Adapt Or Die
Soldiers need a new set of skills and qualities to succeed at counterinsurgency.
"Forget everything you've been taught about this place, because it's either wrong or it's useless. Your education begins now," Army Sgt. James Jennings told a group of soldiers new to Baghdad in 2005. The grizzled veteran tried to teach his charges the complexities of counterinsurgency, where the battle is decided less by overwhelming firepower than by winning over hearts and minds.
He spoke with authority, having spent nearly a year patrolling restive western Baghdad. Jennings told the soldiers the Army was waging an entirely new type of war in which the traditional skills of fire and maneuver were less important than softer skills, such as cultural awareness and building trust and confidence among the Iraqi people.
Even though the Army has been fighting the shadowy insurgency for four years in Iraq, it has been slow to change its conventional approach: massing firepower on an enemy's formations.
The United States invaded Iraq with the world's most technologically advanced army and soon found itself losing to a nimble, adaptive enemy whose most effective weapons are the cell phone and Internet. The speed with which insurgents in Iraq adapt has confounded American military leaders. Army officers say they change tactics almost weekly because it takes insurgent cells just days to adjust to new techniques.
Thinking and adaptive. That's how Army officers almost universally describe the insurgents. They don't follow the predictable patterns of computer simulations, especially when facing death. Their adaptability stems in part from jihadi Web sites filled with lessons learned, dissections of successful and unsuccessful attacks on American troops, and insight about new tactics and weapons.
The Army remains too laden with tradition, too conservative, too hierarchical and rule-bound to cope effectively with its new enemy. Counterinsurgency is small-unit warfare, so leadership and command must devolve to lower levels. The most important field commanders are sergeants, lieutenants and captains-their decisions have strategic implications. But the Army remains focused on making brigades stronger and empowering generals. The Army must change. Its focus must shift to platoons and empowering junior officers-captains like Ike Sallee, for instance.
Sallee commanded an infantry company in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006. He and his 200 soldiers operated in a predominantly Sunni western Baghdad neighborhood of about 600,000 people. "We have a military in Iraq designed and organized to fight an Industrial Age war," ill-suited to the Internet Age battle in Iraq, he said in a December 2005 interview in Iraq.
Like most American troops, Sallee pursued scattered, small insurgent cells that placed roadside bombs targeting his soldiers. His biggest challenge was identifying an enemy hidden among regular people. He knew the only way to single out bombers was to engage the population, which he believed was in two camps. "This population is either a potential insurgent or informant," Sallee said. "I've already cut off that segment of the population that is already an insurgent. I'm not going to try and turn them to the good side. My focus is on the potential informant."
He developed his own intelligence network. A small cadre of informants he painstakingly developed over months was his eyes and ears on a population that resented the American presence and gave at least tacit support to the Sunni insurgency. These informants fed him the coordinates of hidden weapons caches, identified the money men who financed bomber cells and fingered suspected guerrilla fighters.
Recruiting informants was a protracted process of building trust, Sallee said. It meant testing the veracity of tips and developing a covert means of communication so informants felt confident they could hide their involvement with the Americans. He weeded out informants who were out to settle personal scores by fingering innocents, or who were working for the insurgents and providing disinformation. When he felt comfortable enough to rely on informants, he gave them cell phones, which he expected them to answer any time he called day or night. He also paid them, some very well.
Sallee found that on the streets in Baghdad, the Army's centralized intelligence gathering and dissemination system was largely useless. The situation on the street was too fluid, events moved too fast. By the time intelligence was collected, analyzed and then sent back down to the units on the ground, it was ancient history.
His approach-befriending locals, aiding those who provide good information, cooperating with Iraqis to improve living standards-not only provides better intelligence faster, it also undermines insurgents' efforts. "If the insurgents know you're talking to the people, then that's something [for them] to worry about," he said. He also worked to obtain micro-loans for small businesses, built a distribution center for cooking gas in one neighborhood and spent long hours in discussions with religious leaders trying to convince them that the Koran does not sanction suicide bombings.
Where the Army has adapted to counterinsurgency, it has been among small units, led by officers like Sallee, who have gained experience on the ground through two and three deployments, seeing what works and what doesn't. These officers are willing to deviate from standard operating procedure in order to succeed.
Sallee was considered one of the most successful young officers in Baghdad. He recently went back for his third combat tour in four years. The last time he was there, he wrote a paper discussing the skills that soldiers should be taught before being sent to Iraq. Expertise with a weapon was down toward the bottom of the list. On the streets of Baghdad, the ability to communicate, to listen, to understand and to work with the local people was far more important than firepower, he said. Soldiers must get out of their vehicles, walk the streets and spend time talking to the locals. "We need to focus all our combat assets, all our energy, to shifting their minds," he said. It takes time, listening to the people, identifying the power brokers and then coming up with a prescription for shifting people's support away from the insurgents and toward some form of an Iraqi state.
"The guys who have been most successful over here have drawn from their life experiences. My sergeants have been most effective. It's not just because they're senior NCOs; it's because they know how to deal with people. They understand things aren't black and white. They can identify with people." He said the Army needs to change the way it trains soldiers to get away from a rigid way of thinking. "The most important thing you've got to learn to be successful here is that you've got to be flexible and adaptive in your thinking."
Intuition, Initiative, Innovation
A recent report, "Heads We Win: The Cognitive Side of Counterinsurgency" written by David Gompert of the RAND Corp., says the key to success in today's counterinsurgency wars is thinking better and fighting smarter. Facing "a geographically dispersed enemy whose brainpower is key to its success," he writes, the United States must shift its "primary focus away from military force . . . toward a greater emphasis on cognitive excellence." That means more than being knowledgeable and decisive; it means being wise in employing intuition, processing facts and making decisions.
That demands a very different skill set than the one the American military traditionally has embraced. Gompert says the services must make a serious investment in developing brainpower. Cultures such as those of the military and the intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies don't foster cognitive excellence, intellectual risk taking, objectivity and suspicion of groupthink. "It should be a source of discomfort that jihadist leaders place greater emphasis on human capital-intellectuals, motivators, planners, information technicians and operating agents-for holy war than the United States does for counterinsurgency," he says.
Fostering people with similar capabilities will require tearing down the Army and rebuilding it, says retired Army Maj. Donald Vandergriff, a vocal proponent of changing the leadership development program to create adaptive officers better suited for irregular warfare. He says the Army retains an Industrial Age development system, which is highly centralized and hierarchical and overly reliant on scripted training exercises that inculcate neither creativity nor innovation. "Young lieutenants call it the 'followership' course. They're told where to go, what to do, where to sign in [and] constantly lectured," Vandergriff says.
Vandergriff is pushing a new training program called the Adaptive Leadership Course, in which soldiers are taught how to think, not what to think. Emphasis is placed on innovation, initiative and thinking about the larger strategic effects of individual actions. Adaptive leaders, Vandergriff says, are critical and creative thinkers, self-aware, and have social skills such as empathy, the ability to listen and to assess an individual's strengths and weaknesses.
The new training model, designed to make the Army a learning organization, creates changing situations of growing complexity that parallel real-world operations and force students to adapt. In this continual feedback loop, young officers are allowed to fail and find answers for themselves, thus building intuition, Vandergriff says.
Right now, he says, the Army is tweaking around the edges of wholesale organizational renovation. But only dramatic change will stem the current exodus of young officers, particularly captains. They are leaving in part as a reaction to lowered standards for promotion, which have created a top-heavy officer corps, he says. Repeated deployments to Southwest Asia are part of the reason too, but "guys are seeing the standards drop," he says, "and anybody getting promoted." Too many high-level officers now sit in headquarters and tell junior officers what to do, he adds.
Young, qualified people join what they expect to be a high-quality organization when they sign up with the Army, Vandergriff says. But if they perceive standards are being lowered, they'll leave. The Army has to stop simply filling slots on organizational charts and start recognizing truly qualified leaders and keeping them in command positions for longer periods, he says.
Adam Harmon, a former Israeli paratrooper and special operations officer, says the changes that Vandergriff and others are promoting resemble Israeli military training. That country's constant battles with guerrilla fighters have shaped training to produce adaptive soldiers and officers well suited for irregular warfare. Because of its relatively small size and limited resources, the Israeli military is a learning organization. It rarely repeats the same mistake and tends to learn and adapt to new battlefield realities very quickly, he says.
Harmon, who has advised the American military on tactics in Iraq, says new Israeli army recruits are trained to question existing procedures, because the military culture embraces new methods, collaborative discussion and input from the lower ranks. "We have a saying that the officer leads from the front but also listens to the soldier in the back," he says. Israel is surrounded by potential enemies and maintains a military presence in the Palestinian territories, so new recruits gain operational experience early on in their training. Missions gradually increase in complexity from foot patrols in relatively calm villages to ambushes and raids of suspected terrorist hideouts.
He suggests a similar approach with American troops. New recruits would be flown to parts of Iraq or Afghanistan and learn intricacies of irregular warfare on the ground. There are enough secure areas in both countries where troops fresh out of boot camp could begin learning basic functions, such as convoy operations, staffing checkpoints or patrolling friendly villages. They would then be exposed to more involved tasks, such as the cordon and search of suspected insurgent safe houses. Troops would move up the learning curve far faster than they do now with the training they receive before deployment at mock Iraqi villages constructed on American bases.
As Israeli recruits gain more experience, they feel more confident about offering input and commanders are more inclined to listen to it, Harmon says. This model is unique to the Israeli military. The idea is to reach consensus on best practices that improve effectiveness. The American military is too general- and brigade-centric, he says. The focus "needs to be reversed. The Israeli way is to make the soldier smarter and more effective, and if the soldier is better and more effective, then his effectiveness trickles up," he says.
Harmon highlights social skills, the ability to effectively interact on a personal level. In officer selection, a candidate's personality and character traits are far more important than proficiency with a weapon or other technical skills, he says. Because recruits are taught early on to question and analyze, there is a bottom-up process of innovation, rather than top-down directives. Harmon says the Israeli military gives little weight to the publication of doctrine manuals, a common practice in the American military. The guerrilla fighters Israel faces on its borders change their tactics too rapidly. Manuals are outdated before they are published.
"In counterinsurgency, the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly-the better learning organization-usually wins," according to the newly published Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. America's enemies are agile and thrive amid the chaos and weak central authority of failed or failing states. The loosely connected, diffuse network of highly dedicated fighters emerges from a bottom-up organizational process, rather than a top-down recruitment process that aims to fill slots in an organizational chart.
To win, the Army, along with the rest of the military, must embrace radical change. The price of failure is simply too high.