IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lessons learned in Iraq seen in Army classes

Instead of focussing on how to destroy the enemy, classes for Army officers are now devoted to counterinsurgency, putting down an armed and political campaign against a government, the U.S. military's imperative in Iraq.
At the Command and General Staff College, in Forth Leavenworth, Kansas, Army instructor Stuart Lyon teaches a seminar on the theory of counterinsurgency.
At the Command and General Staff College, in Forth Leavenworth, Kansas, Army instructor Stuart Lyon teaches a seminar on the theory of counterinsurgency.Thomas Ricks / Washington Post file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A fundamental change overtaking the Army is on display in classrooms across this base above the Missouri River. After decades of being told that their job was to close in on and destroy the enemy, officers are being taught that sometimes the best thing might be not to attack but to co-opt the enemy, perhaps by employing him, or encouraging him to desert, or by drawing him into local or national politics.

It is a new focus devoted to one overarching topic: counterinsurgency, putting down an armed and political campaign against a government, the U.S. military's imperative in Iraq.

Officers studying at the Army's Command and General Staff College here are flocking to elective courses on the subject, with three times as many enrolled this year as last. Soon the Army will require a block of instruction in counterinsurgency for all of the 1,000 or so majors who attend the college each year.

In an adjacent institution, the elite School of Advanced Military Studies, where the Army trains what are known colloquially as its "Jedi knight" planners, 31 of 78 student monographs this year were devoted to counterinsurgency or "stability operations," compared with "only a couple" two years ago, said Col. Kevin Benson, the school's director. In the college bookstore, copies of a 1964 book, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice" by David Galula, a French army officer who fought in North Africa, are piled on a cart and selling swiftly.

There is an air of urgency to this redirection.

"It's a survival thing for us," said Maj. Scott Sonsalla, who served in Kosovo and was an aide to the deputy secretary of defense. This year, he said, he is taking courses on counterinsurgency, terrorism, strategy, intelligence and defeating roadside bombs.

"I'm going to go" to Iraq to lead "600 or so soldiers," he said. "If I do something wrong, that affects a lot of soldiers -- and a lot of families."

Tempered by three years of fighting
The new emphasis on studying how to respond to guerrilla-like campaigns underscores how the Army has been tempered, even chastened, by three years of fighting an unexpectedly difficult war in Iraq.

The air of hubris that some Army officers displayed just a few years ago, after victories in Panama, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan (and an outcome in Somalia that they blamed on their civilian overseers in the Clinton administration) has dissipated, replaced by a sense that they have a lot to learn about how to operate effectively in Iraq, and about the cultures and languages there and in other likely hot spots.

"Yes, they had the great run to Baghdad, but since then they've had losses," said Stuart Lyon, who teaches a seminar on counterinsurgency here. "And they know that when they go back, they've got to be smarter about it."

"It's a vastly different Army from 2003," said Lawrence T. Di Rita, an aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld who until recently was the chief Pentagon spokesman. "It's impressive."

Di Rita's comments are noteworthy given the history of antagonism between the Army's leadership and Rumsfeld's office. An Army chief of staff and the service's civilian secretary left the Pentagon bitterly critical of how Rumsfeld and his associates handled the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003.

Officers here said they see a strong cultural shift at work for the Army, whose self-image still sometimes seems based on charging across Europe toward Berlin in 1944 and blasting Saddam Hussein's tanks in the Arabian Desert 47 years later.

"What we're trying to do is change the culture, to modify that culture, that solving the problem isn't just a tactical problem of guns and bombs and maneuver," said retired Army Col. Clinton J. Ancker III, director of the "doctrine"-writing office here that defines how the Army does what it does. He is involved in an effort to restructure the Army's "interim" manual on insurgency, which some insiders see as a mediocre stopgap.

Unusually, the Army and the Marines are collaborating on the new manual and also asking for input from the British army, which has had centuries of experience in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Counterinsurgency reexamined
Conscious that it largely walked away from counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War -- the subject was not mentioned in the mid-1970s version of the Army's key fighting manual -- the service now is trying to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. Spearheading that effort is Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, whose doctoral dissertation at Princeton was on the Vietnam War and who later commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. "I think the changes are very broad," Petraeus said. He oversees several of the Army's training bases and schools" with his new job here.

"This is about institutional change, and the whole Army is included. It is kind of a generational change," he said. Indeed, in the next few years, officers who joined the Army after the end of the Cold War will begin to take command of battalions.

The new approach can also be seen in the field, where the Army trains soldiers to fight. The biggest change there has been the admission that counterinsurgency is exceedingly difficult, and that the Army has not been preparing its people well for it, officials said.

"We used to say that if you could do the war fighting, the other stuff was a 'lesser included case,' " said Dennis Tighe, deputy director of an office here that manages Army training. "What we've learned the hard way is that the other stuff is much more difficult."

Also, other Army experts add, because Army commanders lacked the expertise to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns, in 2003 and 2004 they often employed inappropriate tactics, such as big "cordon and sweep" operations that detained thousands of neutral Iraqis and proved to be counterproductive.

Now, in addition to teaching how to fight battles, the Army's training centers teach commanders how to deal with crowds, how to negotiate with local political figures, how to speak through an interpreter, how to oversee the emergency distribution of food.

Earlier this month, 19 officers pondered such questions in Lyon's seminar. Most were Iraq veterans.

When the military detains civilians, they agreed, it is important to treat them well. When addressing a problem, try to go with an Iraqi's solution, not yours. "Put an Iraqi face on it," summarized one major.

And because insurgencies are always political, politics can be more important than combat. "We can go in and kill insurgents, but it's the political piece that will bite you on the butt," noted another officer.

Most of all, they said, the key to victory is not defeating the enemy but winning the support of Iraqis and making the insurgents irrelevant. "When the people start ratting out the insurgents, that's a quantifiable way of measuring your support," said a third officer.

Petraeus said he thinks that the younger officers studying here this year are being given the tools to make a difference in the war next year.

"What we hope to have in Iraq is guys going over there with the broad skill sets to do everything from encouraging a sheik to participate in the political process to economic development to elections, to still being able to go out and get the bad guys, but in a way that is precise and exploits intelligence, and is sensitive to the culture," he said.