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Confessions of an Xbox General

Can a computer game teach the Army how to defeat the Taliban?

By , a defense writer.

I'm no strategist. I might beat a paper bag at chess if somebody Tasered the bag first. But fighting the Taliban? America would end up speaking Pashto.

I’m no strategist. I might beat a paper bag at chess if somebody Tasered the bag first. But fighting the Taliban? America would end up speaking Pashto.

Yet I write frequently about the U.S. military and video games. And when I had a chance to play an Army game on counterinsurgency — COIN, to the cognoscenti — I couldn’t resist. What happens when the world’s dumbest armchair strategist tries his hand at quelling an insurgency?

UrbanSim is a U.S. Army game that teaches COIN to battalion commanders. Where most Pentagon computer simulations look like spreadsheets and are just as fun to play, UrbanSim, which came out in 2009, resembles the kind of strategy game that many of us enjoy at home. That’s probably because it was developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies, an innovative University of Southern California center funded by the Army and with deep ties to Hollywood and the video-game industry. But though it looks like a militarized version of SimCity, UrbanSim is actually a sophisticated simulation that incorporates factors such as economic conditions and social networking ties, and analyzes how these factors sway the population to back the government or the insurgents.

This is new ground for the U.S. military, which has traditionally been most comfortable with computer simulations rooted in the empirical. How much armor can a cannon shell punch through? How many MiG-29s could an F-15 shoot down? Such Cold War-era models weren’t always accurate, but at least they could pretend to be based on science. COIN, on the other hand, is all about mushy intangibles — psychology, sociology, political science. And if the social scientists can’t agree among themselves how to quantify these things, how can a computer game do it?

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.

Colonel Noob Takes Command

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.

Colonel Noob’s Iron Fist

Forget hearts and minds. Task Force Noob will win this war by kicking butt. We will aggressively root out the insurgents, leaving the population free to express its natural affection for us. Several districts are rated at 25 percent or less coalition support. The game won’t let me use carpet-bombing, so I’ll settle for assigning each problem neighborhood an American platoon that will conduct cordon-and-search and checkpoint missions on alternate turns. Another platoon will patrol Shiite neighborhoods, but otherwise I’ll leave them alone. I’m not going to waste my Civil Affairs detachment on drinking tea with the locals; they’re assigned to repair the airport. The Quick Reaction Force (QRF) will remain in reserve, while I offer my expertise to Iraqi Police Colonel Bashir.

OK, there goes Turn 1 and … what? I’ve lost support in some neighborhoods. An IED has gone off in the north. And what happened in Nahiyat Ayadh? Despite the patrols, my intelligence officer reports that the insurgents are now politically active there, and support has dropped to 58 percent. On top of this, my troops accidentally killed an Iraqi cop.

Well, great commanders must be resolute. By Turn 5, 51 percent of al-Hamra’s population is now against me, with the new haters mostly drawn from the neutral bloc. Intel enables my QRF to target a Shiite bomb factory and nail a sniper. But IED attacks have soared to 10 per turn. For some reason, Colonel Bashir has indicated that he is tired of my advice.

By the end of the game, popular support is stuck at 51 percent against. Instead of three Sunni neighborhoods with zero coalition support, that number is now five. IED attacks have soared to 28 per turn. Half my LOEs have declined. My interpreter says the shoes the population are throwing at me aren’t really gifts. Could I be doing something wrong?

Colonel Noob’s Velvet Glove

Task Force Noob will now try the soft approach. No raids, checkpoints, or patrols. We’re going to be so sweet that the locals will call us Task Force Sugar.

As battalion commander, I will move from local honcho to local honcho, dispensing small gifts. I’ll start with Mayor al-McCheese — sorry, Mayor Anwar Sadiq — a Sunni who only supports the coalition 15 percent. Butter him up with token cash gifts, then work my way through the Sunni notables and tribes, and finish with the Shiites.

I’d like to put the entire U.S. force on repairing infrastructure, but I don’t have the cash. I start with $260,000. After I fix two battered hospitals and the airport, I’m down to $30,000, with another 20 structures needing repair. Because I can’t fix most of them, I assign one platoon to offering medical care to the population, two more to recruiting additional Iraqi soldiers and police officers, a couple more on "information engagement" with the locals, and one platoon plus the QRF as a reserve.

The good news is that by Turn 8, all LOEs are up, except for Iraqi security forces. The bad news is that there were eight IED attacks, and intel says the insurgents are successfully recruiting new fighters. Ebrahim Hafiz, a big Sunni merchant, says he will put in a good word for us if we scratch his back. My staff says his particular itch is getting us to repair the al-Hamra bazaar in the market district. Good thing I saved some cash. Another report comes in that a Black Hawk helicopter has been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade over the northern district. Staff recommends we send patrols to the area, and the QRF responds. Intel has also identified Shiite death squads, weapon caches, and safe houses in Nahiyat Artet. But the area is pro-coalition, they’re not giving me any problems (I think), and I have my hands full with the Sunnis. What’s really perplexing me is the Population Support Meter: Anti-government is down to 36 percent, pro-government is down to 23 percent, but the neutral bloc has swelled to 45 percent. So the more I do, the more they decide they neither love us nor hate us? Is that good or bad?

By the end of the game, Sunni insurgents and infrastructure are sprouting like measles in the northwest. My LOE results are mixed, and IED attacks are up to 18 per turn. Yet anti-government sentiment is down to 32 percent. I’m winning their hearts, but their minds are busy planting roadside bombs. The Velvet Glove seems to work somewhat better than the Iron Fist, but still not well enough.

Colonel Noob’s Velvet Fist

Colonel Noob may be determined, but let it not be said that he is inflexible. This time, Task Force Noob will try a mixture of carrots and sticks. I’ll take advantage of the social science display. The diagram shows that Rushdi Kaliq, the Sunni chief of the city’s water and power department, is connected to a lot of bigwigs, including the not-so-friendly Mayor Sadiq. (I guess when you can turn off the water and electricity, everybody wants to be your friend.) I’ll butter up Kaliq by handing him cash and fixing the water and sewage treatment plants. Hopefully, he will bring his buddy Sadiq around. I’m also going to assign a platoon to a political support mission for Sadiq and Kaliq. I feel like I’m backing Boss Hogg, but I’d rather go with the existing power structure.

For the carrot, I still have enough cash left to repair the two hospitals, which might help win over the general population. Assigning a platoon to pay cash to all the tribes may help, too. For the stick, the worst Sunni neighborhoods — those at zero coalition support — will get lots of searches, checkpoints, and patrols to keep a lid on insurgent activity.

Turn 1 and … hmmm. Anti-government sentiment jumps to 51 percent. Was this because of the stick or the carrot? I have a feeling it’s the stick at fault, so I’ll call off the cordon-and-search and rely on patrols. On the positive side, Mayor Sadiq is thrilled by the infrastructure repairs. Is Sadiq really helping to win over the Sunni tribes, or is it just a ploy to keep me handing out suitcases of cash?

Friendlier or not, the insurgents are growing fast enough by mid-game that my QRF is threatening to become professional whack-a-mole players. We are constantly striking Ansar al-Sunnah Army and al-Qassas targets, and we successfully neutralize the Kurdish raiders. Iraqi Army readiness is down sharply, so I repair its brigade headquarters and increase recruitment.

Like any honest COINdinista, I’m still not sure what the best strategy is. My best guess, however, is that breaking down doors is a death kiss for winning over the population. It’s tempting to roust entire neighborhoods, but smarter to wait until insurgent groups are identified before using force and combine this with information operations and medical aid for the population.

By the end of the game, most of the LOEs have improved, and there are only seven IED attacks per turn. Best of all, anti-government sentiment has dropped to 29 percent. That’s as close to a victory as I’ve come.

Colonel Noob’s Final Thoughts

You can learn a lot about people from the games they play. Twenty years ago, the military might have dismissed a game like UrbanSim as wussy social science. That the Army now uses it to train its next generation of leaders says volumes about how far the military has come toward embracing "soft" concepts like social networking.

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.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. He is a contributor to Forbes Defense, editor of Uncommon Defense, and senior analyst for Wikistrat. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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