Students learn the basics of counterinsurgency on a paintball range
Published: Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 09:04
This weekend, the election of a corrupt official, narrowly avoided food riots and improvised explosive devices (IED) that killed several coalition force members did not occur in a foreign war zone, but on the PnL Paintball field in Bridgewater, Mass. as part of the Field Exercise in Stability Operations, or FIELDEX.
This year's FIELDEX was a follow−up to an exercise conducted last year as part of the Experimental College course Counterinsurgency Seminar. The Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES), a program within the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), played a large part in organizing this year's event.
ALLIES is a student−led group devoted to improving communication and relations between future military and civilian leaders.
Sophomore Eileen Guo, the main organizer of this year's FIELDEX, described last year's exercise as more focused on counterinsurgency. "[Last year] it was slightly more kinetic and more about the fighting and paintball," Guo said.
Guo took the counterinsurgency course last year and participated in the predecessor to FIELDEX.
"I thought that we learned so much last year," Guo said. "It was this really great way of putting what we were talking about in class, or in the dorms, and actually getting some practical experience [in that field].
"I decided that we really needed to do this again, and I didn't think that anyone else was going to do it, so I made it my little project," Guo continued.
FIELDEX was set in the fictional country of Mazalastan, which was modeled heavily after Afghanistan. The fictional town Roshan was based off of Now Zad in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
"The reason we did that is because Toby [Bonthrone (LA '09)], who ran last year's FIELDEX, has been doing field research in Now Zad, and I was his research assistant in Afghanistan, so I was focusing on that as well," Guo said.
In the FIELDEX scenario, the village, a hotbed of fighting between insurgents and coalition forces, was facing upcoming provincial elections. The United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAM) was helping to conduct the hypothetical elections. The coalition forces also had to train the Mazali National Police (MNP) as well as secure the area during the elections.
"Basically, what we wanted to do was bring out all these tensions that you would actually see in a conflict zone," Guo said.
FIELDEX had 50 participants and 10 organizational staff members. Eighteen of the participants came from the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Naval Academy and the United States Air Force Academy. The other participants were Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy students or Tufts undergraduates.
"There were about eight coalition forces, eight Mazali national police, six insurgents, there were about 20 to 25 villagers, eight to 10 U.N. workers, and [freshman] Ben Ross, who was the media journalist," Guo said.
According to Guo and Ross, none of the participants with military experience played coalition forces.
The insurgents, the coalition forces and the MNP arrived at PnL Paintball on the night of April 16. Two former Marine Corps Sergeants and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dale Buckner, a Fletcher military fellow, gave basic training to the participants playing coalition forces.
Meanwhile, the participants playing Mazalis took part in team building activities and a "goat war," in which each team attempted to capture the other team's goat (represented by a stuffed animal), which allowed the participants to learn the terrain of the town.
The next morning, the other participants arrived for the three−scenario main event. The first scenario focused on developing village dynamics, and the second scenario had the coalition forces and MNP patrolling the village for insurgent activity.
"The second scenario kind of turned into a really chaotic situation," Guo said. "The coalition forces and police went into the village and immediately … were fired upon.
"We had to restart that scenario … but once we restarted, it went well," Guo continued. "The purpose of the scenario was that United Nations could actually register everyone in the village to vote."
According to Fletcher student Emily Nohner, who played a member of UNAM, the voter registration became rather chaotic because of a miscommunication that the registration was a food giveaway, when in fact the food was a minor incentive to get people to register.
"It was tough, because as the leader I wanted to get the food out … but it had to be done in a way that was safe and secure and [in a way] that no lives were harmed," Nohner said.
The final scenario was the election itself. One candidate was a woman who needed a security detail to protect her from insurgent attacks. The other candidate recruited a militia to strong−arm villagers into voting for him, which resulted in his landslide victory.
Although it took place in a paintball facility, Guo insisted that the simulation was far more than a day's worth of paintball. "A lot of people have had concerns of supporting this for that reason: They hear the word ‘paintball,' and they immediately think, ‘This isn't serious,'" Guo said. "The thing is that we actually shot very few paintball guns. The purpose of the scenarios was to give people this understanding of conflict and how complex it is on the ground. It was definitely more focused on that than the paintball shooting."
Guo pointed out that at the same time FIELDEX was taking place, a group of Marine Corps recruits were training and asked Guo why there was not more shooting in the FIELDEX training.
"We made it very clear from the beginning that this would not be about paintball shooting. It's not about going into the woods and blowing off steam before finals. I think we did a good job about recruiting people that understood that," Guo said.