Theorizing Civil-Military Interaction: Security, Legitimacy, Authority and Obligation

The practice of militaries interacting and coordinating with civilian groups or organizations has a long history (Zaalberg 2006). However, it was a crisis situation in Europe that spurred on a renewed evaluation and enthusiasm for the notion of civil-military interaction, although the importance and influence of the civil- military relationship, and the importance of non-kinetic activities, has long been relevant to military strategy and tactics (Sun Tzu 1993). It was clear during the Balkans crisis that security involved much more than a use of force by the military to create a safe and secure environment, and that an adequate response to the crisis “exceeds the coping capacity of any single agent or institution” (Rietjens and Bollen 2008). The notion of “civil-military interaction” (or “cooperation”) was therefore re-born in Europe during the Balkans crisis, and it was here in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina that the importance of a civilian role, in combination with the military, once again came to the fore (Pugh 2000). What this meant however, both conceptually and practically, remained in many ways unclear. It can refer to the relations between militaries and the citizenry of the same state itself, or to those relations between a “foreign” military and a “local host population” and civilian institutions (local and international), all of whom are relevant to international peace operations and complex emergencies. Much of the theorization of civil military relations focuses on the democratic control of armed forces as an aspect of security sector development and reform (Bland 1999, Bland 2001). Work is has also been done regarding the civil-military relationship between foreign militaries, humanitarian agencies, development organizations, government ministries and the local populations to whom they are ideally meant to provide security. Michael Pugh (Pugh 2001: 109) defines this second approach to civil-military relations broadly, stating that it consists of “relations between external military forces and internal civilian authorities or society; between internal regular or irregular forces and external civilian agencies; and between the external military and civilian components of interventions”. These multiple actor relationships are not uncontroversial. Relations between actors are characterized by power dynamics and structural discontinuities and “based upon the parties’ different roles in society, normative values, resources, authority positions and social interests ... they have turned civil-military cooperative relations into multi-level, highly complex dynamics on their own” (Rietjens and Bollen 2008). At the same time, all of these actors are crucial to security (from state-based and international to human security) and require a carefully negotiated balance to ensure that the needs of multiple actors are heard (politics) and provided (security). What makes these relationships all the more complex is their employment by institutions such as NATO, the UN or the EU, where the institutions themselves have different mandates, but are dependent upon many of the same national militaries working together with many civilian organizations and populations.

Concerns have been raised, largely by NGOs but also by some international organization agencies such as OCHA regarding military incursions upon areas that are considered civil domain. These concerns highlight a number of challenges: the “divisions of labour” between militaries and civilian organizations, the use of humanitarianism to justify military action, the relationship between a military presence and attacks on civilian organizations, distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, how to share information between civilian organizations and military, and armed escorts of civilians (Winslow 2002, Damen and Olislagers 2004, Mockaitis 2004, Donini 2007). Additional concerns include the balance between local ownership of security production and the imposition of external forces and/or military forces, the ability of external forces to support local efforts in meaningful and productive ways, and the extent to which external forces further disrupt patterns of social cohesion within and between local communities and civilian organizations in times of crisis (Donini 2007).

The following four sections of this chapter briefly outline some important theoretical concerns that should be taken into account when thinking about civil- military interaction in general. Paramount considerations include context (what is the situation in which civil-military interaction should be taking place?), the politics of security (the level of politicization of the context and the political positions of the actors), and the roles of legitimacy, authority and obligation.


... one of the challenges with peacebuilding is both understanding context and

measuring impact. (Harborne 2012: 50)

The concerns delineated in the previous section often reflect the particular dynamics of the crisis situation/context in question, ranging from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves or hurricanes, to man-made crises including large-scale conflict and war. Civil-military interaction becomes more controversial the more “political” the situation is: efforts to save people from a tidal wave are perceived as less politically motivated by intervening actors than complex emergencies or conflict that embody one or more political dimensions. A model of civil-military interaction needs to address the challenges that arise between actors of different and often unequal power in an environment that is characterized by extensive loss of life and violence, massive displacement of people, damaged and/or dysfunctional economies, and where there is a clear and large-scale need for humanitarian assistance but it is hindered by political and military “constraints” as well as by “significant security risks” (Keen 2008). The latter characteristics, political and military constraints coupled with security risks, largely distinguish natural catastrophes from crises of conflict or complex emergencies. UN organizations and humanitarian and development NGOs have been increasingly employed in these crisis situations as primary relief providers (Harris and Dombrowski 2002). Mary Kaldor refers to these complex emergencies as “new wars”, where there exists a blurring of distinctions between war, organized crime and large-scale violations of human rights (Kaldor 2007). The trend therefore has been a focus, by combatants, on “population control or even elimination as a strategic objective” (Harris and Dombrowski 2002). The apparent focus on populations and population control by combatants/insurgents, the intervention of multiple actors such as donor/ troop contributing nations, militaries and aid organizations, and the impacts on and reactions by local populations living in war-torn and aid dependent societies (Hughes 2009), have made civil-military interaction blurry, confusing, and all the more relevant and important to understand how it functions according to the specific context.

The ways in which donor/troop-contributing nations characterize the conflict or post-conflict settings they engage in can either help or hinder when attempting to determine contexts. A good example is the characterization of the conflict in Afghanistan by the Norwegian government and others, whereby the activities in Afghanistan have mostly been characterized as a “peace operation”. Counterinsurgency doctrine also characterizes operations such as in Afghanistan as stability operations, equates this with “peace support” operations (US Army 2007), which are in turn equated largely with low-intensity operations. Already in the Afghan case, as well as Iraq, such assumptions (peace operations = stability = low intensity) have been challenged, as the context often changes rapidly from low to high intensity fighting, and the needs of the civil-military relationship shift accordingly (see below). Though it is arguably the case that peace is the end goal, and therefore the operation can be characterized as such, this characterization is very general and vague, and often unhelpful when determining context and understanding needs on the ground.

Peace operations (starting with the definition used by the Norwegian government) are defined as those operations which contribute to international stability and security, in solidarity with the international community and in accord with the obligations of membership in the UN and NATO.[1] This definition allows for a wide mandate, but not necessarily the consent of the host nation. Therefore cases like Afghanistan, the case of air strikes in Libya, and even to some degree Iraq, would qualify as peace operations though all three are considerably different interventions. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is not considered a UN force, but has a “peace enforcement” mandate through Chapter VII of the UN Charter.[2] Although the Norwegian government refers to the conflict in Afghanistan as a “peace operation”, it does little to go further regarding in what way this is a peace operation and how the term “peace” is used when endorsing the use of force, particularly when that use of force is supporting one particular warring party. Such details toward characterizing the context are very important to better understand the demands placed on the civil-military interface.

Variable, acceptable uses of force follow from different approaches from peacekeeping to peacemaking, peacebuilding and peace enforcement. These are distinct activities, ideally assumed by distinct actors (DPKO 2008). Peacemaking and peace enforcement generally take place when conflict is still active, or rather, when things are still unstable enough that conflict flares up quite easily (ibid.). Peacemaking employs diplomatic action to bring the parties of a conflict to the negotiating table and eventually to a peace agreement. This activity relies largely on government, ministry, IO officials, NGOs and/or other independent officials to bring warring parties to the table and to agreement (in accordance with the UN Chapter Chapter VI) (Forsvarets stabskole 2007). Peace enforcement allows for coercive measures including the use of force. Peace enforcement is generally (but not always) authorized by the Security Council mandated through the UN Charter Chapter VII, at times employing other regional organizations (such as NATO) which operationalize the enforcement of peace (ibid.). Not only does peace enforcement involve the use of kinetic tools or the use of force, but just as important, such operations do not require the consent of all parties (ibid.). Peacekeeping on the other hand is designed to preserve a peace that is already established, albeit possibly weakly established through the deployment of military forces, under the auspices of UN Charter Chapter VI. At times force is applied in peacekeeping, often referred to as “robust” peacekeeping. However this is force applied usually as self-defence measures and with “the consent of the host authorities and/or the main parties to the conflict” (ibid.: 19). Peacebuilding is the long-term and complex process of providing stabilization through strengthening national capacities and addressing the root causes of conflict in that society (ibid.). Most of these approaches (aside from peace enforcement) assume a semblance of consent by most parties, but today’s operations are, of course, more “complex”.

The United Nations refers also to “multi-dimensional” peacekeeping operations employing multiple actors and relevant to a wide variety of scenarios, including falling back into violent conflict. As such, peace operations are increasingly complicated and blurred as they are composed of all of these different activities, which do not occur in a linear fashion and can often fluctuate repeatedly between activities and stages of conflict. What it also means is that peace enforcement, although potentially mandated by the United Nations Security Council in the name of international peace and security, can nevertheless resemble taking sides in a conflict (either the side of the governing body which requires support to gain control and establish governance, or on the side of group(s) fighting against repressive regimes that are identified as a threat to international peace and security). In the UN context however, all of these activities presuppose an assumption of a postconflict status (even if violence still erupts on occasion) (ibid.). Multi-dimensional operations are also acknowledged to be considerably more political than so-called traditional peacekeeping consisting of observation and supervision of cease-fires and acting as a buffer between parties (ibid.). This also affects the perception of the United Nations as a potential neutral actor in these conflicts, as well as the perceptions of actors acting on its behalf, at least in the eyes of the conflicting parties. All of these activities will affect the ways in which different actors can interact with each other, how they will be perceived by other actors, and their room to manoeuvre. These activities also raise the question regarding how we interpret the notion of “peace” and what activities can be related to it.

NATO refers to the above activities under a more broad category called “crisis management operations” which includes both collective defence crises (Article 5 operations), and crisis response operations (non-Article 5 operations) “loosely” referred to as peacekeeping operations.[3] Under the heading of “peace support operations” NATO includes peacekeeping, peace enforcement, peacemaking, peacebuilding, as well as conflict prevention and humanitarian operations. The definitions are similar to those of the UN, but here NATO is more explicit under “peace enforcement”, whereby it is explicitly acknowledged that consent amongst all of the conflicting parties has not been established or at least remains uncertain. This makes peace enforcement even more political as it implies establishing peace with the use of force against the will of at least one warring party (or at least without the consent of that party). In looking for recent examples, this most resembles the situation in Afghanistan, as well as in Libya.

The various definitions that relate to and nuance the notion of “peace operations” become even more complicated by the use of terms like “high intensity”, “low intensity”, “asymmetrical” and “stability” conflicts, and whether the resulting operations are focused at the political, strategic, operational or tactical levels. The terms “high” and “low” intensity have been frequently used to describe the context (the conflict level) of operations taking place over the past two decades, but their use has been unclear in relation to each other and to the peace operations jargon that is often simultaneously employed. Formally defined, high intensity operations pertains to conflicts where the existence of the state is under threat and all societal and technological means, civilian and military, are engaged in war, usually in a traditional state-on-state (may include allies) conflict between conventional military forces, and has the potential to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons (Forsvarets stabskole 2007, Norheim-Martinsen et al. 2011). In contrast, low intensity conflicts are defined in relation to political/military conflicts designed to fulfil a variety of goals that can be defined as political, military, social, economic or psychological objectives (ibid.). These conflicts can often be long term, and “ranges from diplomatic, economic and psycho-social pressures through terrorism and insurgency” (TRADOC 1988: 2).[4] Low-intensity conflicts are generally restricted to a limited geographical area, and are limited in their use of weapons, tactics, and level of violence as compared to high intensity conflicts (ibid.). The terminology can be misleading however, as low intensity conflicts can generate the impression that the violence level or conflict level is low, reducing the kinetic/combat demands of a military operation, exemplified by one analysis that claims: “In low intensity conflicts, the international forces will typically be engaged in non-military assignments such as minor law enforcement tasks, support to the civilian community and building local or national institutions” (Norheim-Martinsen et al. 2011: 12). Asymmetrical warfare generally falls under the same or similar definition as low intensity conflict as it refers to the unequal balance in capacities between combatants (warring parties), additionally including potentially significant differences in strategy and tactics. Counter-insurgency is commonly characterized in this way, where regular and/or special military forces fight against insurgencies and/or uprisings that are not organized in the same way as regular (state-based) forces. Many conflicts that are characterized as “low intensity” however have experienced levels of violence that are high, at least reaching levels of middle intensity (regional conflicts employing conventional weapons) (Forsvarets stabskole 2007), resulting in significant and regularly occurring casualties and damage. Asymmetrical warfare, implies a mixed intensity (from high to low) of fighting or combat, in a so-called “low intensity conflict”. Low intensity conflict can still be characterized by a regularity of high intensity operations that are heavily focussed upon war fighting.

In some cases, the above - low intensity conflicts involving asymmetrical warfare - have been handled through what are called “stability operations”, which are intended to reduce the conflict level between two or more parties with the intention of creating or maintaining peace, and are often long-term in duration requiring a mix of efforts from both civilian and military actors (Forsvarets stabskole 2007). The tasks of the operation are broad, ranging from maintaining agreements between conflicting parties, providing security through surveillance and policing-type activities, and when necessary engaging in fighting in the event of escalating conflict (ibid.). The definition for stabilization operations is very similar to peace operations (and the various permutations embedded within that concept).

Thus, there is considerable overlap between concepts, though with limited clarity within and between them. Much of the emphasis thus far has been on low- intensity conflict which is handled through the vast majority of the operation types discussed above, all of which imply considerable interaction between civilian and military actors, as many of the operation types count on civilian input, either to a small or a significant degree. Future operations may be moving towards a different combination of actors, and different combinations of intensity, than what we have been used to in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here I refer to operations in low intensity conflicts that rely heavily upon military actors, where local/target region civilian actors have far less room to manoeuvre (if at all), or operations that are reliant upon political/defence civilian actors (like civilian defence and/or intelligence agencies) (Crisis Group 2013). These operations (as opposed to the conflicts themselves) are characterized as “high intensity”, employed in relation to shortterm, deadly conflict between conventional military forces and non-conventional combatants associated within stability, low intensity, or asymmetrical warfare contexts, which can be called “short-term high intensity operations” (Norheim- Martinsen et al. 2011: 10). Another characteristic is the increasing reliance upon technology and special forces rather than large troop deployments. This operation type recognizes the potential for and frequency of intense combat operations outside of the high-intensity conflict context, and acknowledges the likelihood for a stronger military presence (in comparison to civilian) during periods of low intensity conflict. The likelihood for such operations is very relevant for civil- military interaction, not least when conflict or fighting intensity is high and civilian actors are limited in their abilities to manoeuvre. Interaction between the different types of civilian actors and military actors become all the more crucial. In other words, civil-military interaction is relevant in all operation types.

The purpose of the above discussion is to illustrate the ways in which our terminology that tells us about the context are so very important. “Peace operation” is a broad catch-all term that covers many different scenarios but might be too vague, not least when it is difficult to establish what is meant specifically, and if consent has been given by all parties. If the end goal is “peace”, does that make any use offorce a “peace” operation? Despite a “peace enforcement” mandate, ISAF refers to its operation in Afghanistan as a military operation, not a peace operation. These distinctions are important, as they determine the nature and potential of the civil-military interaction that will or could take place in a given context. It also means it is not possible to have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to civil- military interaction. We see this problem in the development of an overarching universalized “comprehensive approach” (strategic/political level) that reflects the ideal goals of organizations, agencies and ministries but is often inflexible and does not function well on the ground (where civil-military interaction is practiced) in different contexts. A move towards finding synergies in comprehensive approaches rooted in mutual principles but based on how these approaches are practiced on the ground, can be achieved when analysed through a multiple actor security framework. Questions of legitimacy, authority, and obligation arise and operate differently in fluctuating contexts of security. It also means that key actors in the civil-military interface require enough training and competence to be able to understand the differences and operate accordingly.

  • [1] See the government of Norway website on peace operations (fredsoperasjoner): (accessed April 2011).
  • [2] See (accessed April 2011).
  • [3] See the NATO website “Crisis Management” for definitions: (accessed September 2011). Article 5 isfound in the NATO Washington Treaty and states that an armed attack on a NATO memberis considered an armed attack on all members, and that collectively the members willrespond to such an attack if deemed necessary. See “What is Article 5?” at (accessed 7 June 2013).
  • [4] This 1988 definition has been used in various military and academic sources,including the 2007 Norwegian Combined Operative Doctrine (translated directly toNorwegian).
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