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Understanding Conflict

Counterinsurgency-Humanitarian ExerciseTufts students simulate a counterinsurgency scenario in an exercise designed to explore the complex civil-military dynamic.


An improvised explosive device detonates in the village. While the insurgents do not directly claim responsibility, the attack is timed with their assault on border patrol guards in the refugee camp. The events could be part of a coordinated effort to persuade both the villagers and refugees to trust the insurgents with their safety. The big question now is, how will the counterinsurgent forces respond to the escalating crisis?

The above series of events is not ripped from the headlines of an international conflict. Rather, it is a scenario posed to a group of nearly four dozen Tufts students who conducted a simulated counterinsurgency-humanitarian exercise on March 8.

The exercise was part of the Experimental College course "Counterinsurgency Seminar," taught by international relations majors Toby Bonthrone (A'09) and Chas Morrison (A'11). Forty-five organizers and volunteers headed to a paintball complex in Bridgewater, Mass., to act out scenarios designed to help them understand the complexity of civil-military relations in a conflict environment.

"The closer one can get in terms of empathy and understanding for each other on both sides, the greater the opportunities for working together and for realizing where the boundaries are."

— Toby Bonthrone

"The closer one can get in terms of empathy and understanding for each other on both sides, the greater the opportunities for working together and for realizing where the boundaries are—for example, between NGOs and the military—and realizing what synergies can exist," says Bonthrone, who served in the British military for three years before coming to Tufts through the Resumed Education for Adult Learners (REAL) program and will enter Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in the fall.

Bonthrone's collaborators for the exercise included Jamie De Coster, a first-year Fletcher MALD student and lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, senior history major and Army ROTC cadet Brian Thompson and Fletcher student Christoph Buehler (F'10), who has served in the Swiss army.

Audio slideshow: About the exercise

The ExCollege class, which Bonthrone also taught in the spring of 2008, chronologically follows the evolution of the conflict in Iraq, from the 2003 invasion to present day. Through this exercise, which was set in a fictitious country called Antede, Bonthrone aimed to have the participants relive some of the lessons of that conflict.

"What these students were doing in the scenario is turning back the clock," he says. "They didn't even realize it necessarily. They were like the people in 2003 with no institutional backing or experience to tell them that people will push back, that [the premise that] 'we will be greeted as liberators' wouldn't work as simply as people might think."

Controlled Chaos

Extensive planning was integral to the success of the simulation. Bonthrone and his team spent about six weeks sketching out how the day would unfold and putting the pieces in place.

"You have to control the environment, control scenarios that you run in order to meet the objectives that you've set out to accomplish," says De Coster, who managed the insurgent forces. "There are also big safety issues to worry about, because you're taking 50 people into the woods with no training and telling them to play army."

To that end, members of the training team were on hand with each group—the counterinsurgent forces (Canadian peacekeepers), the insurgents (Antedeans desiring autonomy for their neglected border region of the country), the refugees (combatants fleeing from atrocities committed in the neighboring country of Kyrzturkbaijanistan), the NGO workers and the villagers (residents of a quiet hamlet in the border region). They worked to ensure the participants' safety, as well as to control and instigate elements of the exercise. There was also a full group debrief at the conclusion of each scenario in the exercise to discuss lessons learned.

The Saturday evening before the full exercise, the participants portraying the counterinsurgent, or COIN forces, and insurgent forces received some "down and dirty" military training. While the next day dawned sunny and unseasonably mild, the pleasant weather would soon be marred by growing conflict.

Counterinsurgency-Humanitarian Exercise

Organizer Brian Thompson looks on as counterinsurgent Eileen Guo responds to an insurgent "attack."

"As the day started out we wanted to create a progressive situation," says De Coster. "You started out in one scenario and it was just to establish relationships."

The insurgents began trying to win the refugees over to their cause by coupling their propaganda with gifts of food. Soon, the counterinsurgent forces were sent to the refugee camp to establish order, and tensions began rising.

"When you're introducing all of these actors, the dynamics start to show," says De Coster.

As those tense dynamics began to emerge, Bonthrone didn't feel stressed; on the contrary, he was pleased. "At that point I knew that this exercise was going to go well because everyone was really getting into their role," he says.

"Toby gave everybody a very specific role that they were asked to play out, and only they knew what their role was. So as they are introduced to these scenarios, they start building those relationships and those characters start to come out," says De Coster. "It's like the beginning of a conflict, because you start to polarize people into different groups, which was really interesting to see play out." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography

This story originally ran on Mar. 30, 2009.