Civil Affairs: As Demands for Nation-Building Troops Soar, Leaders Ponder Reorganization

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Civil Affairs: As Demands for Nation-Building Troops Soar, Leaders Ponder Reorganization


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


Army and U.S. Special Operations Command officials are studying proposals to reorganize the small but highly in-demand civil affairs force.

Civil affairs troops, who specialize in nation building and civilian-military relations, possess skills that have become indispensable to U.S. commanders. In the Iraqi war zone, particularly, forces fight insurgents, and at the same time try to rebuild the economy and the infrastructure.

Civil affairs soldiers, who are trained on the intricacies of foreign cultures and institutions, currently are part of the Army Special Operations Command, under SOCOM. More than 90 percent of them are reservists.

About a year ago, concerned by the escalating violence in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked Army and SOCOM officials to work out a plan to expand civil affairs skills throughout the Army.

In a series of memos, known inside the Pentagon as "snowflakes," Rumsfeld questioned whether civil affairs should remain under SOCOM, particularly at a time when special operations forces are directing their focus to hunting terrorists and uncovering weapons of mass destruction.

With 6,000 members, the civil affairs force has been part of SOCOM since 1992. Except for one unit, the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, all others are in the reserves. The Marine Corps has three civil affairs units.

According to current expansion plans, the 500-member 96th Civil Affairs Battalion gradually will increase by 400 more slots, and will become a brigade. Another 1,100 billets will be added to the reserves.

A reorganization of civil affairs could go in a number of different directions, officials told National Defense. One option is to maintain the status quo. Another is to shift the entire civil affairs force to the Army. A third alternative, one that has been gaining momentum, is to let SOCOM keep the 96th Brigade, which would focus on special-operations missions. The rest of the force would be part of the Army Reserve Command, and would be lined up with Army maneuver brigades.

Spokesmen for the Army and for the office of the secretary of defense declined to provide details of the reorganization plans, citing the "pre-decisional" nature of the discussions.

"Rather than directing that civil affairs be reorganized, the secretary of defense asked for a review of whether the U.S. Special Operations Command should be responsible for civil affairs organizations," a Defense Department spokesman told National Defense. "Accordingly, SOCOM has undertaken a review of civil affairs, which is ongoing. The review will include looking at how civil affairs units are assigned and trained."

The office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, sources said, is recommending that no changes be made until the completion of the Quadrennial Defense Review that is expected to wrap up by the end of the year.

As the debate unfolds, there is angst in the civil affairs community, noted retired brigadier general Jack Kern, who served as chief of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command. Among the reasons why officials should consider reorganizing civil affairs is that these units, for the most part, train and serve with the conventional Army more than with special operations, Kern said in an interview. Nonetheless, he added, "SOCOM took us under their wing and did great things for us ... But that does not mean we should stay there."

Meanwhile, one of the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq is that the conventional Army doesn't integrate the civilian and military missions well, said Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a civil affairs officer who commanded the 402nd Battalion in Iraq last year.

"As a nation, we have accepted difficult stabilization and reconstruction challenges in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq," Holshek wrote in a study published by the National Defense University. …

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