Think Like a Civilian: The Missing Piece in Washington's Civil-Military Divide
When it comes to mass atrocity response assessments and planning, Rosa Brooks knows that the civil-military divide is a serious problem. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Brooks describes the gap between White House policymakers and the Pentagon as more than a culture divide: it’s dug into the way civil servants and military planners think about problems, assess information, and produce options.
Brooks isn’t wrong – but her analysis leaves out a crucial point. When it comes to assessing the dynamics of mass atrocities, some people need to think about diplomacy, some about politics, some about intelligence, others about military resources. But it also helps to think like a civilian: someone caught in the conflict zone itself. For that, civilians working outside government can be essential.
While describing an internal conflict over how to provide the President with mass atrocity response options for Sudan, Brooks outlines the Pentagon’s frustration with the White House’s lack of specificity and seemingly naïve requests for military intelligence assets. Setting the parameters for the assessment would be crucial; starting from a blank whiteboard wouldn’t help. Those in the White House might have shared a similar frustration; after all, military leaders working with civil-military experts had anticipated similar questions and scenarios during table-top exercises and a doctrine review. For civilian NGOs, humanitarian aid agencies, and the Nuba people caught in Sudan, such confusion in Washington would have been almost laughable.
The options for Sudan atrocity response operations have relatively clear diplomatic and logistical limits. A mass atrocity is defined by logistics: killing people takes time and resources. Protection (or life-extending intervention) does as well.
In this particular case, Nuba civilians were (and continue to be) trapped in mountain region, surrounded by both Nuba rebels and Sudanese Armed Forces. Roads aren’t particularly abundant in the region, and only a few routes were viable for refugees headed to South Sudan. The Yida refugee camp, situated far too close to the border for the UN’s liking, saw a daily influx of people who provided more information on starvation and medical conditions, travel routes, and more. A few aid workers communicated routinely with other NGOs and agencies to ensure that information flowed between the Nuba Mountains and the rest of the world.
In short, there weren’t many roads, airstrips, or access points for information to choose from. But there was unclassified satellite imagery the government could quickly obtain for added intel, people to backchannel with, and only a handful of potential options once obvious outliers could be dismissed by either the State Department or the local weather channel (hint: few roads + rainy season = limited windows of opportunity).
If Brooks’ account tells most of the story, then the problem wasn’t an over-abundance of options, information, or just a civil-military divide across the Potomac. It was also a failure to gather actionable intelligence from those working outside the U.S. Government: the civilians and organizations that sustain their presence in the region, with or without a presidential mandate.
For them, the options are very few and often clear. Pre-position aid during the dry months; plan ahead for the rains. Don’t be surprised when talks fail or bombs fall. The best way to survive a crisis is to anticipate it – and there is little in the Nuba Mountains that wasn’t seen coming months ahead.
This article originally appeared on the Truman Project's Doctrine blog.