Special Operations: UnCivil Affairs in SOCOM


March 7, 2006: The head of the U.S. Army Reserve, responding to long time complaints from members of Civil Affairs units, is trying to get control of Civil Affairs battalions away from SOCOM (Special Operations Command). SOCOM has had control of the32 Civil Affairs (CA) battalions (some 6,000 troops) since 1992 (shortly after SOCOM was formed). While SOCOM worked hard, and spent a lot of money, integrating the CA troops into the special operations community, it was not a good fit. That's so for several reasons.

First, and foremost, some 90 percent of the CA troops are reservists. And very well educated and capable reservists at that. Many CA troops are, in civilian life, lawyers, executives and, in general, energetic, problem solving, professionals. CA troops are expected to work with foreign civilians, in a combat zone, and sort things out to prevent hassles for the combat troops. The Special Forces regulars are also trained to do that, although with an eye towards doing it deep in enemy territory. CA, on the other hand, only work in areas controlled by friendly troops. The Special Forces emphasize military skills, while CA emphasizes civilian ones. The CA troops are very good at going into an area, hooking up with the civilian movers-and-shakers, and making things happen. Their problem solving and management skills are legendary, but this is because most CA operators are basically very capable civilians in uniform. The super-soldier culture of SOCOM and the civilians-in-uniform mindset of the CA troops was never a good fit.

Thus, while SOCOM controls Civil Affairs troops, most SOCOM troops rarely operate with CA units. This is just as well, because your average SOCOM operator sees CA people as civilians just barely in uniform. Both communities respect each other, but also can't completely get beyond the differences.

There were other problems, within the CA units themselves. The people commanding CA units were not always the best CA practitioners. This created problems with the people doing the work, and their sometimes clueless commanders. It got worse, because CA troops were usually working on projects of interest to the commanders of combat, and combat support, units in the area. Bring SOCOM brass into this witches brew, to "straighten things out," and you were in for an exciting time.

Most importantly, CA have proved very valuable troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The more you can cut deals with the local civilians (who tend to be well armed, and not entirely sure whose side they are on), the less your troops will be getting shot at by the natives. The CA troops were an excellent "defensive weapon," and they were also very good at collection information, and finding out which local civilians were willing to supply more news of who was doing what to whom in the neighborhood. But the people who work with the CA troops the most, are the regular army combat brigades.

SOCOM still needs some CA capability, so the current deal on the table involves giving the army most of the CA battalions, some to SOCOM, and get all of the, including the three marine CA battalions, to confer regularly. The Department of Defense also wants everyone to develop some more of their own CA capability. Units headed for Iraq and Afghanistan have already been doing that, and the new proposal wants to make that a permanent part of the standard playbook.

The big problem here is that this is the first time, in over three decades, that CA has had an opportunity to do their stuff, in a big way, and over an extended period of time. No one knew exactly how everything would turn out, but now they do, and it's not surprising that there different ideas on how to organize and run CA in the future.


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