How Much Counterinsurgency Training?

November 07, 2008 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

U.S. Army soldiers engage Iraqi insurgents. (army.mil) U.S. Army soldiers engage Iraqi insurgents. (army.mil)

This is the 10th piece in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — The instructor called up the slide on a extra-large screen, so that the nearly 200 students in the lecture hall could see. The lesson was about the effect of leadership on the durability of insurgencies. One example was Al Qaeda. The slide asked: “If UBL” — meaning Osama bin Laden — “dies, is the insurgency dead?” The next example was the American Revolution. “If George Washington dies, is the revolution dead?”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The instructor, Mark Ulrich, explained that his efforts were geared toward getting the class to think about insurgencies in objective and clinical terms. “Again: clinical!” Ulrich practically yelled just before putting the slides on the projector. “Think clinical. Don’t think ‘terrorism-bad.’ That whole thing, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’ that’s not clinical. That’s emotional.”

If this were any other academic setting — a New England liberal arts college, for example — and a tweedy professor tacitly compared bin Laden to George Washington, no matter how loosely, he would find himself targeted by Fox News for the sin of moral equivalence. But Ulrich is largely inoculated against such charges. He’s an Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq veteran assigned to the joint Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center.

This center, now nearly two-years old, was developed to embed the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare into the architecture of a military that, at senior levels, still appears resistant to such methods of fighting. Many senior staff fear these tactics would mean bogging the country down in bloody conflicts and eroding traditional military skills.

Yet Ulrich and the Counterinsurgency Center are dedicated to ensuring that the military doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the post-Vietnam era, when the military purged counterinsurgency from its institutional memory on the mistaken assumption that such a move would prevent U.S. involvement in such conflicts. Instead, this move guaranteed that the military would have to reinvent the wheel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Approximately 160 officers and enlisted men from around the U.S. military, along with visiting soldiers from Canada and Australia, attended the 2008 Counterinsurgency Leaders’ Workshop this week, at Ft. Leavenworth, to hear Ulrich, the main lecturer, better explain the mission and the enemy many of them have already fought. The conference offered a window into the ways in which the military is changing to absorb counterinsurgency — and, in some ways, how it is resisting that change.

Counterinsurgency — called “COIN” for short — is a method of warfare defined in a soon-to-be-published handbook as “the politico-military techniques developed to neutralize armed rebellion against constituted authority.” Over the past few years, a loose but dedicated and expanding band, largely made up of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, has worked to establish counterinsurgency as a core focus for the U.S. military and its civilian partner agencies.

The COIN Center, as it’s known, has been a milestone in that effort. Evolving out of the landmark 2006 Army/Marine Corps field manual on counterinsurgency, known as FM 3-24, and established by then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the center is a small but ambitious effort to form a hub within the two services for instructing commanders in “best practices” and techniques of counterinsurgency. Col. Dan Roper, the COIN Center’s director, couldn’t attend the conference this week, for he was inspecting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past year, an energetic debate has developed about what these new institutions, like the COIN Center, and the new doctrinal manuals, like the counterinsurgency and stability-operations field manuals, actually mean for the future of counterinsurgency and national security.

Some counterinsurgency skeptics, like Col. Gian Gentile, a professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, contend that the Army, at least, has embraced counterinsurgency too widely — running the risk of neglecting traditional disciplines like offensive and defensive operations. Gentile’s arguments have sympathy from many important senior officers.

The current issue of Armor magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Army’s armor branch, is dedicated to counterinsurgency. Its lead article, written by ret. Gen. Donn Starry, an aide to Gen. Creighton Abrams during the Vietnam War, is titled “Welcome To The Counterinsurgency Century.”

Yet an editorial from the commanding general of the U.S. Army Armor Center at Ft. Knox, Donald M. Campbell Jr., expresses concern over that very prospect. Campbell’s fear is that traditional military functions are eroding as a result of what he considers an overemphasis on counterinsurgency.

“Alas,” Campbell writes, “we must concede that [core] competencies are slowly declining as we concentrate solely on counterinsurgency operations focused on the will of the people and not the destruction of the enemy. While there’s clearly nothing wrong with focusing on the current fight, I am concerned that the majority of our tank commanders have never qualified Tank Table VIII” — a competence ranking — “and that brigade commanders are reporting weaknesses in maintenance management, particularly services and property accountability, at the company level.”

Others consider initiatives like the COIN Center to be baby steps — not giant leaps. The center, for example, might be part of the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, the U.S. Army’s intellectual hub, but it has only 10 employees — an 11th is on the way — and a relatively small annual budget of $1 million. The total defense budget for this fiscal year is $512 billion, plus another $66 billion just for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“We still have a long way to go in integrating COIN formally in our school curriculums,” said Maj. Niel Smith, spokesman for the COIN Center, “It is still not a mandated subject for education at any level, although most schools and centers are teaching it in some way. The challenge is to ensure we do not repeat the mistake we made following Vietnam by shelving our knowledge in this very important spectrum of warfare.”

Not everyone in the military takes strong positions on the role of counterinsurgency. At the nearby Command and General Staff College, where the Army educates its mid-career officers, a group of 16 Army and Air Force majors, known as Staff Group A, discussed the placement of counterinsurgency in their professional education. All took a balanced view.

“The Army has truly embraced [counterinsurgency] this time around,” said Matt Simons, an artilleryman and Iraq veteran, as opposed to the post-Vietnam era, when the Army’s leadership made a conscious decision to focus on conventional state-on-state conflict at the expense of counterinsurgency.

Simons cautioned that the “Army is not big enough” to accommodate pure counterinsurgency specialties, like creating a corps for advising foreign-security services in suppressing rebellions, an idea advocated by leading counterinsurgent John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security. “Unless we double in size, we can’t create a lot of specialization,” Simons said. “But we also can’t afford to let these lessons, many of which are the result of a lot of pain, slip away.”

Joe Albrecht, an armor officer and veteran of two Iraq tours, also took a balanced view. Both his experiences at war and his education at the college, where students read classics of military history that include accounts of counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Vietnam, taught him to “look at these lessons and say, ‘That’s pretty obvious, why didn’t we pay attention to this?’” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, Albrecht said, “How do we not become overly focused on COIN [and exclude] full offense and full defense?” To do otherwise would risk “repeat[ing] the mistakes” of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military didn’t initially understand the fight it was in, but from the opposite direction, he added.

Smith, a friend of Albrecht’s, agreed. “Hopefully, with [the stability operation field manual's] emphasis on full-spectrum operations, we will develop a coherent educational approach to COIN in our institutional curricula which will produce balanced officers capable of success in any environment,” he said.

Still, one major sounded a note of caution that echoed Campbell’s concerns. Keith Kramer recalled a recent combat veteran who attended the Engineer Captain’s Career Course at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., who bridled at having to learn about traditional offensive and defensive operations. “They believe this is the new way, the young captains,” Kramer said, referring to counterinsurgency.

At the conference, Ulrich, a senior analyst at the COIN Center, focused on getting officers — even those with Iraq and Afghanistan experience — used to operating in the kinds of complex environments typical of counterinsurgency, where insurgents blend into civilian populations and the use of force might be counterproductive. Pushing the class to move away from purely military solutions, Ulrich — who, with his thin nose, frequent smile and facility with both abstract concepts and practical soldiering, resembled a younger version of Petraeus — said things that probably would have rankled Gen. Campbell.

“I get the attitude, ‘I didn’t sign up to do handouts,’” Ulrich said while outlining a scenario in which officers might need to distribute propaganda to civilians. He shook his head. “You signed up to do the mission. And the mission is the spectrum” of operations, which include political, social and economic development of a society to bolster an allied government’s control.

Continuing, Ulrich interpreted urban terrorism within the context of insurgent strategy. He noted that when insurgents attack U.S. convoys in Iraq, they rarely attack the convoys’ gunners. Why? “Because they want somebody — the government — to overreact and attack the people,” he said. “Where have we seen that?”

“Haditha,” said someone in the class, referring to a 2005 incident in which U.S. Marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians after coming under a deadly insurgent attack.

“Firing into the crowd,” came another answer.

Ulrich said that the insurgent would think, “I’ve done my job. Now it’s your turn to do my job.” A conventional military response when coming under attack would be to throw up smoke or provide suppressive fire. But Ulrich urged the audience to think differently. “If you’re a police officer in Kansas City and you take a bullet in the windshield, do you spray out fire?” he asked.

Someone in the audience joked, “Hell yeah.”

“‘Hell yeah’?” Ulrich asked. He was laughing but arched an eyebrow. To fire into the crowd would be counterproductive. “You’re throwing people into the insurgents’ [hands], aren’t you?” Ulrich said. “You’re doing recruiting” for the insurgency, all without intending to, simply by applying a conventional solution to an unconventional problem.

The most important thing, Ulrich emphasized, was to develop a framework for viewing counterinsurgency operations. He distributed handout upon handout, pieces of paper divided into grids displaying things to look for in a given country — key structures like mosques, key services like electricity and sewage, key organizations like religious groups — with columns asking how they all appeared in the eyes of civilians, insurgents and counterinsurgents.

“Don’t fill in the boxes,” Ulrich cautioned. “In the Army, we’re trained to see a box and want to fill it.” But what was vital, he said, wasn’t what specifically to look for. It was how to look at the situation.