March 8, 2005
American troops have gained a lot of experience in peacekeeping during the Afghanistan and Iraq operations. However, to the dismay of many Civil Affairs (CA) officers, suggestions made after the 1991 Gulf War, and repeated recently, have largely gone unattended to. Its deja-vu all over again.
Some 97 percent of CA officers are reservists. This is largely because theres not a lot for CA troops to do in peacetime. That, plus the fact that the most valuable skills of CA officers have to do with rebuilding communities and governments. Civilian specialists, especially people with experience in solving problems and running communities, are most successful as CA officers. Indeed, many are lawyers, government officials and business managers. But after 1991, there was a request for more technical people as well. Engineers in particular, especially those who could cope with infrastructure (power, water, sewers, roads and the like) were in great demand. There was also a need for CA units to be more self-sufficient, so they were not a burden on the combat units they supported.
It was also felt useful for CA units to specialize on particular regions of the world, like Special Forces units do. Learning something about the language, culture and customs, ahead of time, would save CA operators at lot of time and aggravation when they did get mobilized. Such training would also make reserve meetings more useful, and less like wasting time (a common complaints when CA reservists put in their weekend and Summer training time.) More attention should be paid to the specific jobs CA troops perform. At higher headquarters, you need CA officers who can deal with strategic issues, while at lower levels you need operators who can get specific things done. CA officers are not always assigned to where their skills can be best applied. The army tends to ignore the suggestions of CA officers for this kind of well thought out organization. The same mistakes are made over and over again.
Speaking of wasted time, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC), the headquarters that controls CA unit assignments, is still much criticized by CA officers for the seemingly random and unorganized way that CA units are activated and sent overseas. Theres definitely a lack of communications, at least, here. There is also the continuing attitude of disdain by the active duty commanders towards the CA reservists. This sort of friction exists throughout the army, and is directed at all reservists. But its particularly harmful with CA operators. The CA reservists are highly skilled, and very effective people. Treating them like a bunch of not ready for prime time soldiers does no one any good. Another often ignored suggestion is having reserve CA units spending some time with the combat units they would support in wartime. Just putting the CA and combat unit officers together for training exercises would go a long way to building confidence and making wartime operations go a lot more smoothly. Also, the active duty unit would take more interest in their CA unit. By now, most active duty troops that have served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan know how essential CA troops are.
Veteran CA officers are wondering if the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan will, once more be forgotten, only to be relearned the next time the CA troops are called up. It will be worse next time, because many experienced CA reservists are getting out. Fed up with the same dumb problems, and getting sent overseas constantly, they are leaving in droves. Their word of mouth has not made recruiting replacements easier. Maybe its time to get it right.