USA Today
March 20, 2005
Pg. 17

Unexpected Insurgency Changed Way Of War

With conventional warfare outdated, the U.S. military is taking its lessons from troops on the ground instead of high-level strategic planners

By Steven Komarow, USA Today

To describe how two years of war in Iraq have changed the American military, Army Lt. Gen. William Wallace looks back to the beginning.

It was April 2003, as Baghdad was about to fall and the word insurgency had not yet entered the Pentagon's Iraq lexicon. Lt. Col. Chris Hughes and his 101st Airborne Division soldiers were confronted by an angry mob in the holy city of Najaf. Rather than force his way through that day, Hughes ordered his soldiers to “take a knee” and point their rifles toward the ground. As the crowd calmed, he pulled his soldiers back.

In the midst of a no-holds-barred invasion, the restraint exhibited by Hughes was extraordinary. Hughes' decision to trust the crowd and abort his mission was praised by President Bush as a “gesture of respect (that) helped defuse a dangerous situation and made our peaceful intentions clear.”

Now, Wallace says, generals expect such innovation, even from more-junior officers and enlisted leaders. The goal isn't to avoid a fight, as Hughes did that day; it's to understand Iraq's culture well enough to know when and how to fight, and how to go beyond rote training and the rule book to find effective ways to locate and kill insurgents. Pushing lower-ranking leaders to make those decisions is key, and the military is changing to encourage it.

The emergence of bottom-up leadership is a crucial component of the military's effort to win a fight it didn't want. After the Vietnam War, national policy was to avoid guerrilla entanglements. When they did happen, such as in Somalia, where U.S. forces lost 18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters in 1993 in an abortive raid targeting a clan warlord, the outcomes seemed to reinforce that decision.

But the war on terrorism and Bush's invasion of Iraq forced an about-face. To defeat low-tech enemies that don't use organized battle formations, the U.S. military is taking its lessons from the troops on the ground instead of the high-level strategic planners who dominated the military during the Cold War.

“Counterinsurgency wasn't even on our dance card. And urban operations was something to be avoided,” says Wallace, who was the Army's top ground commander during the Iraq invasion and now oversees the Army's training centers. The Pentagon can't ignore potential future threats from more traditional foes, he says, but even if Iraq calms down, the U.S. military cannot go back to treating guerrilla war as a side issue.

Among the hallmarks of the Iraq war:

*Local commanders scattered around the country are using Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards to compare notes on enemy tactics and possible responses, without waiting for word to filter up one chain of command and back down another. For example, a unit attacked by a new type of roadside bomb quickly spreads the word so others can be on the lookout.

*Tens of thousands of reservists make up a third of U.S. forces in Iraq, and they can be more outspoken than their active-duty comrades about demanding improvements in tactics or equipment. Tennessee National Guard Spc. Thomas Wilson embarrassed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December with his complaint, at a reporter's urging, about having to scour a landfill to armor his Iraq-bound truck. In October, a South Carolina-based supply unit refused a convoy mission, also for lack of armor, and took its case to the media via cellphone from Iraq.

*Troops freely improvise their own protection. Examples: Moving the seats in Army trucks so troops face outward, to better return fire, or modifying body armor so that the most protection faces the direction of attack when in a fighting position.

It's not the first time that troops have adjusted for counterinsurgency warfare, as happened in Vietnam. But this time, the bottom-up change is being embraced and encouraged by the establishment. The Army and Marines are revising their field manuals to better prepare troops for what experts such as Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corp. expect will be the dominant form of warfare for years.

“It isn't just Iraq,” says Hoffman, who studies counterinsurgency warfare, often under Pentagon contract. The Iraq type of warfare is now far more likely than the classic military battlefield fights, he says, which America's foes want to avoid.

“In Vietnam and Laos there was no attempt to learn lessons” and incorporate them into the military institution, says Roy Godson, co-author of a new study on combating terrorist and insurgent groups. Today, the military establishment is sending observers into the field with satellite communications to make sure the lessons aren't just seen but incorporated immediately into training.

Two years ago, the highest test for rising Army field commanders was to race their battalions across the desert in mock warfare at training centers such as Fort Irwin, Calif. Now, Irwin and other training battlefields feature jumbles of mock villages, caves and traps, populated by real Iraqis playing insurgents and civilians in a constantly changing range of scenarios copied from events in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, commanders are challenged to manage reconstruction work at the same time homemade bombs are “killing” their soldiers.

The Army also is changing the makeup of the force. For decades, specialties such as military police and civil affairs were secondary to the main effort, and thus relegated mostly to the reserves. Today, by the tens of thousands, those jobs are being moved from the Army Reserve and National Guard into the regular Army, a change that recognizes the central role those specialties play in counterinsurgency operations.

It also responds to a growing need to reduce use of “part-time” Guard and reserve troops, who usually drill a weekend a month and two weeks during the summer in peacetime, but have been increasingly called up for yearlong combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those call-ups have hurt recruiting: The Army Guard was 24% behind the numbers it needed during the first four months of its recruiting year to make its goal of 63,000 new soldiers.

Retired Army major general Robert Scales, a prominent military historian, says not enough is changing. He says the Pentagon is still clinging to Cold War paradigms developed to counter the Soviet Union and a budget still dominated by costly weapons systems with little relevance to gritty wars against low-tech insurgents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's time to start “fighting the enemy we have rather than the one we wish we had,” he says, and recognize that insurgency-style warfare won't end with Iraq. The Pentagon should control its appetite for computer-driven weapons systems that have only tangential significance to troops rooting out insurgents and terrorists, he says.

“When you're kicking in a door in the middle of the night, having a satellite overhead is interesting but little more,” he says. “The lesson for the American military is we're now at the age where success or failure is determined … by the success or failure of small units.”

Small-unit commanders have more tools than ever. Troops now have access to jammers that foil remote-control bombs, pictures from low-flying spy drones, and sometimes even robots. But Scales says the enemy is still able to circumvent American high-tech by going no-tech — relying on tribal connections instead of Internet connections to coordinate attacks.

Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, says winning this kind of war requires keeping soldiers more closely engaged with friends and enemies on the ground. He argues that the Army should abandon its sprawling, American-style bases with home-style comforts such as fast-food restaurants and shift to more austere bases that put troops in closer contact with their mission and with the civilian population. He also says the Army should trade its yearlong deployments for the 6-month rotations favored by the Marines and the British army, to keep troops sharper.

But Macgregor agrees that the Army is gaining a cadre of seasoned junior officers who've learned to be both creative and skeptical. “If you're looking for adaptation and innovation, I think at the captain level (is) where you're going to see it,” he says.

Army Capt. Michael Burgoyne is in Iraq for his second tour with the 3rd Infantry Division. It's a burden on troops and their families. But the military now has seasoned soldiers. “They know about war fighting,” he says.

Before it spearheaded the drive to Baghdad two years ago, the 3rd Infantry practiced armored maneuvers in the Kuwaiti desert. Now, officers like Burgoyne are adapting every day to an enemy they didn't imagine then.

For example, trash collection may not seem like a crucial part of warfare, but it's typical of innovations from the field. Insurgents often hide roadside bombs inside innocent-looking piles of garbage or even in dead animals. Burgoyne now pays local Iraqis to clean trash from the roads where bombs are often found, so when convoys spot new trash piles or dead dogs, they know they're probably dealing with a remote-controlled bomb.

Trash pickup isn't taught in officer school. But Wallace says generals cannot dictate to young officers the details of waging this war. “It's a pretty wide highway they're traveling down,” he says. “But they understand where the rumble strips are.”

Contributing: Dave Moniz and John Diamond.