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Creating Conflict

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'Reality Checks'

Bonthrone admits throwing a few curveballs in everyone's direction. The COIN forces, for instance, were briefed that NGO workers would be likely to empathize with their objectives by virtue of their shared western background. While that does happen in the field, Bonthrone says it is a mistaken point of view.

"Those sorts of elements were introduced that go beyond the book," he explains, referring to the U.S. military's counterinsurgency manual. "You need these reality checks, such as exercises like this, for people who have no military background to see, 'Gosh, this manual lays out perfection, but getting there is much harder.'"

"You need these reality checks, such as exercises like this, for people who have no military background to see, 'Gosh, this manual lays out perfection, but getting there is much harder.'"

— Toby Bonthrone

As the scenario escalated, the fun of playing army the night before was replaced by a stark realization of how difficult it is to establish security and control in an uncertain situation. The IED "exploded" in the village at the same time that insurgent forces attacked two border guards posted in the refugee camp. Previously, the guards had been harassing the refugees and even "killed" one of them.

"The insurgents did that in order to actually demonstrate to the refugees who could actually protect them," says Bonthrone. "If the guys from outside -- the soldiers -- can't keep your people alive, you're going to severely doubt their credibility."

By facing these challenges, he explains, the COIN forces bought further into their military role, thus gaining a deeper appreciation of the complexities therein.

"When you put those people in the military position, as the scenario played on and as the group dynamics started to take hold, you started to see them take on the persona of the military and that allowed then to understand the challenges when they went into scenarios," says De Coster.

Counterinsurgency-Humanitarian Exercise

Tired organizers Toby Bonthrone and Jamie Lynn De Coster brief civilians on the next scenario as the exercise nears its end.

In the final scenario of the exercise, the refugees, villagers, COIN forces and NGO workers all gathered in the village, with the COIN forces charged with sorting out who was who. Pulling everyone into the same area may have made sense to the COIN forces from a security standpoint, says Bonthrone, but the plan backfired when the refugees revolted and took over the village to protest their needs not being met. The COIN forces and the NGO workers had to work together to negotiate a resolution that returned control to the villagers but met the needs of the refugees.

Having to juggle negotiations all while maintaining security, establishing humanitarian assistance and keeping all the different actors and their threat levels straight was no small task for the COIN forces.

"I thought was the biggest lesson there," says De Coster. "That's when they understood how difficult it is when all of these players come together and where I think they got a true sense of the civil-military relation issue."

Seeing the Connections

While this was just an exercise, the organizers feel it was a good introduction to the complexity inherent in managing counterinsurgencies.

"This was on a small scale, obviously," says De Coster. "Scenarios were instigated. But they could see where the challenges lie. And I think they can now empathize more with what a difficult goal or mission peacekeeping forces, counterinsurgent forces, actually have."

While the first exercise was more successful than Bonthrone could have hoped for, he was not entirely surprised at how well it came together.

"The great thing about Tufts is that there's just a general interest and curiosity among the students to learn. I've seen the creativity they can harness and their ability to get really involved with things, such as this exercise."

— Toby Bonthrone

"The great thing about Tufts is that there's just a general interest and curiosity among the students to learn," he says. "I've seen the creativity they can harness and their ability to get really involved with things, such as this exercise."

Bonthrone will pass the simulation project on to the Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES), a group based at the Institute for Global Leadership, when he graduates. In the meantime, he is planning another simulation for the first weekend in April.

He also hopes to see future counterinsurgency courses at Tufts and other institutions. The target audiences for these classes and exercises, Bonthrone says, are not future soldiers but rather the policymakers and NGO workers of tomorrow.

"It's a counterinsurgency course, but counterinsurgency is only half a step from peacekeeping and humanitarian operations," he says. "These things are very closely linked."

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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.