By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
TAJI, Iraq -- If the U.S. effort in Iraq ultimately is successful, one reason may be the small school started recently on a military base here by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq.
Called the COIN Academy -- using military shorthand for "counterinsurgency" -- the newest educational institution in the U.S. military establishment seeks, as a course summary puts it, to "stress the need for U.S. forces to shift from a conventional warfare mindset" to one that understands how to win in a guerrilla-style conflict. Or, as a sign on the wall of one administrator's office here put it less politely: "Insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different outcome."
The purpose of the school north of Baghdad is to try to bring about a different outcome than the U.S. military achieved in 2003-04, when Army commanders committed mistakes typical of a conventional military facing an insurgency. "When the insurgency started, we came in very conventional," said Col. Chris Short, the District native and recent Manassas resident who is the new school's commandant.
Back then, U.S. forces rounded up tens of thousands of Iraqis, mixing innocent people in detention with hard-core Islamic extremists. Commanders permitted troops to shoot at anything mildly threatening. And they failed to give their troops the basic conceptual and cultural tools needed to operate in the complex environment of Iraq, from how to deal with a sheik to understanding why killing insurgents usually is the least desirable outcome in dealing with them. (It is more effective, they are now taught, to persuade them either to desert or to join the political process.)
Last year, an internal study by Army experts of U.S. commanders here found that some understood the principles of counterinsurgency and applied them well, while others faltered. "If the commander had it, the unit had it, but if the commander got it halfway, then the unit got it halfway," Casey said in a recent interview. The new school is designed to ensure that all the commanders get it.
Even now, some conventional unit commanders balk at the idea of leaving their troops for the five-day course, which covers subjects from counterinsurgency theory and interrogations to detainee operations and how to dine with a sheik. When told that he had to leave his battalion of Marines in Fallujah to come here, recalled Lt. Col. Patrick Looney, his reaction was disbelief.
"I didn't want to come," concurred Lt. Col. David Furness, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, now operating between Baghdad and Fallujah. "But I'm glad I came."
Casey, the school's builder, found an easy way to make them come: He made attendance compulsory for any officer heading to a combat command in Iraq. He also meets with each class, offering the captains and lieutenant colonels a rare chance to quiz a four-star general.
Some members of the faculty, which draws heavily on Special Forces officers, were not eager to teach U.S. infantry, artillery, aviation and armor officers. Short recalled that some said: "That's not our mission. We don't teach U.S. forces." Such qualms have been eliminated, he said with a chuckle.
Again and again, the intense immersion course, which 30 to 50 officers attend at a time, emphasizes that the right answer is probably the counterintuitive one, rather than something that the Army has taught officers in their 10 or 20 years of service. The school's textbook, a huge binder, offers the example of a mission that busts into a house and captures someone who mortared a U.S. base.
"On the surface, a raid that captures a known insurgent or terrorist may seem like a sure victory for the coalition," it observes in red block letters. It continues, "The potential second- and third-order effects, however, can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals."
At points, the school's leaders seem to go out of their way to challenge current U.S. military practices here. Short said in an interview Friday inside his sandbagged headquarters that he has issues with "this big-base mentality" that keeps tens of thousands of troops inside facilities called forwarding operating bases, or FOBs, which they leave for patrols and raids. Classic counterinsurgency theory holds that troops should live out among the people as much as possible, to develop a sense of how the society works and to gather intelligence.
As Apache attack helicopters clattered overhead, Short also offered an unconventional view of Iraq's December elections, which many U.S. officials have portrayed as a great victory. "You can ask just about every Iraqi, 'What about the elections?' " he said. "They'll say" -- Short shrugged his shoulders -- " 'Well, we voted five times, and nothing's happening out here.' "
Recent attendees at the school came away impressed. "I think it's an incredibly insightful course," said Army Maj. Sheldon Horsfall, an adviser to the Iraqi military in Baghdad. "One of the things that was brought home to us, again and again, was the importance of cultural awareness."
"The course opened my eyes to some of the bigger picture," said Lt. Col. Nathan Nastase, the operations officer for the 5th Marine Regiment, based near Fallujah. He said he especially liked hearing about the role of Special Operations Forces in Iraq, as well as learning about the tactics being used by successful commanders.
The school's greatest effect seems to be on younger officers. "My initial impression of it was it was a waste of time," said Capt. Klaudius Robinson, commander of a cavalry troop in the 4th Infantry Division. "But after going through it, it really changed my thinking about how to fight this insurgency. I came to realize that the center of gravity is the people, and you have to drive a wedge between the insurgents and the people."
Before the course, he said, he expected to spend his time here combating insurgents, but instead he is focused on training and operating with Iraqi troops. "We're never going to catch every bad guy," he tells his troops. "That's not a ticket home. But what I can do is help Iraqi security forces and get them to take the lead."
"One of the things I picked up at the COIN Academy is, we don't need to be hard on people all the time," said Capt. Bret Lindberg, commander of another 4th Infantry cavalry troop.
The major criticism offered by students is that it would have been better to have the education six months earlier, when they were training their troops to deploy to Iraq, not after the units have arrived. Short had a tart response: It's not a bad idea, he said, but the Army back home wasn't stepping up to the job. "They didn't do it for three years" -- the length of the war so far, he noted. "That's why the boss said, 'Screw it, I'm doing it here.' "
At any rate, the school isn't just about operating in Iraq, Short said, but about preparing officers for the rest of their careers. "I think we're going to be in more of these wars," he said.