By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
One of the Army's most prominent younger officers, whose writings have influenced the conduct of the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, said he has decided to leave the service to study strategic issues full time at a new Washington think tank.
Lt. Col. John Nagl, 41, is a co-author of the Army's new manual on counterinsurgency operations, which has been used heavily by U.S. forces carrying out the strategy of moving off big bases, living among the population and making the protection of civilians their top priority.
A Rhodes scholar, Nagl first achieved prominence for his Oxford University doctoral dissertation, which was published in 2002 as a book titled "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam." The introduction to a recent edition of the book was written by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, at the time the Army's chief of staff.
Nagl led a tank platoon in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as the operations officer for an Army battalion in Iraq's Anbar province. "I thought I understood something about counterinsurgency," Nagl told the New York Times Magazine in January 2004, "until I started doing it."
After serving in Iraq, he became an assistant to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz. Next, under the stewardship of Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq, he helped produce the Army's counterinsurgency manual. He then became the commander of a battalion in Fort Riley, Kan., that teaches U.S. soldiers how to train and advise Iraqi forces. He has continued to have a high profile, with interviews on National Public Radio, "The Charlie Rose Show" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Nagl said in a brief telephone interview yesterday that he has filed his papers requesting retirement. "I love the Army very much," he said, but he added that he decided to leave after discussing his future with his family. "It's not the strain of repeated deployments," he said, but "a belief that I can contribute perhaps on a different level -- and my family wants me to leave."
He said he plans to become a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist think tank recently founded by Kurt Campbell and Mich¿le Flournoy, Clinton-era Pentagon officials. Nagl said he looks forward to working with them. "I hope to focus on national security for the remainder of my days," he said. "Obviously you don't have to do that in uniform."
Nagl's departure is a serious loss for the Army, said retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes. "He's a serious student of warfare, he's smart, he's articulate, he's successfully led troops in combat, and he's worked at the highest levels of the Pentagon," said Hammes, himself the author of a book on contemporary war. "The Army just doesn't have that many officers with his set of qualifications."