Monday, November 12, 2007

My A-ha Moment

People often say that the best way to learn is by doing, that you can read up and acquire book smarts on something all you want but that until you actually do it you won't have a good feel for all that it entails. I'm a firm believer in this philosophy and had it reinforced again last night.

Last night was another GLP (Group Leadership Project) for the Tigers trying to enter Arnold Air Society. GLP is a bit of a misnomer, because in this case what they were doing would be better termed war games. The scenario was that they were tasked with observing and reporting everything that happened on campus. The opfor (the active members of AAS) were to patrol various regions of campus and were able to capture the Tigers on sight, meaning that if we saw a Tiger and shouted halt, they were captured. However, the Tigers had one advantage. The opfor was in BDUs and were thus readily identifiable while the Tigers had craftily bent the rules so that they had civilian clothes on over their USAF PTs, making them indistinguishable from the rest of the students on campus. Of course, the obvious solution to this is to go up and check everyone who looks remotely suspicious. However, this really wasn't a viable option due to my desire to avoid freaking people out and not wanting to be obnoxious. The result was difficulty in finding any of the Tigers, including walking right by one who was pretending to talk on his cell phone.

The a-ha moment came when I was thinking about how difficult the exercise was and what, if any, alternatives we may have had to make things easier on ourselves. That's when the difficulty of COIN operations really hit me. The only way our strategy of open patrolling would've worked was if we had been much more aggressive in our questioning and observation techniques, which would've resulted in alienating the larger population. Blending into the population by losing the camouflage and wearing civilian clothes may have been more successful as it would've lowered our profile, but would probably still have only been a marginal improvement. The only real way to be successful in this operation would be to spend time over a period of several days observing who was where, who fit in, and who didn't. It would also have been a huge help to have been able to recruit people from the larger population to act as our eyes and ears. In other words, COIN 101. Stuff I've been reading about for the past few years and should have a pretty good basic grasp of. Still, doesn't really sink in until you're faced with the task of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack while standing out like a sore thumb in your BDUs. Also really brings into focus the folly of the U.S.'s FOB based Iraq strategy, circa 2004-2005.