Counter-insurgency training now at heart of Iraq effort
CAMP TAJI, Iraq — In a new effort to shift the military focus from war-fighting to winning Iraqi hearts and minds, commanders and their staffs coming to Iraq must now spend five days in a class studying counter-insurgency theory, techniques and intelligence.
The Counter-Insurgency Academy, run by an Army Special Forces colonel on this sprawling base north of Baghdad, started up in November under orders from Gen. George Casey. So far, its instructors — Special Forces soldiers, contractors and Iraqi guest lecturers — have taught some 350 company, brigade and battalion commanders and their staffs that the conventional operations they’ve been trained to do — sweeps, searches and raids — will not defeat the insurgency.
“In counter-insurgency, the number one thing is to take care of the population,” said Col. Chris Short, academy commandant. “You want to separate the insurgents from the population. We have to show the population we have a better alternative. Now we’re saying ‘Hey, [brigade] commander, you are responsible for the people.’ ”
The academy is an acknowledgment that the Iraq insurgency is likely to continue for years.
“We’re in the infancy,” Short said. “It takes 10 to 15 years. One of the big things about an insurgency — you’ve got to be patient.
“The good news is that doesn’t mean we’ve got to be here fighting it for 15 years,” Short said. “When we get the population to support the government and they can see the government is the way to go, that’s when folks are going to start to say another brigade doesn’t have to come back.”
According to statistics included in a report by Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office, who testified Feb. 8 before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, coalition forces’ efforts over the past two years to defeat the insurgency appear to have been ineffective.
The nearly 2,500 attacks in December, according to Christoff, were almost 250 percent of the number in March 2004. “There are peaks and valleys,” Christoff said, according to The New York Times, “but if you look at every peak, it’s higher than the peak before.”
“Who does winning hearts and minds?” Short said. “It’s definitely not [brigade combat teams], the way they’ve been taught to fight.”
Although kicking in doors may still be necessary, Short says, it also tends to increase support for insurgents. There are better, more subtle, indirect ways to woo the population toward supporting U.S. and their own fledgling government, and away from supporting insurgents.
Those ways include understanding the culture, doing better “information operations” to counter insurgent propaganda, and trying to see things from an Iraqi perspective.
For example, Short said, Iraq is an honor society in which men are shamed if they can’t provide for their families. So if they’re offered $50 to dig a hole by the side of the road that will later be filled with a bomb, they’ll do it, and it doesn’t mean they’re evil.
“Despair in the population makes it ripe for an insurgency,” he said. “Culture, tribalism — that colors this insurgency.”
The conventional warfare response to roadside bombs has been to try to find them and clear them, Short said, and search for the bomb-maker. “What we teach is: ‘Hold up. Somebody’s helping them. People are disenfranchised and they see helping the terrorists as an alternative.’”
So an important part of the effort, he said, is economic backup to improve people’s lives, provide services, all the while trying to stay in the background, with Iraqi army and other Iraqi officials in the front, giving legitimacy to the new government.
The statistics there have been discouraging as well. According to testimony at the Feb. 8 Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, almost every measure of the performance of Iraq’s basic services — oil, electricity, water and sewerage — show the country in worse shape than before the war, even though $16 billion of American taxpayer money has already been disbursed in the Iraq reconstruction program.
The course also teaches discerning the “centers of gravity,” or influential trends and leaders in an area, and getting thus-enlightened soldiers out from their bases and mixing with the Iraqi people on dismounted patrols.
“Special Forces — for us, it’s second nature. We do it all the time,” Short said. “The problem is [regular troops] need to do that now. Is it more dangerous? Sorry. You deal with that. And that’s what we’ve got to get these guys to understand. The gain will outweigh the dangers.”
Using the lens of history
CAMP TAJI, Iraq — Although Col. Chris Short said the Counter-Insurgency Academy course keeps theory to a minimum in favor of practical, hands-on information, officers do get a historical overview that touches on insurgencies in Algeria, Malaysia and Latin America, and explores why they were or were not successful.
“In Algeria, the French probably would have won if they hadn’t massacred a bunch of people,” Short said. “The British in Malaysia — that’s a classic example of patience, and the right people doing it.”
Historically, the British, who once oversaw a far-flung empire, are seen as among the most proficient in dealing with insurgencies.
In the latest edition of the U.S. Army journal, Military Review, a senior British officer who spent a year in Iraq, Army Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, critiqued the U.S. postinvasion performance.
Aylwin-Foster wrote that while the U.S. military was spectacular and admirable in many regards, it “seemed weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a pre-disposition to offensive operations and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on.”
U.S. forces “fervently believed in the mission’s underlying purpose, the delivery of democracy to Iraq,” he wrote. While this was helpful in the face of setbacks, “it also encouraged the erroneous assumption that given the justness of the cause, actions that occurred in its name would be understood and accepted by the population, even if mistakes and civilian fatalities occurred in the implementation.”
Short and his staff are trying to remedy that and help commanders become more effective through nonviolent methods.
“The intent is to provide the leadership of the maneuver elements an opportunity to get ‘it,’” said Lt. Col. Mike Ertman, the academy’s deputy commander, “it” being such things as the influences and dynamics of a particular area.
Some of the “kinetic guys” — combat commanders — are a hard sell, he conceded. And the class alone is not enough.
“It’s got to be sustained,” Ertman said, “and it’s got to be believed at all levels.”
Some commanders come to Iraq trained and ready to engage and destroy the enemy, just as the Soldiers’ Creed says. Short tells them, “OK, but you’ll be shooting guys until the cows come home if you don’t take care of the population. If you’re patrolling, dismounted, helping folks — and it takes time. The best units can say ‘I’m a fighter … but these guys need some help.’”
— Nancy Montgomery