Afghan reconstruction. “He brought me ... two balls
signed by the ... mighty Eagles of Afghan baseball.”
Bush praised the work of Civil Affairs units. “Our soldiers wear the
uniforms of warriors, but they are also compassionate people,” he said.
“And the Afghan people are really beginning to see the true strength of
our country. I mean, routing out the Taliban was important, but building a school
is equally important.”
Over the next two years, Bush said, the United States will help build and refurbish
several hundred more schools and train teachers for them.
Reconstruction will increase as security improves throughout the country, Collins
said. “You can’t have reconstruction without security, and in the
end, you can’t have security without reconstruction,” he said. “We
now believe that about 26 provinces of the 33 in Afghanistan have moderate to
To speed up the rebuilding process, Collins explained, the United States is
establishing eight to 10 Joint Regional Teams of about 60 people, including
Civil Affairs and Special Forces, plus representatives from the State Department,
U.S. Agency for International Development and coalition partners.
“The purpose of the teams will be to facilitate reconstruction and help
spread security,” Collins said. They will work to reduce tension in their
regions and to “serve as the eyes and ears” for coalition commanders,
In addition to their own resources, each team will be able to request additional
expertise—such as engineers and medical teams—to solve specific
problems, Collins said.
In the past year, digging wells was a high priority, because Afghanistan had
just experienced four years of drought. “Four years of drought in an agricultural
society that’s at its wit’s end proved to be absolutely devastating,”
The top project for 2003 will be building a series of maternal health clinics
that are needed to deal with a “terrible problem” throughout Afghanistan,
Collins said. An estimated 15 percent of all Afghan children die before the
age of one, he said, and another 10 percent die before their fifth year.
“Being a mother in Afghanistan is, I think, the equivalent of being a
front-line soldier in severe combat,” Collins said. “So many of
In December 2001, “the U.S. and its partners faced an exhausted nation
on the brink of a great humanitarian disaster,” he said. “Somewhere
between 5 and 8 million Afghans were at risk either of starving or freezing
to death. ... Thank goodness, very little of that happened.”
What helped make the difference was aid from other countries. In the past year,
U.S. agencies provided 7,000 metric tons of seed and close to $200 million for
Afghan refugees, Collins said. The assistance has helped 2 million refugees,
thus far, to return to their country, he said.
Also, in January 2002, 65 nations—led by the United States, Japan, Saudi
Arabia and the European Union—pledged $6.5 billion to the reconstruction
“Nearly all of the $2 billion pledged for the year 2002, is on the scene,
has been spent already or is in the pipeline, headed for a specific target,”
Collins said. Before the end of 2003, the United States will have spent about
$900 million to help rebuild Afghanistan, he noted.
Much of the money will go to build a road from Kabul to Kandahar and Herat,
a joint effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Japan. The project is
part of a larger plan—backed by other coalition partners, the Asian Development
Bank and the World Bank—for a ring road to serve the entire country.
“If all goes well as planned, by the spring of this year, all of the
major roads in Afghanistan will be having some initial survey work done,”
Collins said. “And I think that the building of those roads is just going
to be a fantastic boost to employment of Afghans, reconstruction in general
and also, ultimately, to security.”
In Short Supply
A major portion of all of this reconstruction work is falling to U.S. Civil
Affairs personnel, who are in short supply. The Army has only one active-duty
Civil Affairs unit, the 96th. About 96 percent of its Civil Affairs specialists
“We don’t have enough Civil Affairs [experts] in both the active
and reserve side,” said Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense
for reserve affairs. Civil Affairs, he told reporters, require skills and experience
not normally associated with military service.
These include public administration, public safety, public health, legal systems,
labor relations, public welfare, public finance, civil defense, public works,
utilities, communications systems, transportation networks, logistics, food
and agricultural services, economics, property control, cultural affairs, civil
information and refugee management.
Civil Affairs units trace their history back to the U.S. forces who helped
restore services in Europe and the Pacific at the end of World War II. They
have been deployed in every U.S. conflict since then, including Korea, Vietnam,
Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans and now Afghanistan.
The frequent pace of deployment has been tough on the reservists, said Lt.
Col. Don Amburn, incoming commander of the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion. The
489th—an Army reserve unit headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn.—recently
returned from Afghanistan, he told National Defense. Before deploying to Afghanistan,
he said, the battalion had received a seven-month break after returning from
“For reservists, these frequent deployments are almost devastating,”
Amburn said. “I’m worried about keeping my people. I have a brilliant,
young captain. I can’t brag enough about him, and I’m losing him.
You can’t deploy this much and maintain a marriage.”
Deployments also are tough on training, he said. “Sergeants have to go
to school to get promotions. If you’re always deployed, how do you go
In such an environment, “it’s very challenging to keep good people,”
Amburn’s battalion includes 125 men and women, of whom 65 to 70 are officers.
“We’re pretty officer heavy,” he admitted.
What’s more, he noted, the officers tend to have considerable experience.
One major, a mother of two, is a veterinarian, part of the battalion’s
health team. Another is a warehouse and marketing-control manager for a multi-million
dollar company. A third is a railroad executive.
Also, he said, most of the enlisted personnel are non-commissioned officers
or higher. Some are college students.
The high ranks and education are required to accomplish the complex missions
assigned to Civil Affairs, Amburn said. During the battalion’s 10 months
in Afghanistan, he said, it completed between $7 million and $9 million in reconstruction
projects. The money went a long way.
“It only costs $100 to $200 to drill a well in Afghanistan,” he
explained. “You can rebuild a school for $20,000 to $30,000.”
Jobs for Afghans
Although the Civil Affairs units planned the projects, Afghans did most of
the actual work. “That does two things,” Amburn said. “First,
the projects get done. Wells get dug; schools get rebuilt. And second, Afghan
men get jobs and money to take home to their families.”
The Civil Affairs teams, however, have run into opposition from some of the
private aid agencies—also called non-governmental organizations, or NGOs—operating
In December, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, or ACBAR, issued
a statement complaining that using military units to provide humanitarian assistance
will “deflect attention from Afghanistan’s deteriorating security
situation and engage the military in a range of activities for which others
are better suited.”
The Civil Affairs teams are made up of “U.S. military reservists with
limited language skills, low knowledge of Afghan community dynamics and limited
experience of Afghanistan generally,” the ACBAR statement charged. “Assessments
and coordination designed by such individuals may be undermined by their lack
of ‘ground experience’ in Afghanistan, and solutions informed by
their analysis will be sub-optimal, as a result.”
Civil Affairs officers concede that language skills are a problem in their
units, but they note that they work closely with local Afghan organizations
to develop projects.
One reason that some NGOs are upset with the Civil Affairs units is that “they
see us as rivals, competing with them for relief funds,” said Amburn.
The Civil Affairs teams, however, go into places that the NGOs consider too
dangerous, Amburn said. “There were some places the NGOs just wouldn’t
go. The United Nations wouldn’t go into Gardez, for instance, until our
people came in.
“We always made the argument to the NGOs that we’re here to make
Afghanistan a safer place for you to operate,” Amburn said.
Civil Affairs specialists also encounter disdain from some active-duty military
personnel, said Maj. Timothy Zack, operations officer for the 402nd Civil Affairs
Battalion, of Tonawanda, N.Y. “We train our soldiers that they have two
strikes against them,” he told National Defense. “First, they’re
reservists, and a lot of active-duty soldiers don’t respect them for that,”
said Zack, who is an active-duty officer with 12 years’ experience. “And
they’re also Civil Affairs, which the rest of the Army doesn’t understand.”
What combat soldiers often don’t get is that Civil Affairs work can accomplish
some things that military force can’t, Zack said. “I’ve seen
it happen. In the Balkans, people would turn in bad guys—war criminals—because
they needed a well.”
Civil Affairs reservists also are soldiers in a more conventional way, he said.
They are all trained paratroopers. Civil Affairs has been part of the Special
Operations Command since it was established in 1987, and its members frequently
are assigned to work with Special Forces and airborne units.
“If we are asked to support the 82nd Airborne Division,” Zack said,
“we have to be ready.”
Now, Civil Affairs units are steeling themselves for possible deployment to
Iraq. Some organizations—such as Amburn’s 489th Battalion, just
back from Afghanistan and Bosnia before that—are hoping for some rest
before the next assignment.
“To be honest with you—God willing—I hope we don’t
go right away,” Amburn said. “We need to focus on retention and
training for awhile, so we can be better prepared the next time we are deployed.”