NEW YORK — When Gen. David Petraeus took command of the war in Afghanistan this summer, one of the first things he noticed was that the all-important counterinsurgency doctrine he wrote — and his predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal championed — wasn’t being taught to all of his troops.
The cornerstone of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency, or COIN, aims to protect the local population and connect them with their government. It is taught at the brigade level, where it is then supposed to be passed down the ranks to the company level — to the boots on the ground. But that wasn’t always happening.
“Counterinsurgency is not a recommendation,” said Canadian Army Lt. Col. John Malevich, deputy director at the COIN Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“Brigade commanders have the ability to pick and choose the training they want to do,” he explained. “Some brigades were very well versed in it. If you had a brigade commander who wasn‘t so comfortable with that or perhaps he had more of a kinetic fight going on, he maybe wasn‘t so concerned with that.”
So Petraeus recommended that all U.S. troops get COIN training at the company level before they even deploy, beginning in the spring. Late last month Defense Secretary Robert Gates quietly approved the directive, which could help change the course of the war in Afghanistan by giving even the lowest level soldiers and Marines the tools to implement counterinsurgency tactics.
“I can’t say we weren’t doing it, but we’re trying to do it well,” Malevich said.
Doing counterinsurgency well still seems to perplex U.S. military leaders, even after nearly a decade of war in which the very definition of modern warfare has changed.
“What we’re finding is that we’ve had 10 years of one-year wars,” Malevich said.
And what U.S. military leaders are finally realizing it that when the counterinsurgency strategy was implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was aimed at the people who were planning the war, not necessarily at those who were out there fighting it.
“We traditionally look at military operations in three levels: strategic, operational and tactical. And so the level of the manual was written at the operational and strategic level, and because of that a lot of people glossed over the platoon and company level,” Malevich said.
“The ones who are coming into contact [with the population] is the company level, the platoon leaders, the sergeant, the corporal, the specialist — they do it,” he said.
To be sure, not everyone is on board with COIN tactics — some say it’s futile in a place that has been at war for decades, that it isn‘t the job of the solider to also act as diplomat. And certainly many troops on the ground are more focused on staying alive than making new Afghan friends.
“Interaction with the local populace is not every soldier’s job, no matter what any general says. If everyone is out there shaking hands and kissing babies, what kind of security is there?” said Jared Matthews, of Clio, Mich., who served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division in 2006-2007 and again in 2009.
Matthews said most of his training came from his fellow soldiers who had deployed before. “I believe two soldiers per squad were given little booklets of useful phrases and sayings,” he said.
A lot of it is simple advice: avoid American humor or slang, don’t make promises you can’t keep, don’t use the term “battlefield.” Other parts of COIN include how to properly question and detain a suspect, properly identifying tribal leaders and training local security forces.
“It’s very difficult to prepare soldiers who have never been out of the United States and prepare them for a culture that runs completely counter to the culture we have in the U.S.,” said Tim Gould, from Yonkers, N.Y., who served in Afghanistan with the New York National Guard’s Fighting 69th in 2008.
Officially, Gould’s unit got a two-hour language course before they deployed. “That was pretty much it,” he said. After all, they were infantry soldiers, trained to fight. But Gould said his first sergeant, the senior non-commissioned officer at the company level, required his men to speak in Dari and Pashtu as they prepared to ship out. And once they were on the battlefield, he had them work closely with their Afghan interpreters to learn more about the culture and language.
“Just to be able to say hello, good morning, how’s your family, how’s your health — that’s huge. Being able to just say that, you can see it means a lot to them,” Gould said. “It shows them that I do care. I’m not just here fighting a war. I truly do care how you feel.”
The 419-page U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, first published in 2006, says that “battalion-sized and smaller unit operations are often most effective for countering insurgent activities. Counterinsurgents need to get as close as possible to the people to secure them and glean the maximum amount of quality information.”
It also says that “rank may not indicate required talent. In COIN operations, a few good soldiers and marines under a smart junior noncommissioned officer doing the right things can succeed, while a larger force doing the wrong things will fail.”
“In country, we had to adapt real quick,” said Brad McNamara, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division in southeastern Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
McNamara said infantry troops, those out there patrolling the valleys and villages, can contribute a lot more to the war effort than just security and firepower.
“Why should our LT [lieutenant] be the soul person to ask questions [of the locals?]” he said. “Trust your NCOs [non-commisioned officers], your NCOs' men and your instincts. A good leader is made, not born, a better leader trusts his men as they trust him.”
Along with requiring pre-deployment COIN training at the company level, the new directive will also clarify and simplify parts of the manual, so they’re easy to translate from the classroom to the combat zone. These changes will officially be implemented this spring. Infantry troops won’t have to become experts in counterinsurgency, but they’ll have to master nine different areas.
“What’s actually different is that we’ve actually quantified the skills that are needed now to go downrange. What was happening is that people were going downrange and maybe they understood COIN on a theoretical level or had no understanding at all,” Malevich said. “Now what we’re trying to say is, ‘We want you to understand the environment and this is what understanding the environment means.’”