The lesson was in the tea.
At least it was for Maj. Michael Sullivan, who shared his personal experiences as an adviser to Iraqis during the Counterinsurgency Center seminar Feb. 20.
The seminar welcomed about 90 individuals representing a variety of military and civilian affairs organizations to Fort Leavenworth's Battle Command Training Center Feb. 17-21. The interactive seminar's schedule was filled with discussion sessions, question and answer periods, videos and lecture time, interspersed with first-hand accounts by officers who have lived the experience.
Sullivan, who was joined by other panelists during the morning session, told the group that he felt as though he wasted two months in Iraq because he could not figure out how to relate to his Iraqi counterparts.
When the Iraqis were late for physical training in the morning, Sullivan made the call times earlier, which resulted in fewer Iraqis showing up.
Then one morning, Sullivan and his U.S. peers realized they were confronting the problems in the wrong manner. Tea became the equalizer. When the Americans drank tea with the Iraqis, the Americans were given their respect.
"You have to give a little to their culture," said Sullivan, who said he consumed gallons of tea during his time there.
Although material from Counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24, was touched upon, the brunt of the seminar was dedicated to enhancing the knowledge the officers and representatives already possess.
Marine Col. Mark A. Olson, director of the COIN Center, said literature on counterinsurgency grows by the day. And while its content is useful, that information must be expounded upon. That is what the seminar intended to do, Olson said.
Contributors to the seminar addressed the importance of adapting to the Iraqi culture, rather than working against it.
Col. Mike Smith, a former adviser who now works with the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth, said advisers currently working with Iraqis must build their confidence. Doing so requires trusting them.
"It needs to be more their plan than our plan," he said. "Another thing is to reinforce to the Iraqis that we're invested in them."
Although Soldiers are not traditionally trained to be community council members, it is part of the job description now. Countering insurgency means being part adviser, part Soldier and part politician, one who must be prepared to break bread with local tribal leaders at one moment and to draw weapons for a raid at the next.
It's a lesson Sullivan learned after two months of bumping heads with Iraqi forces. Preparing the Iraqi forces meant relating to their culture and required conversation, negotiation and adapting to a different culture.
The consideration of cultural differences was the key to relations, he said.
Iraqi commanders have been known to schedule military operations around dinner, and although the temptation is great to explicitly instruct that commander that dinner should wait, the more effective advisory tool is in guiding the commander into reaching that conclusion on his own.
The end result of enabling Iraqi commanders is a more confident, competent and self-sufficient Iraqi force.
Contributors to the conference, Olson said, were trying not only to show, but to ingrain in the officers, the importance of viewing the battlefield in big-picture format.
Olson said the knowledge represented in this class of officers, compared to past groups, is greater, not because of competency levels, but because of experience and a network of sharing.
"We've seen tremendous growth in the past six months," Olson said. "The culture in the Army is changing and evolving."
While literature and doctrine on counterinsurgency grows by the day, Olson said Soldiers need first-hand accounts of what the conditions are like in the Middle East.
"It's knowing that you might have to use your weapon, but making the decision not to because you have that extra knowledge," Olson said.
The weapons have not changed, he added, but the mindset has.
"It's a mindset on how we approach the problem," Olson said. "The tools are the same tools that we used during Desert Storm. The tools haven't changed, but the application has."
The five-day seminar was an exercise in collaborative thinking, with each group bringing something different to the table.
Olson said that placing these officers, who have vast and varied knowledge and experience in counterinsurgency methods, in one room is invaluable. The exchange of these experiences is one benefit of the conference, Olson said, where a Navy officer and a Pennsylvania civil affairs officer sit next to each other.
"It's the melding of the two together that makes us an efficient counterinsurgency force," Olson said.
The seminar was the fifth counterinsurgency seminar hosted by the COIN Center since the summer of 2006. Before the participants in the conference left, they were asked for feedback. Their input will be used to improve future conferences.