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How US Army trains for a different kind of war

Counterinsurgency tactics put a big premium on winning hearts and minds. For soldiers undergoing training at Fort Polk, La., it seems to be sticking.

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That kind of training will help US forces influence a village or a city block, says Bolger, an author and expert on counterinsurgencies, and will tamp down the violence and turn around the country. The main thing soldiers here learn, he says, is that it's not all black and white.

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"That is a hard thing for us, because the easy thing for us in America is to say, 'good guy, bad guy,' draw the line, and shoot all the guys on this side of the line, and don't touch anybody here," says the commander, waving his hands in the air to make the point during a recent interview in Fort Polk's pretend newspaper office.

In dealing with an insurgency, however, the environment is "much more porous" and requires soldiers who can adapt quickly to the circumstances in which they are working, he says.

Bolger acknowledges that American service members can struggle with these concepts. Referring to the British academic Sir Michael Howard, who noted in the last century that while most armies get their initial war-fighting doctrine wrong, it's a question of how long it takes to retrain their soldiers to get it right. Bolger doesn't believe the US military had the wrong doctrine when it went to war in Iraq, but had structured its training for the big wars it knew – not for the small ones it would fight.

"We are now fighting a different war than the one we prepared for," he says.

The evolving mind-set of the American military comes as a result of at least three factors: multiple deployments of units to Iraq, improved training, and putting the right people in the right places – such as putting Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, says T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and writer on the subject of irregular warfare. The evolution is ongoing, he says, but now it has reached a new "competence" that has the potential to get the upper hand over the insurgency in Iraq.

That mind-set is now being tested under the Army's General Petraeus, who wrote the book on counterinsurgency operations and is now the top commander in Iraq.

"Unfortunately, it took four years instead of one or two," says Mr. Hammes.

Too late to change the war's course?

But if the American military now has found its groove in Iraq, some say it may be too little, too late.

Counterinsurgency work takes years and decades, not the weeks or months that many in Washington and elsewhere would like to see. That leaves little time for the American military to show success.

"The American people are not all that casualty-averse, but they're incompetence-averse," says Hammes, who has publicly criticized the Iraq campaign for lack of planning and operational naiveté. Despite the addition of another 30,000 US forces under the "surge" plan that President Bush announced in January, many analysts say that is still not enough to calm Iraq. True counterinsurgency work, they say, takes time and cannot be done with too few soldiers.

In an ideal world, Mr. Bush would ask for even more troops to get the job done right, says Hammes.

"The administration finally figured out what it had to do, but it will not go to the American people and say, 'We have to make a major effort here,' " he says.

Come September, Petraeus is slated to make an assessment of operations in Iraq, which will mark nearly three months after the last forces to arrive in keeping with the surge strategy.

For his part, Bolger says the much-anticipated September assessment will probably say that counterinsurgency efforts are on track and that progress is being made, but that more time will be needed.

"We've started to get it right. It's starting to bear fruit now," Bolger says.

A choice for all Americans

While the decision to stay or go is, in the end, up to the American people, the US military is now better prepared to do the job before it.

"That's where the American people need to make the decision: Do they think it's worth the losses we're suffering, the money we're paying, the time and effort we're putting into it, yes or no?" Bolger says. "I can't answer that for the American public."

What he can do, he says, is help to prepare forces for the work ahead if the public wants the military's mission in Iraq to continue.

"Our job as the military is to give them their options."