New West Point Center Preserves Lessons Learned in Afghanistan, Iraq

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It is often said that in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military forgot the lessons of counterinsurgency from Vietnam. In a future conflict, might the military forget the lessons of civil-military operations from the past decade of war? A new center at West Point aims to prevent that from happening.

“We face metaphysical questions about the last ten years,” says John Melkon, who has been building and leading the new Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations (CSCMO) since March 2012. “What did we learn about civil-military operations and what are we going to do in the future?”

Melkon, a former Army Special Forces officer who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, says he hopes CSCMO will serve as a “repository for lessons learned and a focal point for education to pass those lessons onto the next generation of military leaders.” 

Civil-military operations (CMO) is the term given to wide-range of collaborative activities between military forces, governments, non-governmental organizations, and the civilian population in a given theater of operations. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the term has become closely associated with “winning hearts and minds,” managing relations with civilian populations in order facilitate military operations and achieve U.S. objectives.

Reconstructing a canal, managing licensing, providing medical care, and distributing food may not be what cadets have in mind for their careers when they arrive at West Point, but as veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq can testify, these kinds of activities can mean the difference between winning and losing a war.

For too long, civil and military operations were not effectively integrated in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In Afghanistan, for example, an interagency plan for CMO was not even requested until April 2002, five months after the war began. One analysis by William Flavin at the Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute blamed this gap in civil-military planning for many of the war’s initial setbacks, including the failure to provide a safe and secure environment beyond Kabul and U.S. bases, hampered humanitarian assistance, and the lack of functional governance that left openings for the Taliban.

A similar failure in Iraq provided the impetus for CSCMO at West Point. In 2003, while serving as a Civil Affairs Officer in Iraq, John P. DeBlasio witnessed something that deeply troubled him. “The Army was not prepared to engage with local populations and achieve military objectives in a non-kinetic fashion,” he says. In March 2012, DeBlasio pledged a gift to the West Point Association of Graduates that formally established CSCMO.

Some might wonder if establishing CSCMO comes a bit late. After all, the war in Iraq is over and the transition out of Afghanistan is well under way. And President Obama’s Defense Strategic Guidance assumes the United States will not be involved in similar conflicts for the foreseeable future. So why focus on CMO now?

For the CMO community, these operations are not a mere leftover of Afghanistan and Iraq, but an enduring feature of U.S. military operations in the future. Melkon points to the Defense Strategic Guidance’s emphasis on “building partnership capacity” as one source of CMO’s continued relevance. With a reduced force structure, the U.S. will increasingly rely upon coordination with allies and partners in military operations. That kind of coordination, support, and training is a core element of CMO already taking place in countries such as Kenya and the Philippines.  CMO is further bolstered by the military’s updated joint doctrine for CMO as well as high demand on U.S. forces for missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

At the heart of CSCMO’s mission is the changing role of junior officers in the CMO field. Current education focuses heavily on the mid-career and senior levels. But as Melkon points out, company-grade officers—lieutenants and captains—often engage with civilian populations, local leaders, NGOs, and non-DOD agencies on a daily basis. “Our cadets are experiencing interagency and host nation issues earlier and earlier in their careers,” observes Melkon.

And that’s not just true for a forward-deployed platoon leader. Cadets in numerous fields will benefit from the integration of CMO education into the West Point curriculum. CMO has broad applications across diverse fields such as medical services, engineering, military intelligence, military police. And it is essential for cadets entering specialty fields like civil affairs, special operations, foreign affairs, and human intelligence. That’s why CSCMO seeks “to develop all West Point leaders so that they are prepared to employ an understanding of [CMO] within the framework of the broad spectrum of challenges they will face in military service.”

CSCMO will launch on Friday, October 18 at West Point. Even before the launch, the center has attracted an impressive slate of lecturers for Spring 2014 including Major General H.R. McMaster, General  Anthony Zinni (ret.),  and Admiral James Stavridis (ret.).

Photo credit: U.S. Army

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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