June 14, 2011 | National Review Online

Graduate School of Hard Knocks

How to create experts in counterinsurgency.

 When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, cultural sensitivity was already an issue. Breaking centuries of tradition, the invading forces were ordered not to raise American flags over conquered Iraqi territory. Among the first to arrive at Saddam’s presidential palace, two officers of the lead U.S. Army and Marine units, who also happened to be graduates of the University of Georgia, decided to raise — instead of the Stars and Stripes — the colors of the University of Georgia — the battle flag of the Bulldogs.

It was a hilarious gesture, and must have thoroughly confused the Iraqis. Had they been conquered by America, or by some country named “G”? But for me the gesture was deeply symbolic. Whether you look at the troops themselves, or the industrial base that equips them, or the society that fills their ranks, the real military edge of the United States lies in the country’s almost limitless wealth of knowledge. In a very practical sense, Saddam had been defeated by the American university system — the ultimate force multiplier.

There was only one problem: As it turned out, when we invaded Iraq we had basically no idea what we were getting into. That’s not a criticism — you go to war with the army you have, and with the knowledge you have, and you adapt both to the unexpected as rapidly as possible. That’s the only way to do it. But all of the bad things that happened after we invaded — from the collapse in basic services, to the erosion of Iraqi support for the coalition, to the insurgency itself — occurred in large measure because of that knowledge deficit. We didn’t understand Iraq. We have paid a terrible price for it, and the Iraqis far worse.

It was a hard fall, but we bounced back quickly. How?

By learning, of course. This weekend I visited what is informally known in Iraq as the “counterinsurgency academy.” Created in late 2005 to do “lessons learned” counterinsurgency, the academy has evolved rapidly. Today, all commanders in the theater — from the level of Brigade Combat Team down to company captains — have to pass through its training course when they deploy. But that’s not all. Almost as soon as it launched, the academy started reaching back into every unit’s training stateside, so that now almost as soon as units return to the U.S. to begin refitting for their next deployment, they began absorbing the latest training that the academy can make available to them. Now the academy — located at Camp Taji, traditionally the site of Iraq’s military academy — is churning out the cadres of the Iraqi Security Forces as well.

The emphasis is on the practical implementation of the U.S. military’s most current counterinsurgency doctrine, — as articulated in the most current Counterinsurgency Field Manual — (itself one of the most widely coordinated and massively team-written documents in the history of the U.S. government).

The “COIN manual” was developed under the leadership of General David Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, where it received input from nearly every interest group in America that could possibly have something valuable to say about it — from special forces to human rights groups. It was finally released in December 2006 to high acclaim and wide dissemination.

The COIN manual represents a dramatic departure from the last counterinsurgency manual, issued during the 1980s, when “allergy to casualties” was reaching its height in the United States. Though it was an allergy that afflicted civilian leaders much more than it ever did the military, the allergy bled through to counterinsurgency, and fatally made “force protection” the number one priority. This resulted in rules of engagement that told the frontline grunt manning the traffic checkpoint to shoot first and ask questions later when reasonably in doubt as to his safety.

The manual posits that making force protection your first priority in the short term will make your force less secure in the long term, because it helps keep the insurgency alive. If the insurgents know that we will endanger innocent civilians before putting our own soldiers at risk, they will create risk for the soldiers. Then when civilians get hurt — by our response to the insurgents — we make enemies for ourselves and allies for the insurgents. Then the insurgents can hide effectively among the population — and that’s when they start winning.

The key innovation of the COIN manual is that it makes the civilian population the key “terrain” of battle — the center of gravity. The logical chain is pretty simple: If you can distinguish insurgents from the civilian population, then you win. To do that, you need the civilian population’s help. To get their help you need to protect them, enfranchise them, and create conditions for them to lead the fight against the insurgents. It’s the reverse of the insurgent’s strategy — create friends for yourself and enemies for them. And of course, that idea is not new. What is new is that it has become the prime directive, the consideration for which all others are sacrificed.

Part of what follows from this is a precept that the military accepts without question, but is nevertheless difficult to accept. When faced with a dilemma between putting our soldiers at risk and putting civilians at risk, it is our soldiers who will have to take the hit. The need to protect our soldiers has lost its place as number one priority, replaced by the need to protect the civilian population.

That may seem harsh, but it’s the only way to disarm the insurgents of their most powerful weapons — namely our weapons. It is also the way to take our soldiers out of harm’s way as quickly as possible — by ending the war as quickly as possible.

Today’s counterinsurgency strategy does not shrink from the truth — and that is good news. I recently met an Egyptian doctor (and reformed member of an Islamist terrorist group) who told me: “You Americans have a very big problem. You prefer being politically correct to the telling the truth, and this enemy can only be defeated by telling the truth.”

As one Iraqi Army officer told me at the COIN academy, America did not understand the Iraqi mentality when it invaded. We did not’ know the customs and we ’did not know the history, and that made mistakes out of many of our most well-intentioned decisions.

Most people remember the problems there were at first — soldiers disrespecting local customs without realizing it, touching the women, or the traditional headdress on a man. Those led fairly quickly to cultural sensitivity training. But that’s not what gets taught at the COIN academy.

One of the courses — Cultural Intelligence — is structured like a graduate seminar, exploring all aspects of local culture and psychology. And it is not for the faint at heart: it does not make the mistake of preferring political correctness to the truth. One Iraqi Army officer, a seminar leader at the academy, confronted me with what he thought was the most glaring example of America’s ignorance of the local population. “Why did the Americans not fire on the mob when they started looting after the fall of Baghdad? Didn’t you realize that criminals would take over after this?”

Another participant went further. “What these people wanted after the fall of Saddam was absolute domination by the United States. They knew that the alternative was chaos.” He went on to say: “You need to understand, this is a very violent society. To get respect, you need to be ready, willing, and able to use force. Once you get people to understand that, then you engage them” as friends and allies — but not before.

We didn’t know much about Iraq when we got there. But we’ve learned a lot since — and very fast. That’s why, in the words of one Pentagon official, “When it comes to counterinsurgency, we’re the best in the world.”

Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is currently embedded with the Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq.