U.S. Counterinsurgency Academy

Thomas Ricks has an interesting look at the U.S. Counterinsurgency Academy, a mandatory new five day orientation course for U.S. officers heading to command assignments in Iraq.

If the U.S. effort in Iraq ultimately is successful, one reason may be the small school started recently on a military base here by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq. Called the COIN Academy — using military shorthand for “counterinsurgency” — the newest educational institution in the U.S. military establishment seeks, as a course summary puts it, to “stress the need for U.S. forces to shift from a conventional warfare mindset” to one that understands how to win in a guerrilla-style conflict. Or, as a sign on the wall of one administrator’s office here put it less politely: “Insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different outcome.”

The purpose of the school north of Baghdad is to try to bring about a different outcome than the U.S. military achieved in 2003-04, when Army commanders committed mistakes typical of a conventional military facing an insurgency. “When the insurgency started, we came in very conventional,” said Col. Chris Short, the District native and recent Manassas resident who is the new school’s commandant.

Back then, U.S. forces rounded up tens of thousands of Iraqis, mixing innocent people in detention with hard-core Islamic extremists. Commanders permitted troops to shoot at anything mildly threatening. And they failed to give their troops the basic conceptual and cultural tools needed to operate in the complex environment of Iraq, from how to deal with a sheik to understanding why killing insurgents usually is the least desirable outcome in dealing with them. (It is more effective, they are now taught, to persuade them either to desert or to join the political process.)

Last year, an internal study by Army experts of U.S. commanders here found that some understood the principles of counterinsurgency and applied them well, while others faltered. “If the commander had it, the unit had it, but if the commander got it halfway, then the unit got it halfway,” Casey said in a recent interview. The new school is designed to ensure that all the commanders get it.


Casey, the school’s builder, found an easy way to make them come: He made attendance compulsory for any officer heading to a combat command in Iraq. He also meets with each class, offering the captains and lieutenant colonels a rare chance to quiz a four-star general.


Again and again, the intense immersion course, which 30 to 50 officers attend at a time, emphasizes that the right answer is probably the counterintuitive one, rather than something that the Army has taught officers in their 10 or 20 years of service. The school’s textbook, a huge binder, offers the example of a mission that busts into a house and captures someone who mortared a U.S. base. “On the surface, a raid that captures a known insurgent or terrorist may seem like a sure victory for the coalition,” it observes in red block letters. It continues, “The potential second- and third-order effects, however, can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.”

At points, the school’s leaders seem to go out of their way to challenge current U.S. military practices here. Short said in an interview Friday inside his sandbagged headquarters that he has issues with “this big-base mentality” that keeps tens of thousands of troops inside facilities called forwarding operating bases, or FOBs, which they leave for patrols and raids. Classic counterinsurgency theory holds that troops should live out among the people as much as possible, to develop a sense of how the society works and to gather intelligence.

Given that we’re almost three years into this war and that a goodly number of officers are on their second or third rotation, it is disheartening that this training is necessary. Given that it is, however, the academy is a great move.

Indeed, the Army seems to acknowledge as much:

The major criticism offered by students is that it would have been better to have the education six months earlier, when they were training their troops to deploy to Iraq, not after the units have arrived. Short had a tart response: It’s not a bad idea, he said, but the Army back home wasn’t stepping up to the job. “They didn’t do it for three years” — the length of the war so far, he noted. “That’s why the boss said, ‘Screw it, I’m doing it here.’ ”

At any rate, the school isn’t just about operating in Iraq, Short said, but about preparing officers for the rest of their careers. “I think we’re going to be in more of these wars,” he said.

Sadly, that’s likely true. The logical extension of that, however, is that this training needs to be integrated into officer and NCO basic courses and other professional military education. A five day crash course in theater is hardly adequate.

Army chief of staff Peter Schoomaker acknowleges as much in an interview with U.S. News’ Julian E. Barnes with the ambitious title “The Future Of U.S. Warfare.”

Do you think the Army was ready for the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq?

Our army was best prepared to fight a conventional adversary. We had done less preparation for counterinsurgency. What we are doing today, in terms of counterinsurgency operations, is capturing as rapidly as we can the lessons learned, trying to fold them back in and reinvigorate our doctrine. The best thing I can tell you is we are learning from our youngsters. Where our experience base is today is in the young noncommissioned officers and junior officers.

What are your company commanders and platoon sergeants telling you?

[That] not everything is a kinetic fight. Sometimes the most powerful tools in your kit bag are not shooting at all. Fundamentally, counterinsurgency is not a military deal. Fundamentally, it is political, economic, informational. It’s about separating the support of the people away from the insurgents. You do that not by disrupting people’s lives but by enabling their welfare. The junior officers and the junior noncommissioned officers are very, very attuned to this.

In 2004, the Army was talking about reducing tours in Iraq to less than a year. Why wasn’t that possible?

In the situation we are in it is important to have continuity–people learn the streets, they learn the enemy. It’s also a fact that your greatest period of vulnerability is when you get into theater. There’s a steep learning curve, and it takes you time to learn the ropes. When this stabilizes–and we are moving in that direction–I believe we will also be moving in the direction of nine-month or six-month tours.

Given the American Army’s long history of waging counterinsurgency operations, it is rather sad that time-honored lessons that pundits have been spouting since early 2003 are still not engrained.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    The final point in the final quote, the one from Barnes about continuity, is the most important thing in the whole issue. When a commander, or the members of a unit, spend 12-18 months patrolling an area, they build a relationship with the people living there… in order for _any_ of our overall objectives to be met, that relationship _must_ be maintained by the other people, units, commanders, etc. that rotate through there.

    These are residential neighborhoods being patrolled by heavily-armed people who don’t speak much of the local language, and have the power of life and death in their hands. When they suddenly get replaced by a whole new group of people, there’s bound to be enormous tension among the populace – the ‘new guys’ have to be trained to know the same things & operate (as much as possible) in the same way as the people rotating out…

  2. James Joyner says:

    legion: Agreed. It’s a lesson constantly relearned by the military and police departments. Unfortunately, simply keeping people in place indefinitely doesn’t necessarily work that great, either, since you get burnout and the sloppiness and loss of patience that comes with it.

  3. LJD says:

    These are residential neighborhoods being patrolled by heavily-armed people who donÂ’t speak much of the local language

    I would be very surprised if EVERY patrol element did not have at least one interpreter with it. Further, unprecedented language training has been incorporated into deployment training.

    When they suddenly get replaced by a whole new group of people, thereÂ’s bound to be enormous tension among the populace

    Also not true. Sure there is some tension. However, units are not ‘suddenly replaced’. A change of command includes ‘right seat rides’ (where the outgoing unit briefs the incoming) and ‘left seat rides’ (where the incoming unit assumes duty under the guidance and supervision of the outgoing). Commanders meet key figures in their AOR long before assuming command.

    It seems to me this course is more about getting the locals to help fight the enemy, rather than how WE fight. Part of it is convincing them that we are the good guys, and it is to their advantage to weed out the bad guys. Part of it is our guys not alienating the ones who will help.

  4. legion says:

    LJD-That’s good to hear… I’ve been in that part of the world a time or two, but never to Iraq proper (or anywhere people were actively shooting at me, thank goodness).

    And yes, I think the whole point is to change the way we train our soldiers to fight. They largely aren’t taught to fight “this” war, always the “most recent” war. I suspect that problem goes back as far as the organized military though…