The War Over the War

Lt. Col. John Nagl
Author, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam"
Tuesday, April 22, 2008 1:00 PM

Readers joined U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, author of " Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," on Tuesday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Nagl commands 1st Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kan. He was a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, and was a part of the team that rewrote the Army's counterinsurgency field manual. After his upcoming retirement, he'll be a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.


Lt. Col. John Nagl: Good afternoon. I'm Lt. Gol. John Nagl of the U.S. Army, currently stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I train transition teams for service with the Iraqi and Afghan armies and police. I'm speaking to you today on my own behalf; my comments are not official statements of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.


Detroit: Lt. Col. Nagl, as an American trying to make sense of Iraq I find it troubling that the administration and the media to a great extent try to simplify the relationships and polarization that exists in Iraq. Good vs. evil hardly can be the subtext to this story. It is my understanding that all political groups of any size have their own militias, not just Sadr. Is this true? If so, what of the joyous recent pronouncements from Rice that the Iraq government is banning militias? Why are they moving on him now, and what is the implication given the upcoming elections?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Detroit, Iraq is indeed a complicated place; I think Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker did a good job last week of laying out just how fragile the progress we've seen in the past year still is, and how many parties have an interest in the future direction of Iraq. There are in fact several political groups with affiliated militia movements, although Sadr's is among the most worrisome, and has the potential to significantly affect the course of the elections this fall. In this light, I think the decision by the government of Iraq to move against not just Sadr's militia, but all of them, is a step in the right direction. How well it is executed remains to be seen.


Asheville, N.C.: Was Gen. Petraeus's year off to oversee the writing of his counterinsurgency manual before his appointment to his current post a coincidence? Wasn't he picked for his role before his 2005 assignment, then? Isn't this how it's normally done, too? If so, what political calculation is involved, and how has it been worked into the details of how he has run his war?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Hello, Asheville! Lt. Gen. Petraeus was assigned to command the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in late 2005, after his second tour in Iraq. One of his immediate concerns was codifying both what he personally had learned about counterinsurgency and what the Army as a whole had learned in the preceding few years. He pulled together a team that produced the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual in December 2006, and was selected to command in Iraq the following month. I like to think that the intellectual leadership Gen. Petraeus displayed in the writing of the Manual was one of the reasons he was selected to lead in Iraq; I am confident that the opportunity to reflect for a year on counterinsurgency played a role in how he has commanded there.


Miami: Why is Gen. Petraeus being reassigned out of Iraq if he has served in this command almost half the time Gen. Casey served? It seems they declared the success of this surge strategy and then are moving out the architect and leader. What do you make of this?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Gen. Petraeus still is assigned to command in Iraq, and no announcement of his replacement has yet been made. There is much speculation that he will leave Iraq late this year, but that is only speculation.

I will say that he has been deployed for at least four of the past six years, and even Gen. Petraeus deserves some down time -- although for him, downtime tends to consist of writing books and articles and doing sport-parachute jumping!

I am confident that whoever is selected to follow him in command will implement the same population-centric counterinsurgency principles that have proven effective in the past year.


Fairfax, Va.: How concerned are you about junior officer retention rates?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Fairfax, I am very concerned about junior officer retention rates. I just grabbed a burger in the chow hall next door to my office; while I was waiting, I talked with a great young captain who has fought in Iraq but is struggling with a college football injury that limits his Army career options (he wanted to become a Special Forces officer). I can't say enough about the young officers who have served one, two, three or more tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, but who are struggling with decisions about priorities: family or Army/nation? The Army is working hard to increase "dwell" time and to provide other incentives to keep these combat veterans on board, but the sacrifices of service are real -- and largely are borne by the soldier's family back home. It's hard.


Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for taking time for this chat. Thinking about the United States military history in the past two decades as well as the current scope of threats, it seems like we are more likely to be fighting limited actions in the future. Has this affected the focus of the acquisitions process of military systems at all? It still seems that much of what is in the pipeline are "big-ticket" items such as the Ford-class carrier program and F-35. I understand that hardware wears out, but shouldn't we be focusing more on the conflicts to come?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Bethesda, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an important speech at Maxwell, Ala. -- home of the Air Force War College -- just yesterday on this very subject. Although the military has adapted to the demands of the wars we currently are fighting, there is more that needs to be done. The Secretary of Defense specifically pointed to the increasing demand for unmanned aerial vehicles, or "UAVs," in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These unmanned drones have great loiter time and give us the ability to watch and in many cases interdict insurgents. We have more of them than we did a few years back, but we need even more -- and we need them now.

That's not to say that we can afford to give up all of our ability to fight conventional wars, but our top priority has to be winning the wars we're facing now. Finding that balance is the hardest question we face as a military. The Secretary of Defense apparently doesn't think we've found the right balance point quite yet, and I have to agree with him.


Washington: From a military perspective, what is considered a successful counterinsurgency campaign? When will we know that such conditions have been achieved and it will be possible to draw down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Thank you.

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Washington, counterinsurgency campaigns are enormously difficult; this is why the Army/Marine Corps Field Manual calls it "the graduate level of war." Ultimately, we can't win the campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan on our own; the best we can do is enable our Iraqi or Afghan partners to win it themselves, for their own people. But we can help.

Our ultimate objective in both wars is to help the people build a government that meets their basic needs, has broad public support, and provides internal and external security for its population. We want both Iraq and Afghanistan to be able to secure their own borders, not to provide a safe haven for terrorists, and govern in accordance with broadly accepted principles of human rights. Both countries are moving in the right direction, but success will take years. There's a good reason that Lawrence of Arabia said "making war on insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife"!


Washington: Lt. Col. Nagl, assuming broad legitimacy is found by in the counterinsurgency amongst the Iraqi people and victory is imminent, will the Army willingly engage in counterinsurgency in years following Iraq, or will it revert back to a traditional form of warfare?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Having fought in both a conventional war (Desert Storm) and a counterinsurgency campaign (Operation Iraqi Freedom), I can state my personal preference for conventional war: You shoot the tanks that don't look like your own. It should be no surprise that armies prefer to prepare for force-on-force conflict that resembles World War II rather than Vietnam.

However, our conventional military superiority over any conceivable enemy makes it most likely that future enemies of our country and of our allies will decide to fight us as insurgents. As Gen. Rupert Smith argues in his book "The Utility of Force," the most likely form of future conflict is "war among the peoples." We cannot make the mistake we made, after learning how to conduct counterinsurgency in Vietnam, of forgetting those lessons at the conclusion of the counterinsurgency campaigns we're currently fighting.


Boston: My son just returned from 15 months at Forward Operating Base Summerall in Baiji. He tells me there's just no way you can pull out of Iraq in one year, just from a logistic's standpoint, because there's so much hardware there. Hypothetically, how long do you think it would take to physically get out?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Counterinsurgency campaigns are messy and slow. The United States has enduring interests in Iraq -- in ensuring that Iraq does not provide a base for al-Qaeda, in preventing genocide, and in preventing a broader regional war throughout the Middle East. Even if we wanted to leave Iraq completely, the logistical process of removing all of our soldiers and equipment would take a number of months -- but I can't imagine us withdrawing completely, under any circumstances, for a number of years. Our national interest demands our presence in the region, and will continue to do so -- albeit at reduced troop strength as the Iraqi Security Forces continue to develop.


Little Rock, Ark.: We don't get much information regarding the nation-building activities in Afghanistan. Did we meet the rebuilding commitments we made to them when we won the war there?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Little Rock, the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has not received the attention it has deserved. I visited there a little more than a year ago, and was struck most by the abject poverty of the country, even in Kabul. Afghanistan is the fifth-poorest country in the world after three decades of war. It desperately needs international assistance, particularly infrastructure development (roads above all). The Taliban's resurgence has made the development work even harder than we'd anticipated. We still have a lot of work to do there, and I'm pleased that we have decided to commit additional combat forces to Afghanistan next year, as have some of our allies.


Potomac, Md.: What are the differences between the insurgents we faced in Vietnam and the insurgents we are facing in Iraq?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Potomac, this is a subject I've done some writing and thinking about; my dissertation looked at how the U.S. Army adapted to the demands of counterinsurgency in Vietnam.

The insurgency in Vietnam was strongly nationalist. Ho Chi Minh was a very charismatic leader; he drew on the legacy of French colonialism to inspire his forces.

Iraq is a rather different kettle of fish. The insurgency I fought in al-Anbar was tribal and sectarian; it drew on Sunni discontent with a Shia-dominated government, reinforced by traditional disquiet about any occupying force. That insurgency, which was reinforced by al-Qaeda in Iraq, largely has been moderated, both by American efforts to bring Sunnis into the security forces (the "Awakening") and by Iraqi government attempts at political accommodation. Arguably the more serious problem in Iraq today is the Shia militias, which makes recent Iraqi government pronouncements against them so important.


Santa Monica, Calif.: What is your take on the newly released report by Pentagon think tank National Defense University's National Institute for Strategic Studies? This appears further confirmation that Bush and his advisors made terribly costly mistakes in invading Iraq and conducting that war. The study's opening line -- "measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle" -- undercuts arguments that the war can be won (in the traditional sense of a surrendering enemy of course) and that we can remain in Iraq indefinitely.

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Santa Monica, the INSS report you reference was written by Col. Joe Collins (Ret.), a good friend and mentor. Press reports on it were somewhat out of context; Joe published a rejoinder on the excellent "Small Wars Journal" Web site (which I commend to anyone interested in the defense community's discussion of counterinsurgency).

That said, there were serious mistakes made early on in Iraq; the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and to radically de-Baathify the country made the insurgency far stronger than it might have been, and made the tasks of rebuilding the country and recreating the Army harder. However, those mistakes do not mean that we cannot help Iraq become a reasonably stable state that can control what happens within its own borders and that does not present a threat to the region, although doing so will take continued American commitment for a number of years.


Malvern, Pa.: Hello. A phrase I remember hearing from Gen. John Abizaid, something like "the American presence in Iraq is like an antibody" -- meaning our presence in Iraq never will be accepted and always will be viewed as an occupation, resulting in extreme resentment and violence. If one believes that sentiment -- and I do -- why should we think we can continue to bang our head against the brick wall of Iraq and believe that we can bring about "victory"? I feel like we are pouring American blood, brains (PTSD) and money into the black hole of Iraq. It has become a pointless and worthless task. Also, can you please explain why you are leaving the Army?

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Actually Malvern, polls show that there is broad support in Iraq -- among all ethnic and sectarian groups -- for a continued American presence there until Iraqi security forces are able to protect the country and its people on their own. They all want us to leave eventually -- just not quite yet. There are things we can do -- including increasing our advisory effort -- to reduce our footprint and place an Iraqi face on the effort to secure the country; this is what I teach our future advisors here at Fort Riley, Kan..


Princeton, N.J.: Lt. Col. Nagl, The Post has a story today of the plight of the Christians, but of course they are only one of the many groups who are suffering in Iraq. One in five Iraq have been driven from their homes. Most cannot return because of ethnic cleansing. It appears that we have not moved to stop this atrocity, and in places like Kirkuk, Baghdad and Anbar actively have encouraged it. How do you think these terrible geopolitical problems ever can be solved? What will the solution look like, and what are we doing to solve them? Iraqi Christians Struggle With Fear After Slayings (Post, April 22)

Lt. Col. John Nagl: Princeton, I am acutely aware of the problem of ethnic cleansing in Iraq; the Christians in al-Anbar suffered horribly when I was there a few years ago. However, I know of no evidence to support the claim that we have encouraged ethnic cleansing, and some of my friends (including my old West Point roommate, Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl) have worked hard to reverse it in their sectors.

Iraq existed as a multiethnic society for a number of years. After the overthrow of the Hussein regime, a number of insurgent groups, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq, played upon ethnic tensions to incite active hatred and violence -- a scenario that we have seen play out too often in the past twenty years. Those flames, once fanned, are hard to extinguish -- but my friends on the ground today tell me that they are making progress in doing so, and that Iraq is slowly getting back on its feet. I believe that we have a responsibility, to the people of Iraq to help it continue its process of regrowth.


Lt. Col. John Nagl: Thanks for all of the questions -- when I speak about Iraq and counterinsurgency, I am always impressed by the knowledge and the interest in these critical issues. I believe that, after too many years of ignoring counterinsurgency, the American military is relearning how to fight "the graduate level of war", and is making real progress in Iraq. The fight will be long and slow -- and will ultimately have to be won by our Iraqi friends -- but with our help, I believe that they will be able to create a better peace in the wake of this war.


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