University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Lisa Schirch and David Cortright

In conflict zones around the world, military troops and civilian peacebuilders are interacting and sharing space in unprecedented ways. In Thailand, civil society groups worked with the military to write national security policy for the southern border provinces. In the Philippines, military leaders attended peacebuilding training sessions to learn to resolve local disputes without bloodshed. In Iraq, U.S.-led military forces provided transportation and logistical support to tribal and religious elders participating in reconciliation dialogues.

Overlap of military-civilian efforts is expected to increase as NATO and U.S. military leaders continue to adopt peacebuilding strategies in the struggle against violent extremism. In a major address in 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that future U.S. military operations “should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit.” Since then, growing numbers of civilian humanitarian aid workers have joined U.S. troops in integrated operations that combine military pressure with development assistance. In Afghanistan, 900 humanitarian aid workers and other nonmilitary experts (so far) have joined increased numbers of military troops as a key part of the U.S. strategy in the war.


This new era of civil-military relations in peacebuilding raises complex questions and poses significant dilemmas. While key military leaders in the United States recognize the need to support civilian-led development and diplomacy, some commanders are skeptical about civilian peacebuilding efforts and others complain that NGOs get in the way and “clog up the battlespace.” Civil society groups, for their part, are often suspicious and fearful of the military. Some nongovernmental organizations question the military’s reasons for taking on more development and humanitarian work.

Overlap of military-civilian efforts will increase as NATO and U.S. military leaders continue to adopt peacebuilding strategies in the struggle against violent extremism.

Is the military’s goal to build democracy and support human rights, or to protect U.S. geopolitical and economic interests? Some believe the military is ill-equipped to carry out development projects and can endanger the safety of those who accept “militarized aid.” (In fact, violence against humanitarian projects has increased as insurgent groups have targeted aid workers whom they see as linked to military missions they reject.) They argue that aid should be delivered mainly for humanitarian reasons by trained aid workers.


To facilitate dialogue among civilian peacebuilders and the military, the Kroc Institute has launched a series of workshops that bring together leading peacebuilding theorists and practitioners. The goals of the consultation are to review the current field of civil-military cooperation and develop a roadmap for engagement between peacebuilding specialists and national military and political leaders.

While many civil society groups do not want contact with military personnel, a growing number of civil society representatives recognize the need to “cross the bridge” and work from the inside. They take a pragmatic approach, attempting to build bridges between willing civilians and military personnel to develop constructive relationships and practical solutions to the challenges of stabilizing conflict zones and promoting peace processes. The theories of change used by many peacebuilders suggest that change comes from relationship building and engagement, even when groups have sharp differences.


Given current tensions in civil-military relations, a peacebuilding approach is needed to address common ground and differences in civil-military goals, values, and practices. This requires communication and cooperation in specific settings. Civil-military cooperation is most appropriate in concrete tasks such as security sector reform, where international guidelines call for civil society involvement and civilian government oversight; and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, where civilian involvement is necessary to find viable alternatives for former combatants.

A peacebuilding approach is needed to address common ground and differences in civil-military goals, values, and practices.

Civil-military cooperation is also is crucial for fostering communication across local lines of conflict among armed actors. While there is growing consensus in Washington and elsewhere that preventing violent conflict requires greater investments in development and diplomacy, there are severe imbalances between civilian and military actors’ resources, capacity, and expertise. Greater efforts are needed to identify, recruit, fund, train, and deploy civilian experts in government and civil society at both strategic planning and operational planning levels.

Finally, those who plan civilian missions require the knowledge and experience of experts in civilian-crisis response. Civil society organizations, many with decades of experience in preventive action, reconstruction, and stabilization, can be valuable to government and military personnel in advancing peacebuilding. Civilian peacebuilding specialists also have important expertise to bring to the conversation. In particular, they emphasize that development and democratization are bottom-up processes that cannot be imposed from the top, and that civil society be at the table in these discussions.

Lisa Schirch is a professor of peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. David Cortright is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.