Where, when, how, and why do civil dynamics matter to the military? How do the US military and its NATO allies identify and exploit relevant civil phenomena? To what extent should military commanders care about the overwhelming majority of a given operational environment that is not an enemy or adversary?

Despite two decades of intensive counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, in which the human terrain was declared “decisive” and the population “the center of gravity,” there is no serious, compelling answer to any of these questions. There is no coherent, consistent approach to the investigation of issues beyond enemy-centric intelligence and the military’s core focus on deterring and defeating armed adversaries. As a result—as showcased to the world in Iraq and Afghanistan—Western militaries remain deaf, dumb, and blind vis-à-vis broad swathes of any operational environment.

This presents a dangerous competitive liability. To address this situation, policymakers need to acknowledge and address two issues. First, Western militaries require a coherent investigative approach that examines enemies and adversaries as integral features of the human context in which competition and conflict occur. No such framework presently exists. Intelligence professionals focus narrowly on opposing forces, leveraging sophisticated tools, established processes, and abundant resources. The remainder of an operational environment, meanwhile, is managed separately. In theory, civil-oriented contextual insights are fused into the military’s primary, enemy-centric lens. In reality, they are treated as a peripheral afterthought. As analysis shifts away from an opponent’s military capabilities and into the civil environment, it typically becomes more inconsistent, uncertain, and unactionable—the inevitable result of systemic faults in the intelligence architecture of the US military and its NATO allies.

Second, the capabilities tasked to assess and engage with civil matters—civil affairs in the US military, and civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) forces across the rest of the NATO alliance—have been set up to fail. These capabilities are tasked to understand, engage, and manage all things “civil.” This is a wildly unrealistic mandate, due to the simple fact that they are asked to cover vastly more ground than their enemy-centric counterparts, with a miniscule fraction of the resources, training, and personnel. Presented with this fundamentally unreasonable tasking, civil affairs capabilities have been spread far too thinly and have consistently underwhelmed their customers. The result has been their steady marginalization. To break this cycle, policymakers must make hard choices about narrowing their focus and professionalizing their efforts.

Relevance in a New Reality

The latest NATO concepts (such as the 2022 NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept and the Concept for the Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area) emphasize increasing complexity within the competition continuum, with respect to military and nonmilitary actors alike. They also highlight interdependencies of military and nonmilitary instruments of power. Nonetheless, the transition from COIN to the strategic competition paradigm has pushed civil dynamics even further to the margins of Western military thought. The US military and its NATO allies are overwhelmingly focused on their competitors and the conventional military threats they pose. This foe-centric orientation aligns neatly with organizational biases and cultural instincts. As warfighting institutions, they have met the end of the COIN era with relief: instead of grappling with the opaque complexity of foreign societies, they think they can now refocus on the core business of force-on-force combat.

The need to reorient priorities and posture for the post-COIN era is self-evident. That said, the speed and glee with which Western militaries are turning their backs on the contextual features of the competitive landscape creates dangerous blind spots. Civil considerations may not merit center stage in the new strategic reality, but they will comprise a critical feature of any operational context. The inability to understand and maneuver within the civil environment will prove a crippling competitive liability below the threshold of war, for example, while failure to understand, engage, and shape the civil environment will jeopardize any gains made via the application of force.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers important lessons on the criticality of civil considerations and contextual understanding. At the outset, the Kremlin made catastrophically inaccurate assumptions regarding the practical implications of eastern Ukraine being predominantly “Russian” in ethnic and linguistic terms. Russian leadership also grossly underestimated the Ukrainians’ will to fight, both within the Armed Forces of Ukraine and among the general population. And it remains unclear how Russian forces will control (not to mention govern) the territories they have seized, in the face of a growing guerrilla movement and civil resistance campaign.

Unseriousness in the Human Domain

Notwithstanding the lessons that should have been learned from failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the salutary warning of Russia’s ongoing struggles in Ukraine, indifference defines the US military and NATO’s current approach to civil dynamics. This is most vividly evident in the marginality of the capabilities tasked to assess, understand, engage, and liaise with civil matters. The US military tasks civil affairs forces with the vast bulk of this mission. In NATO, it falls to CIMIC. Both capabilities are assigned a staggeringly broad range of activities, from the assessment of civil dynamics, to the integration of contextual insight into planning and targeting processes, to liaison with nonmilitary actors and the development of civil networks, to the management of refugee flows and other humanitarian concerns. Each line of effort demands substantive expertise and dedicated resources. Yet, civil affairs and CIMIC are not staffed, trained, or equipped to consistently accomplish these tasks at scale. Put bluntly, they appear to be token, unserious efforts to grapple with complex and dynamic problem sets on behalf of organizations that would prefer to avoid such matters entirely.

This places civil affairs and CIMIC forces in an impossible position. Tasked to do far too much with far too little, they are ever the “eager amateurs.” They often achieve tactical and operational successes (thanks to raw talent and dedication on the part of individuals), yet inconsistent performance and inadequate resources limit their strategic impact. This creates a vicious cycle, wherein the uneven quality of civil affairs and CIMIC’s outputs validate their further marginalization by organizations that are instinctively skeptical of their utility.

The Bigger Picture: Integrating Context into Intelligence

The struggles of civil affairs and CIMIC are indicative of a broader problem: Western militaries pay lip service to the importance of civil dynamics, but they have no viable framework to investigate or operationalize them. As a result, military commanders do not know what to ask of capabilities like civil affairs and CIMIC, or how to leverage them effectively—because the investigation and analysis of civil dynamics is not adequately integrated into core military investigative and analytical efforts. This is a key root cause of civil affairs and CIMIC’s lack of focus and direction.

At present, the intelligence architecture of the US military and its NATO allies attempts to understand operational environments by cobbling together a disparate collection of analytical outputs: products that examine NATO foes and others that explore the context in which NATO confronts them. The prerequisite for actionable understanding and astute maneuver is to establish causal relationships among these reporting streams: for example, to understand why an enemy has adopted a certain course of action in response to specific contextual dynamics, or how a given facet of the civil environment can be leveraged to effect behavioral change among a particular target audience. US intelligence and planning processes, as currently executed, cannot reliably do this.

Consider the position of a military commander or planner presented with intelligence on the posture, capabilities, and recent actions of enemy forces, contextual reporting that examines various social, economic, and political issues, and data streams that track the trajectory of myriad indicators from the battlefield (including incidences of violence, the prices of commercial goods, illicit trade flows, and the movement of displaced persons). Are surges in violence indicative of an enemy on the rise, or of one in a panicked state of collapse? Is this violence a cause, or an effect, of economic fluctuations? Are corresponding population movements driven by fear or opportunism? What is the relationship between an opponent and the particular groups that have chosen to leave or remain? Who has the upper hand in the relationships that exist between our opponent and the various social, economic, and political entities present on the battlefield, and who is driving the behavior of whom?

How can this be stitched together? The significance of each individual reporting stream vis-à-vis another has not been systematically captured at the point of collection. Policymakers know that various things are happening, but they lack the why and the because to explain them. As a result, they must infer those answers after the fact. This effort is sufficiently fraught as to be compromised from the outset on the sparse terrain of eastern Syria or southern Afghanistan. Consider the prospect of undertaking such a sense-making exercise in the midst of large-scale urban combat in Ukraine, or in a hybrid contest for position and influence in the Baltics or the South China Sea.

This is a structural fault in Western militaries’ approach to understanding. Decision makers are fed disparate, siloed reporting streams. The primary view examines an opponent and its kinetic capabilities, with little to no regard for the ground upon which conflict and competition occur. Contextual reporting is generated separately, addressing a breadth of issues that may or may not hold relevance in a given time and place. As these analytical raw materials are being fed into the intelligence cycle without an understanding as to their connectivity, causal relationships must be ascribed retroactively (by individuals who may or may not have firsthand, current knowledge of the subject matter in question). This opens a Pandora’s box of distortion and errors arising from mistaken assumptions, biases of varying types, political manipulation, the urge to tell superiors what they want to hear, and hubristic bluffing. It is a nearly hopeless attempt to reverse engineer something that our intelligence architecture should have established in the first place: an understanding of opponents as integral features of the broader operational environment.

Simplify, Simplify

In recognition of the challenges facing civil-oriented military capabilities in the West, the NATO-accredited CIMIC Centre of Excellence recently commissioned a study of US civil affairs and NATO CIMIC doctrine. This document compares and contrasts the two capabilities’ doctrinal tasking and highlights shared challenges. Most importantly, it also charts a potential path forward, through which civil affairs and CIMIC might make an evidence-based case to the forces they support for the value of their outputs and their worthiness for better integration and resourcing.

The core recommendation of this study paper is to prioritize within the impossibly broad mandate presently assigned to civil affairs and CIMIC. For these capabilities to improve their performance and stature, they must master a limited number of critical tasks. It is not realistic to achieve mastery across multiple disciplines within the limits of their resourcing. In the current strategic environment, the most valuable things that civil affairs and CIMIC can provide are understanding and insight. Without a focused understanding of the playing field, how can the US military and its NATO allies compete to win?

Within US military doctrine, this effort centers on civil reconnaissance (the process through which key civil considerations are identified and explored) and civil knowledge integration (the ensuing process through which such insights are integrated into broader decision-making processes). Within NATO doctrine, the preferred terms are civil assessment and civil factor integration (the latter being a new NATO CIMIC working term).

The call for specialization is a controversial opinion within civil affairs and CIMIC. Both capabilities have embraced a jack-of-all-trades identity for decades. But this approach is no longer tenable. Civil affairs and CIMIC’s attempt to provide all-encompassing support vis-à-vis all things “civil” in nature has stretched both capabilities far too thinly. As the saying goes, the jack-of-all-trades is the master of none.

The Key Ingredients

Ongoing introspection and innovation within civil affairs and CIMIC are important steps in the right direction. Civil affairs and CIMIC are exploring new investigative methods and frameworks. At present, this is a glaring weakness: neither civil affairs nor CIMIC possess a fit-for-purpose investigative approach to structure the examination of civil factors and the production of consistent, focused insight. Additionally, both capabilities must offer compelling “signature deliverables” that capture the attention of the commanders they support and create a steady demand for reporting on civil concerns. Consistent, conspicuous excellence in these two endeavors offers civil affairs and CIMIC a path toward proper relevance and integration.

The primary signature deliverable that is suggested in the NATO CIMIC Centre of Excellence study also offers a framework through which the above-noted architectural faults might be resolved. This is through the production of a structured analytical product that captures the roots of an enemy or adversary within the wider operational environment. Where, when, how, and why has the enemy mobilized local support, absorbed local resources, and shaped public opinion? Conversely, where, when, how, and why has it failed to do so? What actions, capabilities, and narratives have given rise to its successes and failures? This analytical process would map an opponent’s root structure within the contours of the human terrain, as an integral feature of the operational environment. The ensuing root maps would be a signature intelligence product.

Consider the actionable utility of a standardized product that mapped the roots of Russian influence in the Balkans, or Chinese influence from one country to the next across sub-Saharan Africa. Looking to a kinetic environment, consider such a product mapping the localized, community-level roots that have been established by the regional franchises of the Islamic State in the Sahel, or by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. In all such cases, these products would provide an essential intermediate connection between the traditional enemy-centric lens of Western militaries and their contextually oriented capabilities, and likewise between lethal and nonlethal targeting processes.

Having mapped an opponent’s root structure within the human terrain, civil affairs and CIMIC could further broaden their analytical lens by investigating the social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics that explain the growth of said roots. Why has an opponent targeted certain demographic cohorts in specific ways? Why have certain individuals and groups adopted particular courses of action? What explains the varied resonance of an opponent’s narratives, and what local narratives have emerged in response? Which segments of the populace are particularly vulnerable, and to which specific threats?

Building from the concept of root maps, contextual investigation would be framed, from the outset, by an understanding of the opposition as an integral feature of the operating environment. This guarantees the relevance of subsequent contextual reporting. Equally importantly, it would fuse that reporting into the military’s understanding of an enemy or adversary. This, in turn, would give rise to a truly integrated approach to targeting, enabling the development of integrated campaigns that disrupt and degrade an opponent—while simultaneously uprooting them from the operational environment.

Dr. Nicholas Krohley is the founder of FrontLine Advisory, and proprietor of www.civilreconnaissance.com.

Lieutenant Colonel Stefan Muehlich is the branch chief of Concepts, Interoperability, Capabilities at the NATO-accredited Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the NATO-accredited CIMIC Centre of Excellence and the German Armed Forces.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Sean Carnes, US Air Force