The military’s own simulation experts laugh at the notion that commanders will ever be able to click a mouse and have a computer tell them the perfect strategy for destroying the Taliban. Yet a computer game might at least give them a sense of how officers’ decisions have consequences. Repairing the local sewer system is like casting a stone in a pond; the ripples shift the population’s mood, which in turn changes support for the insurgents, which affects the number of attacks from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — and could eventually alter the course of the war.
My unit is the 1st Battalion of the 303rd Cavalry regiment, which I have redesignated Task Force Noob. We are assigned to the Iraqi city of al-Hamra, a mostly Sunni town with some Shiites and Kurds. I am the battalion commander, and I’ve got eight platoons, a Civil Affairs detachment, and a Quick Reaction Force at my disposal. It sounds like an impressive force to impose the will of Noob, but it’s not. I have to cover 15 neighborhoods, each with a level of coalition support from zero to 100 percent, plus a smorgasbord of decaying infrastructure, venal tribes, and leaders who often hate each other. The game lasts 15 turns. How well I do will be measured by several metrics, including six “lines of effort” or LOEs (civil security, governance, host-nation security forces, information operations, essential services, and economics), plus the Population Support Meter. Did I mention that five of the six LOEs start at less than 50 percent success, while the Population Support Meter says that 44 percent of al-Hamra wishes I would disappear in a puff of black smoke? Colonel Noob feels like Colonel Custer.
So how did this armchair strategist fare at COIN? Probably better than the U.S. military in the first years of the Iraq occupation, but possibly not as good as in the years following the “surge.” I’m still not sure what I learned from UrbanSim. Like many an army commander before me, I never had a firm sense of how my decisions created consequences. Many hidden assumptions lie underneath UrbanSim’s hood, and a simulation can only be as accurate as those assumptions.
But accurately simulating the dynamics of an insurgency wasn’t the goal. The point was to begin to understand them. What staggered me was the almost infinite number of possible decisions and consequences in UrbanSim. I could kick down doors, bribe local leaders, smash insurgent cells, and fix sewer lines. But I didn’t have enough resources to do everything, nor could I foresee how each action would help or hinder the other actions.
Tomorrow I will probably read about a battalion commander struggling to simultaneously fight the Taliban, build schools, and establish a rapport with villagers. I can’t fully sympathize with his plight because I have never walked in his shoes (a fortunate thing for all concerned). But I can now understand his dilemma a little better.
If the Army were smart, it would make a game like UrbanSim available to the general public. It won’t change anyone’s mind about the war. But it will give them a greater appreciation for the challenges of counterinsurgency. Believe me: Colonel Noob can use all the help he can get.