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.

– Ask Army Staff Sgt. Troy Sherlock how to win in Iraq and his unscripted response seems right out of the playbook for fighting insurgencies.

To succeed there, he says, US forces have to emphasize respect for the populace and Iraqi culture, engaging both to truly defeat the insurgency. "We're starting to realize that we're never leaving that country if we don't do it right," says Sergeant Sherlock.

Or as a junior officer summed up the training here from his perch in a Humvee beneath a stand of scraggly pines: "You have to be nice," he concedes in a sigh.

More than four years into the Iraq war, the US military's rank and file seems to have gotten the memo. Instead of kicking down doors, hard chargers like Sherlock know they must knock. This evolution is slowly changing military thinking about warfare and, if it's not too late, could change the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It all sounds so familiar, this notion that success over insurgencies comes not with guns but with soccer balls. But for many jaded Iraq war vets, the Vietnam-era "winning-hearts-and-minds" mantra was an impractical slogan in the face of roadside bombs and sniper attacks. And, with the exception of some notable military leaders, few on the front lines were known to actually believe it.

For the past few years, from less progressive generals on down to the most gung-ho privates, many in the military figured the insurgency was, as Vice-President Dick Cheney declared in June 2005, "in its last throes." So-called irregular warfare was only taking the military on a detour, and ultimately it would return to its conventional warfare roots.

Bringing up a new kind of soldier

But evidence is growing that the military's fundamental approach to warfare may be changing, perhaps for good.

At Fort Polk in any given month, thousands of soldiers undergo "force-on-force" training that trainers here say is as realistic as it gets. There are the usual scripted events that simulate car bombs and suicide bombs – and that teach must-have tactics to cope with the horrific violence that still ravages parts of Iraq.

But increasingly, the emphasis here and at other training centers in California is on teaching the full spectrum of operations in the war on terror, from humanitarian assistance to full-on combat. For a military steeped in the traditions of gun battles and "kinetic" action, it is the focus on the finer points of security and stabilization that get the most play here.

When he came through Fort Polk earlier this year, Army First Lt. Chad Nakamura, a member of the Third Brigade of the 101st Airborne, realized that the tactical stance he used as he held his gun was too threatening. So he changed it. He says he has also worked to develop his interpersonal skills, anticipating his first tour in Iraq. Lieutenant Nakamura, previously an enlisted soldier with nine years of service under his belt, now a trainer at Fort Polk, believes he'll take a different approach when his turn in Iraq comes.

"Let's fix it," he says, referring to Iraq. "But it doesn't have to be in a violent way or a threatening way."

Meet Fort Polk's commander

Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Bolger leads the charge at Fort Polk as both its commanding officer and the commander of the Joint Readiness Training Center there. General Bolger has helped to create a training environment where soldiers participate in sophisticated scenarios in which their actions produce effects that resemble real-world situations. In this world of make-believe with life-or-death implications, a corporal who uses the wrong hand to wave or a commander who ignores the request of the local sheik to fix a school's roof could have negative consequences and lead ultimately to those role-players setting up a car-bomb attack against the "friendly forces" being trained.

The training at Fort Polk replicates to the degree possible the situation on the ground, where Iraqi police and Army units play a larger role than they once did. The training also quickly incorporates tactical changes by the enemy in Iraq. For instance, earlier this month insurgents began blowing up bridges in Iraq. Within a day or so, the trainers at Fort Polk began using the same tactic against soldiers undergoing training.

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.

"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."

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