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American Forces Press Service

Civil Affairs Mission Continues to Grow in Iraq, Afghanistan

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 29, 2004 - Winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi and Afghan people is much more than just a slogan for the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne).

The Army's only active-duty civil affairs battalion, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., focuses 24/7 on bridging the gap between U.S. and coalition forces and the local populations. It's a mission that continues in peacetime as well as war.

Maj. Don Sculli, executive officer for the battalion's C Company, said his most valuable tool in carrying out the job typically isn't his weapon or combat gear. "The most important thing you bring in may be your Rolodex," he said.

Civil affairs teams support commanders on the battlefield, forming relationships with "movers and shakers" to gain cooperation and, ideally, support for the operation. Using their language skills and expertise about the local culture, they work with local governments and civilian aid organizations to rebuild infrastructure and restore stability.

In the war on terror, the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion has made important inroads into the local populations. Unit members helped get power plants and other infrastructure in Iraq up and running. They got local power brokers to help them move excess military medical supplies to Iraqi medical facilities that had none. In Afghanistan, they trained and armed a 295-man militia, set up a police force, provided much-needed medical care and personally built six schools with the first flushing toilets ever seen in the region. The list goes on and on.

On the surface, some might not see the military implications of these efforts, but unit members say they're considerable. Shortly after the ground war kicked off in Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class Keith Ducote, team sergeant for the battalion's B Company, said troops were getting "sniped at" in a village outside Baghdad. Ducote's team started handing out toys to children in the village to begin forming bonds with the people. But what really made the difference, he said, was when the team sponsored a dental hygiene class to teach about 300 local children how to brush and floss their teeth, then handed out dental kits.

After that, Ducote said, people within the village started approaching him to report where insurgents had hidden weapons. "Just about every cache of weapons we've found has been the result of someone coming forward," agreed Victor Anderson, a medic with the battalion's E Company.

Military leaders may have given the civil affairs mission relatively short shrift in the past, but no more. They've come to recognize the important role of civil and are incorporating civil-military operations into their battle plans from the earliest planning stages. Trained civil affairs staffs now are an integral part of every command staff.

"The words 'civil-military operations' are now in the Army lexicon," said Anderson. "It's not an afterthought anymore."

But just as the military is gaining a better appreciation of the value civil affairs, the Army is finding itself stretched painfully thin in manpower to cover the demand.

The 96th Civil Affairs Battalion is in a constant state of deployment. "We basically have three states," Sculli explained. "You're either there, you just got home, or you're getting ready to go."

For the first 20 months after Sept. 11, 2001, Sculli said he both started and ended a full month at home just three times. Anderson, E Company's only Special Forces medic, has been deployed 14 months out of the last two years, with two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. Just returned from his latest deployment, he is already preparing to return to Southwest Asia. "We deploy a lot," he said.

Yet the battalion represents just 4 percent of the Army's civil affairs capability. The vast majority of civil affairs expertise lies in the reserve components. These units, too, are so overtaxed by multiple deployments that Thomas F. Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, is pushing to shift more civil affairs jobs into the active force.

Concerned that too few soldiers are being called on repeatedly to fulfill too many demands, the DoD leadership is rethinking the civil affairs manning chart. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld supports plans to "rebalance" the force to relieve the burden on civil affairs and other "high-demand, low density" or "stressed" specialties concentrated in the reserve components.

Plans are under way to double the size of the battalion, from just over 200 soldiers to about 400 by fiscal 2005 to increase its operational capability.

And while defense leaders tweak the manning charts to help create more civil affairs experts capable of deploying quickly to carry out the civil affairs mission, Sculli said the military is recognizing that civil affairs isn't exclusively the job of civil affairs specialists.

"People are starting to understand that civil-military operations is everybody's job in stabilization operations, not just the civil affairs guy's," he said. "Everybody has to do it and be trained to do it. And little by little, I think we're getting there."

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