Ghost soldiers

The Pentagon’s Decade-Long Struggle to Win Hearts and Minds Through Civil Affairs

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Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Morrison was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a Civil Affairs officer despite a bad knee, a bum shoulder, and high blood pressure. He was killed by an improvised explosive device

Morrison Family

Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Morrison would have celebrated his 51st birthday next month if he hadn't been sent to Iraq.

Instead the Postal Service dock worker was mobilized in 2005 despite a bad knee, a bum shoulder, and high blood pressure, and sent to be a Civil Affairs officer based at Taji, north of Baghdad. He died five months later during the Iraqi insurgency, a victim of an IED that tore apart his Humvee.

"This was not the way I wanted my life with him to end," said his widow, Becky, of Yakima, Wash.

Morrison was among thousands of reservists called up on short notice for Civil Affairs work, a class of specialists that was supposed to be so plentiful and deeply trained that it would change the course of future warfare.

Instead, Civil Affairs has struggled as a stepchild in the vast military effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although a mere fraction of the troops are dedicated to Civil Affairs, they have been deployed without proper training and equipment to hostile territory to carry out heroic efforts against difficult odds and they are killed far out of proportion to their numbers, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks prompted the Bush administration to declare a global campaign against terrorism, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vowed to fight “a different kind of war” in which U.S. soldiers would help “make allies” of suppressed people.

The Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command should have been the vanguard of those efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to restore electricity, building water systems and spreading good will.

But for most of Rumsfeld’s tenure, the command lacked the soldiers, training and equipment to do the job successfully, and disguised its weaknesses by keeping “ghosts” on its books, internal Army memos show.

“This won’t do!” Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the four-star general then in charge of Special Operations Command, wrote in a handwritten notation on a 2004 memo warning that Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations was short of critical supplies and had hundreds of “ghosts” on its books.

The hundreds of ghost soldiers on the Civil Affairs rosters were reservists who couldn't perform their duties in a combat zone for a variety of reasons, such as they had physical ailments, had missed mandatory training or had lost contacts with their units. Their appearance on the books made the Civil Affairs command look like it had more human resources to deploy than it did, and that forced commanders to keep re-deploying the same reservists time and again to meet the demand. Heavy casualties thinned the ranks over time, leaving the force even more depleted, according to memos and interviews with former officers.

Generals in the field, unable to obtain sufficient Civil Affairs units, sent reservists into harm’s way without hardened armored vehicles, protective plates for their armored vests and machine guns.

Rumsfeld repeatedly sent “snowflake” memos to top officials in the Pentagon and the field demanding answers, and in 2006 he ordered a reorganization of Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations that split the forces and removed most of them from the military’s elite Special Operations Command.

Military commanders say the reorganization backfired and Civil Affairs troops remain in short supply well into Robert Gates’ tenure as defense secretary, although equipment problems have eased.

The statistics offer a grim picture. Though Civil Affairs soldiers only make up about 5 percent of the Army’s reserve forces, they account for 23 percent of the combat fatalities among reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The command’s lack of resources and legacy of dysfunction also complicates U.S. efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan starting this summer and calls into question the ability of the military to fight future insurgencies or respond to humanitarian disasters, current and former military officers say.

“It was too small of a force to begin with. We are scrambling right now to meet additional requirements for Afghanistan,” Maj. Gen. David Blackledge, the commander of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, told the Center. “Our mission load is actually going up.”

Private 1st Class Lawrence Morrison II lays roses on the casket of his father, who was killed by an improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a Civil Affairs officer. Credit: Gordon King/The Yakima HeraldThe Pentagon has sought to compensate for these gaps in recent years by reorganizing the command structure and increasing the number of Civil Affairs units. But the reorganization has been widely panned as awkward and counterproductive, and growth in Civil Affairs has been relatively anemic given the demand.

The Army currently has only about 8,000 Civil Affairs troops, or less than 1 percent of its active and reserve force. And the number of Civil Affairs battalions has increased by only about a third since the late 1990s, despite two massive, ongoing counterinsurgency operations.

Gates plans to grow Civil Affairs to 11,152 troops by 2013 and “is exploring ways to better integrate Civil Affairs functions with complementary stability operations” in Afghanistan, spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

As for Rumsfeld, he wrote in his memoir published this week that he didn’t believe soldiers should have been involved in nation-building.

“I did not think resolving other countries’ internal political disputes, paving roads, erecting power lines, policing streets, building stock markets, and organizing democratic governmental bodies were missions for our men and women in uniform,” Rumsfeld wrote.

“If some later contended that we never had a plan for full-fledged nation building or that we under-resourced such a plan, they were certainly correct. We did not go there to try to bring prosperity to every corner of Afghanistan. I believe—and continue to believe—that such a goal would have amounted to a fool’s errand.”

The ‘Glue’ Between the Military and Civilians

In contrast to conventional combat soldiers, Civil Affairs troops are mostly reservists with day jobs like judges or lawyers. They are experts at helping to build new governments, get the lights on, the water running, set up justice systems, and in the process, win the hearts and minds of local populations. They are supposed to be the link between the military and the civilian government and people living in a war zone.

Civil Affairs have figured in U.S. military campaigns in all U.S. wars since the American Revolution. They reached their zenith during World War II, when extensive preparations were made early on for stabilizing and reconstructing postwar Europe and Japan. Two months after entering the war, the Roosevelt administration ordered creation of a school of military government at the University of Virginia to train senior Civil Affairs officers. According to an official Army history, the first graduating class included a city manager, police chief, doctor, two city attorneys, several utility specialists, a public health officer, judges and the fiscal director of the Port of Oregon. Such forces have also been used extensively in Vietnam and in post-conflict situations and natural disasters in Central America, the Caribbean and the Balkans.

The Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command was deployed to “make allies” of the suppressed peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it. Here, two members of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion talk with the director of education for the Onkhai Valley in Wardak province, Afghanistan. Credit: Pfc Donald Watkins/U.S. ArmyThese forces are especially crucial today, said David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who commanded U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan from late 2003 through mid 2005.

“They can get a power grid up and operating and look at how societies interact. These are the skills that are typically outside the mainstream of the combat-centric military…but in the environments we’re in now, they’re absolutely essential,” Barno explained. “They are the glue that binds the military effort to the civilian population.”

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rumsfeld seemed to acknowledge the importance of these personnel in waging what he called “a different kind of war”—one in which it would be crucial to portray Americans as liberators instead of infidel invaders.

“While we may engage militarily against foreign governments that sponsor terrorism, we may also seek to make allies of the people those governments suppress,” Rumsfeld said on Sept. 27, 2001.

On Oct. 8 of that year, he told Fox News that in conducting the war in Afghanistan, “we want to make sure that we can do everything we can to help the misery of the Afghan people which has been imposed on them by al Qaeda and by the Taliban leadership.”

But senior officials serving under Rumsfeld said he had little interest in the unglamorous work of stabilization and reconstruction and chafed at the fact that under a mid-1980s military reorganization, Civil Affairs units reported to U.S. Special Operations Command.

A paper trail left by the former defense secretary suggests Rumsfeld thought Civil Affairs units weren’t worthy of Special Operations, which also operates highly selective 12-man Special Forces “A-Teams” that conduct secret missions such as hunting down and killing alleged terrorists.

Rumsfeld wrote on March 7, 2005 in one of his notorious “snowflake” memoranda that Civil Affairs’ “skill sets are, at this stage, probably more of a distraction than a benefit to the increasing Special Operations roles and missions.” This was one of a half dozen memos Rumsfeld penned to various Pentagon officials suggesting that Civil Affairs be removed from Special Operations.

“Secretary Rumsfeld focused largely on the high value target set,” said Thomas O’Connell, assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict from July 2003 until April 2007. “The Special Operations Forces components that operated at the lower end of the spectrum…were less appreciated by many civilian policymakers as to their potential for effectiveness in the fight.”

As recently as April 2009, the Pentagon in a report to Congress acknowledged the shortcomings of its reliance on reservists for Civil Affairs work. But its plan to remedy the situation called for reducing reservists from 89 percent of the Civil Affairs force to 74 percent by 2013, still an overwhelming burden on citizen soldiers.

A Stark Warning from the Field

The crisis was evident by 2004 at Fort Bragg, N.C., the mobilization center for Civil Affairs troops. A Jan. 14, 2004 trip report by Sergeant Major John W. Young Jr., the senior Army Reserve Enlisted Advisor monitoring reserves at Special Operations, describes multiple serious problems:

  • “1,000 or more ghosts” on the books. (A unit roster might look full on paper but the “ghosts” have not gotten the necessary training and cannot be deployed)
  • Lack of quarters for those who actually turned up, requiring some personnel to be billeted on cots in the gymnasium.
  • Widespread “cross-leveling” resulting in units comprised of soldiers from across Civil Affairs. This means cherry-picking soldiers from disparate units, a violation of the military rule that soldiers fight best alongside those they trained with.
  • Reservists who got only two weeks’ notice before mobilizing.
  • Soldiers forced to sign statements that they were “volunteering” for what was “an involuntary mobilization.”
  • Soldiers issued body armor without protective plates and bulky M-16s instead of smaller M-4 rifles more suitable for traveling in cramped vehicles. In training, due to “a shortage of weapons and ammo they got to fire [only] one round.”
  • The memo also describes a “critical shortage” of senior noncommissioned officers.

Local people waved American flags at Sgt. Lawrence Morrison’s funeral service in support of the Morrison family and those who serve in the United States military. Credit: Gordon King/The Yakima HeraldA copy of Young’s report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity shows that next to several of the concerns, Gen. Brown, the Special Operations commander, wrote “why” and “this won’t do.” A cover memo addressed to Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger, Jr., one of Brown’s deputies, said, “Please take action not a very encouraging report.”

But instead of rectifying the situation, the military brass at Special Operations turned on Young, accusing him of going behind commanders’ backs and being “out of touch with reality” according to emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

“They chewed my butt out and then ignored me until I retired,” said Young, who left the military in 2005 and now lives in Tulsa, Okla. “They were aware that the whole system was broke and there wasn’t much they were going to do to change things.”

Meanwhile, a number of top Army officials told Congress that Civil Affairs units were fully qualified. On March 11, 2004, two months after Young’s report, Brown told a House Armed Services subcommittee that Kensinger and the Army had been working to “ensure that all of our Civil Affairs forces are trained to…standards. They are fully qualified,” he said. Kensinger then told the subcommittee that, "Each one of those units are about 115 percent or more manned. People come into Civil Affairs because there's a great balance in what they do in the civilian sector.”

The result of the shortages and mismatches was that soldiers died “needlessly,” said Timothy M. Haake, a retired major general and former deputy commander for mobilization and reserve affairs for Special Operations who elevated Young’s concerns to higher ups. “These generals didn’t do their job,” Haake said.

Neither Brown or Kensinger could be reached for comment.

The ‘Divorce’

In 2006, after a blizzard of Rumsfeld snowflakes, most Civil Affairs units were split away from Special Operations and now report to the Army Reserve. In an awkward compromise, however, four battalions of active duty Civil Affairs soldiers are assigned to Special Operations. Many military experts consider this so-called “divorce” a mistake that has fractured Civil Affairs capabilities between two bosses. The split of Civil Affairs was “probably flawed in its conception, it certainly was flawed in its implementation,” a 2009 U.S. Army War College report by Col. Hugh Van Roosen found. “Given the recent rise in the importance of stability operations, relying significantly upon CA capabilities, this decision should be revisited by the current Secretary of Defense.”

Maj. Gen. David Morris, who commanded U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command during the reorganization, said he opposed the “divorce” at the time and that it caused multiple problems. Among them: getting money for replacement equipment when he suddenly lost access to regular Special Operations funds.

“We had to work our way through that with the Special Operations community, which we did,” he said. “But we were in the middle of a fight, and it was one of those bureaucratic things that was like an anchor slowing us down.”

Meanwhile, Special Operations Command has retained authority for long-term planning and doctrine for Civil Affairs—a situation akin to giving custody of a child to one parent after a divorce but allowing the other parent to make most of the decisions about how the child will be raised.

Blackledge, the major general who currently has Morris’ old job, said about the divorce, “I have not met anybody who thinks that was a good decision.”

Afghanistan: Under-Resourced and ‘Second Dibs’

U.S. officials from President Barack Obama to generals in the field have all stressed the importance of the Civil Affairs’ mission to stabilizing Afghanistan.

In a March 2009 speech on Afghanistan, Obama emphasized “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” rather than foot soldiers. Likewise, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal highlighted the establishment of local judicial systems more than military action in his confidential assessment of the Afghan war in 2009.“Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population,” he wrote in the report, which was leaked to The Washington Post. “This is a ‘deeds-based’ information environment where perceptions derive from actions, such as how we interact with the population and how quickly things improve.” He called for an “integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment.”

Civil Affairs 1st Sgt. Christopher Coffin stands in front of the Hands of Victory in Baghdad. He was shipped to Iraq in 2003 after the Army blocked his retirement from the reserve force. He died in July 2003 after his Humvee was ambushed. Credit: Coffin FamilyWhile the Obama administration reports fragile progress in the war, there is still a mismatch between Afghan needs and the skills of the Americans sent to help.

The demand for Civil Affairs soldiers in Afghanistan is so acute today that the Army routinely still resorts to “cross-leveling” to get enough warm bodies into a Civil Affairs unit before it deploys. This means cherry picking qualified Civil Affairs troops from disparate units to get one unit ready to go. The move, however, violates the military tenet that soldiers fight best alongside those with whom they have trained.

The Pentagon tries to provide reserve soldiers with four years of rest between year-long deployments. Blackledge, the current commander of Civil Affairs, said his units deploy every 20 months. But even that number is misleading and time at home—known as dwell time—was often reduced to less than two years, meaning reservists were treated like active-duty soldiers and deployed multiple times. An individual Civil Affairs soldier deploys much more frequently as he is cross-leveled from one unit to another. “The actual dwell time is much less for any individual soldier,” Blackledge said. “And that is the best it has been since the war started.”

“I seriously am amazed at what our soldiers go through with their personal lives.”

The shortage of Civil Affairs capability in Afghanistan is not a new story to some military leaders. One of the first things David Barno did when he arrived in Afghanistan in October 2003 was to resolve to increase the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the Afghan countryside.

There were only four of these civil-military units at the time—only two manned by Americans—and Barno decided to raise the number to 12 by the spring of 2004.

While Barno praises the efforts of the PRTs, which sought to help meet the urgent needs of a population devastated by decades of war, he concedes that “we were clearly under-resourced in this commodity and the system had a lot of difficulty generating enough capacity in Civil Affairs just for the PRTs much less for units out there in the field.”

Also, the demands of the Iraq invasion meant “we were going to get second dibs on all the resources across the board, Civil Affairs certainly being part of that,” Barno said. He is a senior fellow and adviser with the Center for a New American Security.

“The initial deployment of Civil Affairs teams was just too small,” agreed Robert Perito, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) who has written extensively about PRTs. These organizations were “an effort to compensate for the scarcity of Civil Affairs personnel,” Perito said.

The shortage of Army Civil Affairs personnel became so acute at one point that Navy and Air Force reservists were sent to head up PRTs in Afghanistan. The Marines have at times used artillery officers to fill the Civil Affairs role. Barno described the performance of these units overall as “a very mixed bag.”

During World War II, Perito said, the American in charge of creating a police force for postwar Germany had been chief of police for the state of Connecticut—and spent several years planning before being deployed. In contrast, Perito said, the Civil Affairs adviser to Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry—which is trying to build a police force of more than 100,000 men—was a police chief in an Atlanta suburb with only 24 people under his command.

While the State Department has attempted to fill the gap in expertise with its own “surge” of 1,000 civilians, many are contractors in country for less than a year and are not suited to working in hostile environments. “The vast majority are in Kabul, not out in the countryside,” said Paul Hughes, a senior program officer at USIP and 30-year Army veteran who advised the U.S. occupation government in Iraq in 2003. “It leaves the military units down range to deal with this.”

Observers with non-governmental organizations said the Army’s embrace of Civil Affairs and counterinsurgency in general has been sporadic. “One of the gaps that has not been addressed is I think there has been a recognition that they need these [Civil Affairs] officers, but I don’t think they have thought much about how they would be used,” said Erica Gaston with the Open Society Institute who has been in Afghanistan for three years. “I know there are officers in Kabul and they will say, ‘We are trying to reach out, but nobody will reach out to us.’”

Mixed Picture in Iraq

Although Iraq drew substantial resources away from Afghanistan, the Iraq war also suffered from strained Civil Affairs units.

Betsy Coffin, center, weeps at the funeral for her husband, Civil Affairs 1st Sgt. Christopher Coffin, in July 2003. Christopher Coffin was killed in Iraq when his Humvee was ambushed. Credit: Jacqueline Larma/Associated PressCivil Affairs 1st Sgt. Christopher Coffin had served 23 years in uniform and had recently deployed to Kosovo when the Army blocked his retirement from the reserve force and shipped him to Iraq in 2003. He died in July 2003 after his Humvee was apparently ambushed. Fellow soldiers later told his wife, Betsy, that they did not have enough vehicles, protection and equipment needed that day. Her husband’s medical evacuation following the ambush was also delayed because the convoy’s only satellite phone had been destroyed.

Betsy Coffin recalls talking to her husband in Baghdad. “I know that he spoke at length about the lack of resources for the unit,” she recalled. “I know my husband was not happy about that convoy.”

Coffin was an experienced Civil Affairs reserve soldier whose civilian job was as a federal law enforcement officer.

Joseph Collins, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Stability Operations under Rumsfeld, called Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations personnel “some of the great unsung heroes” of the Afghan and Iraqi wars.

“Over time, the good units get used up and low readiness units get mobilized,” Collins said. “They start force feeding people into units who are not fit or well qualified.”

These forces are likely to be in high demand for the foreseeable future. “They are a transition element to get the military out of the lead role,” USIP’s Hughes said. “They are going to be extremely important over the next 20 years because I fully expect that the U.S. will be fighting more insurgency-type wars.” Civil Affairs units are also likely to be needed for humanitarian emergencies caused by natural disasters and to prop up fragile and failing states.

Such geostrategic thinking affords little comfort to Becky Morrison. Morrison said her husband, who had been working at the post office in Yakima, should never have been sent to Iraq in 2005 given his physical ailments.

Once he was reactivated, he attended a few classes in Oklahoma for two weeks and then was sent to Fort Bragg, she said.

“I don’t know what kind of training he got in North Carolina,” she said. She does recall that Morrison told her that just before they deployed to Iraq, the reservists were told to grab gear from a hodge-podge spread out on a large table that included women’s bras and flak jackets.

“They had to go through and pick out what fit them best,” she said.

Once in Iraq, Morrison spent most of his time handing out toys to Iraqi children even though he had been trained as a medic during his active duty in the 1980s. He died near a water mill that “wasn’t even his mission,” Morrison said. “They were on their way somewhere else when they were called to this place. He was tired, he was scared,” she said. “He had never been in combat before. I’m still upset over it.”

“My husband was killed and we’re walking away from Iraq now. I’m angry at the fact they’re bringing them all home because they didn’t accomplish what they set out to accomplish.”