Baghdad School Trains Troops to Combat Insurgents

A U.S. officer listens to the grievances of an Israeli man. i i

In February, Lt. Col. Steven Miska, of Task Force Dagger (right), held a glass of Iraqi tea at a tea shop in the Khadamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. His interpreter, center, translated the grievances of an Iraqi man. Instructors at the COIN academy say this phase of the American war effort requires a more respectful approach to ordinary Iraqi citizens. Chris Hondros/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A U.S. officer listens to the grievances of an Israeli man.

In February, Lt. Col. Steven Miska, of Task Force Dagger (right), held a glass of Iraqi tea at a tea shop in the Khadamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad. His interpreter, center, translated the grievances of an Iraqi man. Instructors at the COIN academy say this phase of the American war effort requires a more respectful approach to ordinary Iraqi citizens.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Thousands of U.S. troops have come through the Baghdad-based COIN academy to learn how to combat insurgents in Iraq with techniques that differ greatly from conventional warfare.

COIN is shorthand for counterinsurgency, and those who have been through the one-week course at the squat, one-story building are taught how to fight a war in Iraq that few thought they would ever have to confront.

For example, when American soldiers at Camp Taji recently discovered a bomb buried in a trash heap by the side of the road they could have simply blown it up but that would be thinking the old way, says Lt. Col. Greg Zellmer, of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the 82nd Airborne Division.

"Just finding the bomb and rendering it safe is probably the least thing we could do as opposed to finding who's emplacing it, why they're emplacing it. And why the people who know they're doing it tolerate it," said Zellmer.

The better way, say the officers who run the COIN academy, is to alert patrols to the presence of the bomb. Then focus on the terrain nearby, and look for places that insurgents might be waiting to detonate the bomb.

With that approach the Americans discovered a cell of insurgents in a nearby abandoned house, watching the trash heap through peepholes, ready to detonate the bomb by wire. The Americans seized the insurgents and took them for further interrogation. Then the bomb was destroyed.

The Army should have been teaching this to soldiers a long time ago, Zellmer said.

"I'm an intelligence officer by background, and I knew that the nature of the conflict required us to look at it as a counterinsurgency effort," he said. "When I had been here before we took a little time to learn the nature of the conflict. Eventually we realized that we were fighting an insurgent effort that was fairly well organized and had political aims."

COIN academy was established in December 2005. Since then, more than 6,600 Army and Marine officers have been through its five-day course. They comprise nearly all of the officers, from captain to colonel, commanding the American ground combat force in Iraq, says Col. Manual Diemer, the COIN academy's commandant, speaking in his spare briefing room at Camp Taji.

"If you go out to the field you can expect to find commanders that have been through this course and understand the doctrine and the theory and the application of counterinsurgency in Iraq," said Diemer.

Now the plan is for instruction in counterinsurgency to spread back to the U.S. to prepare forces heading to Iraq so that they are thinking counterinsurgency by the time they get here, he said.

"I think it's safe to say that within another six months to a year, if we continue this training, we will have educated in counterinsurgency an entire generation of combat leaders," Diemer said.

The idea is not to teach what to think, but how to think — and often how to think like the insurgent.

"There is absolutely no cookie-cutter solution," said Chris Smith, a civilian instructor at the academy with many years experience in U.S. Special Forces operations.

Officers are schooled in Iraqi culture, Sunni-Shia relations, the politics of Iraq, and much more, said Smith.

"An average infantry lieutenant or captain probably doesn't know a lot about banking, or the Better Business Bureau or trying to work on the legitimacy of local leaders. But that's what's been happening on the ground," Smith said.

The emphasis on counterinsurgency is especially crucial right now as thousands of additional U.S. troops are deployed into the dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad.

Instructors at the COIN academy say this phase of the American war effort requires a more respectful approach to ordinary Iraqi citizens.

It's now generally acknowledged that for years American military tactics in Iraq have fed the insurgency by such actions as kill or capture missions, kicking in doors in the middle of the night, handcuffing men to be detained in their night clothes, and the mistreatment of detainees, especially at Abu Ghraib.

Consequently the insurgency in Iraq has grown dramatically. In 2004, it mounted some 26,500 attacks. Last year, there were nearly 41,000.

Some at the COIN academy, among them Col. Zellmer, concede a grudging respect for the insurgents.

"He owns the terrain, probably thinks that he has time on his side, so he chooses when to fight. He is a crafty, wily enemy, and he constantly adapts as we enact countermeasures to what he's doing. It's a constantly evolving process," Zellmer said.

The insurgents are also ruthless. Suicide bombings in Iraq have nearly doubled each year since 2003. They take lives indiscriminately and are aimed at sowing doubt that the Americans and the Iraqi government can protect the public.

Col. Diemer admits this is a weapon that is meant to drive a wedge between the Iraqi people and the American soldier.

"There's a very good comment in the doctrine that says that every citizen is a potential insurgent. But if you treat every citizen as though he were an insurgent, then you will wind up with a huge problem on your hands," Diemer said.

For much of the war in Iraq, many American units did exactly that.

It's not yet clear whether the new emphasis on counterinsurgency can reverse the effects of years of that approach.

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