Civil Affairs Units Shifting Focus to Conflict Deterrence
U.S military civil affairs teams are shifting from reconstruction and post-combat stabilization efforts to conflict prevention as the global security environment becomes more uncertain, and forces become smaller,according to a report published July 9 by a non-profit research organization.
The current global security environment, termed the “new normal” by the Department of Defense, is characterized as a period of instability wherein deterrence strategies are take precedence over conflict and large-scale combat operations are avoided, said Vera Zakem, a research scientist at CNA and co-author of the paper, "Charting the Course for Civil Affairs in the New Normal."
“There is less of an appetite for major combat operations,” Zakem said.
As the new normal era continues, civil affairs (CA) forces are focusing on maintaining a “persistent presence” in regions and communities of interest, said Emily Mushen a CNA research analyst and co-author of the paper.
Civil affairs units, under the Marine Corps or Army Special Forces, work with military and non-military organizations and governments in stability operations. Their objective is to deter conflict through engagement with locals.
CA forces now have to engage with both traditional and non-traditional partners in order to build knowledge and influence in a community, Zakem said. In order for a unit to effectively deter conflict in an unstable region, it becomes necessary at times to build partnerships with voices in a community who are not affiliated with a civil or a state institution, she added. That may be religious leaders who are voices of moderation or nongovernmental organizations.
Investing in the partnerships on the ground is critical to maintaining a presence and deterring conflict, said Mushen. Civil affairs is increasingly important as as troop numbers are reduced because of budget constraints. There are tactical preferences for cost effective forces, she said.
“It’s essentially a different ballgame,” Mushen said.
For CA units in the Marine Corps, 75 percent of their capability lies in the reserves, according to the report. As major combat operations are slowing down, they are regularly being activated for duty on a voluntary basis, said Zakem. After nearly 15 years of consistent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — along with challenges from employers at home — the great demand for CA forces around the world is becoming more difficult to meet, said Zakem.
This underscores the emphasis on building relationships with partners on the ground, said Mushen. CA forces may be deployed to a different location each year, she said. It is hard to build the geographic expertise needed to deter conflict in that period of time, she added. Utilizing the knowledge and expertise of the partnerships established prior to their deployment helps to maintain the persistent presence required by the “new normal” security environment, she said.
With CA forces rotating in and out of various regions, investment in the local forces is key to “persistent presence,” said Mushen. They become a long-term investment in intelligence and situational understanding.
The security environment will be continually changing in the foreseeable future, Zakem said. Predictions about any new threats associated with the “new normal” cannot be readily predicted, said Mushen. Deterring conflicts at its root cause will be paramount to future stability.
“Civilian Affairs will play a critical role in the ‘new normal’ environment,” said Zakem.