Small Wars Journal

Civil Affairs and Civil Society: Harnessing the Latent Power of Social Bonds

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:22am

Civil Affairs and Civil Society: Harnessing the Latent Power of Social Bonds

Nicholas Ashley

This prioritization of lethal targeting…over the fashioning of indigenous solutions through partnering, engagement, and shaping…leaves a knowledge and capability gap in the US arsenal…DoD continues to let this gap go unaddressed, forcing neither the conventional force nor SOCOM to address these fundamental challenges.

-- Charles T. Cleveland, LTG(R)[1]

US Army Civil Affairs (CA) forces engage, influence, and shape the civil environment to set the conditions for successful military operations and to consolidate gains in the civil domain. This requires CA forces to partner with a variety of stakeholders ranging from US and foreign governments, international and nongovernmental organizations, and individuals and communities at the local level. Civil Affairs forces have largely succeeded in performing these tasks under challenging conditions around the world. Yet these same forces have failed to fully leverage an important component of the operational environment (OE): civil society.

Civil Affairs and Joint Doctrine allude to civil society’s important role within the OE. However, the concept receives only a few cursory mentions, including: defeating threats to it,[2] mitigating vulnerabilities to it,[3] and reintroducing former combatants into it.[4]  Civil society is addressed in neither practical nor theoretical terms. This lack of attention carries over into Civil Affairs Operations and civil-military operations. As specialists in the civil domain, CA forces must correct this shortcoming and engage civil society networks to maximize the joint force’s ability to understand and shape the human domain, consolidate gains in the civil environment for long-term advantage, and build and sustain broad networks for persistent engagement.

Defining Civil Society

Civil society occupies the space between the household and the state,[5] forming a unique sphere of associations and activities separate from government and the market yet completely autonomous from neither.[6] Indeed, civil society shapes, and is shaped by, the broader political, economic, cultural, and historical contexts within which it is situated.[7]

Civil society organizations (CSOs) enable collective action by lowering the barriers to participation in solving shared problems. They are composed of collections of formal and informal actors with diverse agendas, such as trade unions, issue advocacy groups, religious organizations, sports clubs, and political parties.[8] These actors form a part of the larger social system—the social order, and depending on the context, CSOs can be constructive, destructive, or little of both.[9]

Civil Society and Conflict

Conflict erodes social orders and can empower “conflict entrepreneurs” who exploit instability to further their malign agendas, which can include implementing their own visions for society, i.e. the Islamic State.[10] When the social order breaks down, insecurity rises and individuals tend to narrow their conceptions of community and turn inward toward more exclusive affiliations such as family, tribe, and clan groups. This, in turn, leads to a zero-sum environment with an “us versus them” dynamic that creates pathways to violence.[11]

Violence erodes social trust,[12] obliterates cross-cutting ties,[13] and forces individuals and groups to seek strategies for ensuring their survival that are unacceptable under normal conditions.[14] This can undermine the very foundations of society and lead to conflict spirals and ever-intensifying levels violence. But conflict does not have to be destructive. Depending on its form, conflict can lead to changes that, in the long-term, overcome social injustices and create more equitable, stable societies. Breaking and preventing these destructive cycles—overcoming conflict, stabilizing the environment, and achieving sustainable peace—requires empowering societies affected by violence.[15]

Conflict’s constructive potential depends on how it is carried out, i.e. whether through violent or nonviolent means. Robust civil society networks can help channel conflict away from destructive pathways and toward positive outcomes.[16] Social bonds discourage contentious tactics,[17] and high levels of social capital, cross-cutting connections across social groups, and a sense of common group membership acknowledging mutual dependence enable groups to resist the tendency for conflict to become violent.[18]

Civil society networks require trust among individuals and groups whose mutual interests incentivize compromise and cooperation.[19] Participation in CSOs can help bridge social divides and promote stability within communities based on trust, reciprocity, and self-interest.[20] The existence of overlapping networks with shared interests helps to build resilient communities able to resist pressures, both internal and external, to resort to violence when conflict occurs.[21] Where weak governance creates windows of opportunity for violent conflict to emerge, civil society can be leveraged to counter instability.[22] In sum, a strong civil society can help mitigate the destructive effects of conflict and create pathways to stability that help secure US interests.

Civil Affairs and Civil Society

US policy emphasizes “small-footprint, partner-focused stabilization activities that work by, with, and through indigenous and other external partners.”[23] Additionally, the 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) identifies the reduction of violence and the promotion of stability in areas affected by armed conflict as a US national security interest. Stabilization is a political effort requiring the alignment of US government efforts toward local “authorities and systems to peaceably manage conflict and prevent violence.”[24] Civil society networks are critical to this effort; failing to engage them risks the accomplishment of strategic stabilization objectives and the potential need for additional US resources to secure them.[25]

To fully realize the latent potential of CSOs to contribute to long-term peace and stability, CA forces must seek to understand and engage civil society networks, both as critical components of the OE and as vehicles for addressing instability in support of US national security interests. Failing to engage with the full array of actors and drivers of conflict in the OE risks missing out on opportunities to create the conditions for locally legitimate authorities and conflict resolution systems to develop the capacity to manage conflict peacefully and prevent future violence. Civil Affairs forces seek to deter and defeat threats to civil society by engaging the populace and mitigating the underlying causes of instability; however, CA forces must go beyond the traditional model of top-down, state-centric interventions and also utilize a bottom-up approach that draws on all the resources in the human domain to address the drivers of instability.

Working with civil society enables the cultivation of networks for long-term, persistent engagement. Civil society networks stretch across communities, regions, and borders and provide a ready reserve of individuals who can serve as a source of information, who can extend the operational reach of CA forces by providing a pool of individuals that can be mobilized in a crisis, and who can be leveraged to shape opinion across social groups and between elites and grassroots efforts.[26]

Since there is no overarching, universal form of civil society, understanding local contexts are critical. This requires expertise in political-military affairs, knowledge of local languages and cultures, and a knack for cross-cultural communication. Civil Affairs forces are uniquely qualified to leverage these networks and to understand, influence, shape, mobilize, and empower these local authorities and systems in support of military operations across the spectrum of conflict.[27]

Potential Challenges

Civil society provides numerous engagement opportunities, but challenges remain. Working by, with, and through civil society networks to achieve US security interests requires careful consideration of the conditions within the OE and awareness of second and third order effects that could arise from engaging civil society networks.

The first challenge is the potential for CSOs to undermine unity and feed conflict. This is due to the fact that incompatible rallying points and salient social fault lines existing within society can be exacerbated by CSOs.[28] Civil society groups can coalesce around narrow identities and adopt exclusionary practices.[29] This can increase the potential for parochial interests to manipulate civil society networks and use their influence for exploitative or violent behaviors—i.e., creating “uncivil society organizations.”[30] Criminals and violent extremist organizations can tap into existing aspirations and grievances within the populace to hijack civil society networks for their own malign purposes. However, developing cross-cutting connections across segments of society can increase social capital, increase resiliency, and enhance stability, thereby decreasing the potential for CSOs to become destructive. Identifying malign actors and either reforming them and integrating them into society or isolating them to limit their harmful impacts is essential.

A second challenge is the risk for CSOs to reinforce existing centers of power at the expense of building legitimate state capacity and developing effective governing institutions. This may be a necessary short-term tradeoff when a widely recognized, viable government is absent; however, in the long-term, this can exacerbate state weakness and lead to the rise of “warlordism” and competing power centers that encourage conflict. Since stabilization often calls for the empowerment of formal governing institutions, striking the proper balance between empowering CSOs and building state capacity is critical.[31] Therefore, efforts to bolster civil society capacity may require tying these networks into formal governing institutions and processes.

Fostering civil society where it has weak, or nonexistent, roots presents another challenge. It requires a thorough understanding of the social networks within the OE to avoid creating undesirable impacts within the OE. Efforts by third parties to build civil society carry the risk of empowering elites with narrow interests, who may be more concerned with manipulating interveners than creating durable networks capable of sustaining peace. These elites may seek to co-opt CSOs by exploiting existing social relationships and power structures (political, ethnic, socio-cultural) to advantage themselves to the detriment of unity within society at large and at the expense of state capacity.[32] Furthermore, when external support dries up, these pseudo-CSOs tend to lack permanence.[33] These efforts may also subordinate civil society to a narrow set of security interests, which often entail the funneling of resources through CSOs as a way to legitimize the state.[34] While state security interests are important, viewing civil society solely as a conduit to state legitimacy, especially through service delivery, can be counterproductive and undermine civil society’s legitimacy in the long run.[35] Instead of utilizing civil society networks primarily for the provision of services with the intent of propping up local governments, civil society engagement should focus on fostering networks with local roots and legitimacy, able to contribute to long-term stability.[36] This strategy may prove especially challenging since it requires long-term investment and grassroots support.

Finally, developing CSOs capable of managing wide-ranging interests while simultaneously preventing factionalizing is inherently difficult. Disagreements over strategies, tactics, and goals emerge when individuals and groups with different identities and diverging points of view come together. Consequently, the larger and more diverse an organization becomes, the more general its interests tend to be. Conversely, smaller, more homogeneous CSOs may more easily find consensus, but they may also become more susceptible to being co-opted by parochial interests and narrow centers of power.[37] The proper balance between efforts to build large coalitions and the need to maintain a coherent vision and unity of effort will differ within each context, requiring local knowledge and persistent engagement.

A common theme runs through the challenges mentioned above: the need for a deep understanding of the OE—and the networks within it—and the ability to engage these networks at the local level. Civil Affairs forces are positioned to do both. Civil Affairs forces can leverage their connections to both formal and informal, governmental and nongovernmental, networks to help bridge gaps between society and the state. They can use their ability to access and understand the civil domain to empower CSOs seeking to build coalitions for peace while mitigating the negative impacts of conflict entrepreneurs. Understanding the local context is essential to identifying the right partners and courses of action that will support US security interests. Civil Affairs forces already possess the skill-sets necessary to accomplish these tasks; the only missing piece is for CA to prioritize civil society engagement, both at the theoretical and practical levels.


Civil Affairs forces shape the civil environment to set the conditions for successful military operations and the consolidation of long-term security gains. Yet, CA has failed to take full advantage of opportunities within the OE. Civil society networks are a potential avenue for consolidating military gains into long-term successes,[38] addressing drivers of instability,[39] and managing conflicts peacefully while preventing the resurgence of violence.[40] They can enhance situational understanding, enable the synchronization efforts across space and time, facilitate the building of indigenous mass for solving collective problems, and support the development of networks for persistent engagement.

The 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review lays out a whole of government approach for reducing violence and promoting stability in areas affected by armed conflict. The SAR also acknowledges that large-scale reconstruction efforts are likely a thing of the past, requiring the US to be more selective when expending resources and advocates the use of small-scale interventions driven by host nation governments and local communities to secure US security interests.[41] Working by, with, and through civil society should be a central part of this bottom-up approach to stabilizing areas affected by conflict.

The argument presented here identifies the need for further study into civil society networks and the potential benefits to be gained by working by, with, and through CSOs to prevent, manage, and end conflict. Civil Affairs forces can engage civil society at any echelon and during any phase of an operation. This means that ways for improving civil society engagement are within reach, but change will require cultural and cognitive shifts that will, in some ways, require CA forces to adopt a new paradigm for thinking about and conducting operations. Despite these challenges, such an effort is necessary if Civil Affairs forces are to succeed across the full spectrum of operational environments into the future.

End Notes

[1] Cleveland, Charles, Benjamin Jensen, Arnel David, and Susan Bryant. Military Strategy for the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition. Cambria Press: New York, 2018, xvii.

[2] Department of the Army. Civil Affairs. FM 3-57. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2014, 1-3.

[3] CA core tasks are primary tasks that CA forces are capable of planning, supporting, executing, or transitioning through and with outside actors to mitigate or defeat threats and vulnerabilities to civil society. Civil Affairs, 3-1.

[4] Disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating (DDR) former belligerents into civil society. Civil Affairs, 3-26

[5] Layton, Robert. Order and Anarchy: Civil Society, Social Disorder and War 1st ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 3.

[6] Howell, Jude and Jeremy Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy: Aid, Security and Civil Society After 9/11 in Afghanistan." The European Journal of Development Research 21, no. 5 (2009), 719.

[7] Ehrenberg, John. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea, Second edition. New York: New York University Press, 2017, 273.

[8] Howell and Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy,” 719.

[9] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 3.

[10] Ibid, 7.

[11] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 46.

[12] Ibid, 119.

[13] Ibid, 135.

[14] Ibid, 134.

[15] Ramsbotham, Oliver. Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts, edited by Woodhouse, Tom, Hugh Miall. Fourth edition. ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, 274.

[16] Pruitt, Dean G., and Rubin, Jeffrey Z. Social conflict: escalation, stalemate, and settlement 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1986, Chapter 1.

[17] Ibid, 68-69.

[18] Ibid, 69.

[19] Ehrenberg. Civil Society, 276.

[20] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 168-169.

[21] Menkhaus, Ken. “Making Sense of Resilience in Peacebuilding Contexts: Approaches, Applications, Implications.” Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, Paper no. 6. Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding. 2013.

[22] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 7.

[23] Defense Support to Stabilization. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

[24] “A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of US Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas.” Stabilization Assistance Review. 2018, 1.

[25] Defense Support to Stabilization, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

[26] Ramsbotham. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 215-216.

[27] Cleveland, Jensen, David, and Bryant. Military Strategy for the 21st Century, 170.

[28] Layton. Order and Anarchy, 17.

[29] Andrieu, Kora. "Civilizing Peacebuilding: Transitional Justice, Civil Society and the Liberal Paradigm." Security Dialogue 41, no. 5 (2010): 537-558. doi:10.1177/0967010610382109, 553.

[30] For example, the Klu Klux Klan. See also Chambers, Simone, and Jeffrey Kopstein. "Bad Civil Society." Political Theory 29, no. 6 (2001): 837-65., 1.

[31] Menkhaus, Ken. “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping.” International Security 31, no. 3 (n.d.): 74–106.

[32] Fukuyama, Francis. “Social Capital, Civil Society and Development.” Third World Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2001), 17.

[33] Fukuyama. "Social Capital, Civil Society and Development," 18.

[34] Perrin, Benjamin. Modern Warfare Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations, and the Law, edited by Perrin, Benjamin. Vancouver B.C.: UBC Press, 2012.

[35] Marchetti, Raffaele and Nathalie Tocci. “Conflict Society: Understanding the Role of Civil Society in Conflict.” Global Change, Peace & Security 21, no.2 (2009), 202-203.

[36] Howell and Lind. "Manufacturing Civil Society and the Limits of Legitimacy,” 718-736.

[37] Ehrenberg. Civil Society, 279.

[38] Civil Affairs, 1-1.

[39] Ibid, 3-27.

[40] Defense Support to Stabilization, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, April 2018.

[41] “A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of US Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas,” 2-7.


About the Author(s)

Captain Nicholas Ashley is an active duty Army Civil Affairs officer. He recently completed the Advanced Civil Schooling program at The George Washington University, where he earned an MA in Security Policy Studies. Previously, he served as a Team Leader in the 84th Civil Affairs Battalion.