In Iraq, troops balance fighting and lending a hand
Counterinsurgency efforts require US soldiers to shift from fighting to peacekeeping, but many feel ill-prepared to conduct investigations and interact with Iraqis.
A few months ago, Sgt. First Class Robert Rollheiser and his platoon were locked in fierce battle in Sadr City with the Mahdi Army (JAM), a Shiite militia. Today, they're surrounded by a group of locals just a few miles from the city where a woman has accused some local boys of belonging to JAM.Skip to next paragraph
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Upon investigation, it appears she wanted to get the attention of US soldiers to seek their help in mitigating a family dispute that arose when her son refused an unattractive bride. The alleged JAM members were, in fact, the bride's brothers and had threatened the picky groom-to-be. Having determined this, Sergeant Rollheiser tells the group, "You need to call the police. We don't handle these types of problems. I am not Dr. Phil."
When major fighting ended almost overnight in Baghdad in late May, US soldiers had to make a sharp transition from fighters to peacekeepers. Counterinsurgency efforts have always required a careful balance between these two roles, but many soldiers say none have required such quick switches as Iraq. The US Army has taken major steps to ready soldiers for an environment in which they are asked both to fight and interact with locals. But many still feel underprepared.
"For just about any groundpounding-type soldier, you train to fight," says Cpt. Drew Lorentzen, Echo company commander for the 1-68 Combined Arms Battalion, who is from Newport Beach, Calif. "The difficulty isn't that we've gone from kinetic [major combat] to non-kinetic – the difficulty is that we've gone from kinetic to non-kinetic so fast."
Under Gen. David Petraeus, the US Army has become more focused on developing as a proficient counterinsurgency force, capable of dealing with the different conditions that many soldiers now face.
"There has been a significant change over the last year or two in the mentality ... as well as the skill set and the operating principles that the Army is using to prepare forces and that Army forces now have," says Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor who worked on the Army's counterinsurgency manual in 2006.
"It's partly a function of people having been on several tours to Iraq, but it's in a large part a function of the way the institution itself has begun to accept Iraq and Afghanistan," she adds. "These are the wars they have to fight."
While the strategic principles behind the US Army's counterinsurgency doctrine have not strayed drastically from those used by special forces units for decades, Professor Sewall says the adoption of the doctrine by the entire Army is a radical change.
For troops who have come of age as soldiers in a military focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency operations are second nature.