Mobile Training Teams & COIN Shura: Helping to Minimize Civilian Casualties

In December of 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the build-up of an additional 30,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan in support of the 8-year-old war officially known as Operation Enduring Freedom.

The primary objectives for this large troop surge were to reverse the Taliban momentum that had been gained throughout Afghanistan while simultaneously increasing the size and capability of the Afghanistan National Security Forces; consisting of military, police and intelligence forces.

Related: Human Geography Has Been Integral in the War on Terror

As the surge technique had worked in Iraq under General David Petraeus, it was widely believed it could succeed equally as well under General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.

"I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak," said President Barack Obama.

As the build-up of U.S. forces matured and increased numbers of American Marines and Soldiers undertook the missions of patrolling the streets, markets, villages, highways and rural communities, lethal engagements and operations against the Taliban began to dramatically increase.

Almost instantaneously with these engagements and decisive operations, Afghanistan civilian casualties also began to mount. It quickly became evident that these additional U.S. forces had come to Afghanistan a little too focused on lethal operations and not enough focus on non-lethal operations.

Even within the established U.S. military command headquarters in Afghanistan, it was perceived by many senior officers, civilians and staff non-commissioned officers that the additional forces were using too much "hard" power and not enough "soft" power; they were not using enough courageous restraint during their missions and patrols.

After observing these troublesome trends and actions, Lieutenant General David Rodriquez, Commander ISAF Joint Command, ordered the immediate establishment and deployment of counter-insurgency (COIN) mobile training teams (MTTs) to all six ISAF Joint Command regional commands in order to share, discuss, understand and document local experiences, tactics, techniques, procedures, lessons learned and best practices from the current operations taking place on the battlefield.

As a result of the MTT engagements with the regional commands and Afghanistan National Security Forces, it was decided that a COIN shura was needed to bring everyone together, including both military and civilian representatives, in order to openly discuss and exchange these critical observations, lessons learned and best practices.

"Shura is an Arabic word for consultation and the Qur’an encourages Muslims to decide their affairs in consultation with those who will be affected by that decision. Shuras are vitally important in the Afghanistan culture," stated ISAF Commander General Stanley McCrystal.

From 13-14 May 2010, the COIN shura took place in Kabul aboard Camp Julien, the COIN Academy in Afghanistan. More than 100 representatives from all the ISAF Joint Command regional commands, ISAF Joint Command headquarters, ISAF headquarters, NATO Training Mission Afghanistan headquarters, provincial reconstruction teams, Afghanistan National Army and Afghanistan National Police participated in the COIN shura. It was the first of its kind hosted by the ISAF Joint Command.

"We need to change the mindset of our troops to the COIN approach of 'protecting the people.’ We need to make good decisions to help reduce civilian casualties.

"The MTTs bring back many good lessons of restraint and good decision making from our young soldiers. Approximately seventy-five (75) percent of civilian casualties have occurred when we are not partnered, so it's very important to work with our Afghan partners to solve this problem. MTTs have proven successful at capturing these best practices and sharing them with other regional commands," said Commander ISAF Joint Command Lieutenant General David Rodriguez.

Discussions and recommendations at the COIN shura included more pre-deployment COIN-centric training, stressing the use of tactical directives and SOPs, and less focus on kinetics and more focus on non-kinetics.

Intra-theater training was also a big topic. Leaders from all the ISAF Joint Command regional commands agreed that a better job needs to be done with passing information to units coming in to replace ones that have completed their tour, and everyone needs to learn as much as possible from the Afghanistan National Security Forces.

"COIN is about leadership down to the lowest level. There has to be more importance put on training before forces arrive, and training after they're here. We've all read the SOPs, but you have to believe in them, and that comes from leadership and training," stated Sergeant Major ISAF Joint Command Sergeant Major Darrin Bohn.

Below are the critical "Top Ten" observations that were taken from the COIN shura. As you can easily see, they apply equally as well to all operations that the Marine Corps is currently conducting, especially those missions in the range or spectrum of military operations from theater security cooperation to crisis response.

  • Number One mission in COIN is to protect the local (Afghan) people.
  • You must always connect with the local people; get as close to them as you possibly can in order to gain their trust and respect.
  • Do not engage insurgents when you cannot exploit the situation.
  • Let local Afghans tell you what their needs are; don’t tell them what you think their needs are. You must listen to the locals.
  • Perception is everything in COIN; you must always respect the Afghan people and treat them as equals. If you trust and respect them, they will trust and respect you.
  • Conduct shuras with local leaders and elders at every opportunity. When problems come up, most shuras can help resolve them.
  • The best round in COIN is the one that is not fired. If you are obliged to fire, respect the golden rule of necessity and proportionality.
  • You cannot commute to work in COIN; you must live among the people to gain their trust and confidence. Get off the FOBs and into the COPs/PBs.
  • Always be first with the truth. Admit your mistakes and communicate your sorrows.

"We want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to reduce civilian casualties. We need to change the mindset of our Marines and soldiers to the COIN approach of 'protecting the people,' and the best way to do that is by sharing best practices and improving overall COIN awareness," said Deputy Chief of Staff for Joint Operations ISAF Joint Command Major General Michael Regner.

These "Top Ten" COIN observations are absolutely essential in the conduct of small wars and should be trained to, educated and instilled in our Marines on a regular basis as we prepare for future and uncertain conflicts.

If one were to read and study the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual printed in 1940, they would immediately notice that these observations are consistently weaved throughout the manual.

Col Bradley E. Weisz was assigned as the Deputy CJ3, ISAF Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan supporting Operation ENDURING FREEDOM during this writing. He participated in the MTT deployments to the ISAF Joint Command Regional Commands and Afghanistan National Security Forces Commands. He is currently assigned as the Deputy Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group TWO, Little Creek, Virginia. His background is aviation command and control.