Do soldiers ‘get’ COIN?

Recently I was asked to give a block of instruction on COIN to soldiers preparing to mobilize and eventually go to Afghanistan.  It’s mandated that they get a 4 hour block going over the principles of FM 3-24.  I have a couple of observations about the experience.

I find it strange that while the Army provides resources to develop COIN training they don’t have a ‘standard’ brief or even required themes or messages for instructors to discuss.  That really leaves a wide degree of latitude of what might be taught.

My training was given in two 2-hour blocks over two nights (with that highly coveted 1900-2100 time slot – right after chow and before being released for the evening).  I broke it down this way:

Day 1

Day 2

  • 30 minutes:  Review
  • 90 minutes:  Tactical Decision Game (an improved version of this test run I did a while back)

Day 2 was a home run.  Whereas my first question on day 1 (even before I started the class) was ‘When are we getting out of here?’  On day 2, we not only went over our allotted time because of all the participation from the soldiers but we could have easily gone another 30-45 minutes.  There was simply tons of participation and engagement as soldiers were trying to work through some of the complexities of operating in an COIN environment.

Regarding the TDG, a couple of things worked really well.

  • The game called for two squad leaders and a platoon sergeant.  In all those cases I selected soldiers one or two grades below those who would normally fill those slots (specialist/PFCs for squad leaders and sergeants (E-5) for platoon sergeants (E-7).  I did that in order to emphasize the need for junior soldiers to take initiative AND so they could begin to see/understand the thinking process of their superiors.
  • I had the unit’s leadership at the training and they (both enlisted and officers) were able to provide their own guidance and intent as feedback immediately to the discussion.  For me, that was the big win as this allowed the most junior soldier (in a relatively stress free environment) to give his/her perspective on a situation and receive feedback from the First Sergeant, Sergeant Major or Commander.

I also think it identified areas for increased training.  We had long, productive discussions about rules of engagement, situational awareness, hostile intent, commanders intent and how all of those need to be taken into consideration when making decisions.

But I write about this because a recent post in Best Defense by Col. Gentile reminded me of when I saw him speak earlier this year and he argued that the Army ‘gets’ COIN and our lack of success is a result of the inherent flaws in the doctrine not our implementation of it.  While I think COIN doctrine can certainly stand more work I don’t think that’s the central problem.  While staff officers and commanders may understand and have fully assimilated COIN (a dicey proposition but I’ll go with it for the sake of argument) I don’t think you can say the same about enlisted folks.

That’s NOT to say they aren’t receptive to COIN theory.  I suspect that in many cases soldiers aren’t sure how they’re supposed to implement COIN.  Understanding the concept behind population centrism is all well and good but without context and an understanding of how COIN should integrate with their training execution (probably a bad choice of words there) is going to suffer.

That’s why running the scenario worked so well.  Soldiers had an opportunity to think about how their skills were supposed to mesh with the mission and commander’s intent within a COIN framework.

Finally, this was no kool-aid drinking session.  There was some significant push-back and I think there was a group of soldiers who left unconvinced and (perhaps) unwilling to do all this COIN stuff.  Likewise, I think there was a small group of soldiers who walked into class ready to sign up as the latest cohort of COINdinistas.  Just like in an insurgency, the battleground was for the uncommitted population.


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