By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 24, 2009 - The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been learning experiences, forcing military leadership to reassess and modify tactics to effectively counter an irregular foe. That was the assessment of military and civilian defense leaders who attended the "Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq and Beyond" conference yesterday at the National Press Club here. The focus was lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq and how they can be applied to current counterinsurgency operations.
"The need for leadership goes beyond today's conflicts and lies at the heart of current debates of the future of our national security organizations and strategy," Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert B. Neller said. "Although most of the public discourse thus far has concentrated on questions of equipment and future threats, leadership will also be a crucial variable."
Neller is the commanding general for Marine Corps Education Command and president of Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va., which hosted the conference.
"Selecting the right commanders became more important than ever to unit effectiveness" in 2002 and 2003, he said. "We have come a long way in recent years, but opportunities for further improvement in leadership development and command selection remain."
Marine Corps University worked to get a group of counterinsurgency "all-stars" together to provide a wide scope of perspectives and opinions for the conference, said Mark Moyar, a professor of national security affairs and one of the organizers of the event.
"Counterinsurgency leadership seemed to be a subject that hadn't gotten the attention it deserved," Moyar said.
Military leaders including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the commander and assistant to the commander, respectively, of Multinational Force Iraq in 2007 and 2008; representatives from "think tanks" including Robert Kaplan from the Center for a New American Security; and professors from military and civilian universities, including Moyar, weighed in on subjects ranging from specific methods for fighting an insurgency to the Afghan elections and how they affect strategy there.
"The fact that we can tie a lot of our discussion to current events in Afghanistan made the conference ... it wasn't just for academics, it showed our military options, what we need to do and some possible plans for moving forward in Afghanistan," Moyar said.
Petraeus finished the conference by fielding questions about his experience in Iraq and his current work as commander of U.S. Central Command. Though he was careful not to make any statements about policy currently being debated, he gave some insight into ways the military can adjust its strategy.
Ultimately, he said, leadership needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of counterinsurgency in order to win irregular wars. When the enemy is using cell phones to detonate explosives and use common street clothing as camouflage, 20th century tactics simply won't cut it.