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Counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan: An Interview with John Nagl

Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008

John A. Nagl, 42, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq, and was one of the writers of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He is also the author of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife," published in 2005. In that book he uses archival sources and interviews to compare the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency with the strategy used in the Vietnam War. Urs Gehriger of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche recently spoke with Nagl about the success of Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, and what needs to be done to successfully implement them in Afghanistan.



It is now widely recognized that the surge in Iraq was a success. Even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, originally a staunch opponent of the surge, recently said it ". . . succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." You have visited Iraq recently. What is your impression?

I also would have to say the surge succeeded far beyond my wildest imagination. I am thrilled. Gen. Petraeus sent me to Iraq for a 10-day visit in July and August. The progress was remarkable, incontrovertible and some of it may be irreversible. There is a huge and very positive change.

What are the reasons for this change?

Victory has a thousand fathers, and the success of the surge has a thousand causes. Certainly the new counterinsurgency strategy Gen. Petraeus implemented by focusing first on providing security to the population, the additional troops he had with which to implement that strategy, the tribal outreach we both took advantage of and encouraged, the Sunni awakening, and the "Sons of Iraq" flipping from fighting with al-Qaida to fighting against al-Qaida, and the subsequent decision by Sadr and the Shia militias to renounce armed violence and take political action to achieve their objectives -- all of those things factor in to the success of the surge. I would say that the mental construct that Gen. Petraeus had of how to counter an insurgency was the single most important factor. He understood what he was trying to accomplish in a different way than his predecessors did and he took advantage of opportunities as they became available to him.

Victory has a thousand fathers, you say. You are certainly one of them. You co-authored the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2006. For almost two years this strategy has been implemented on the ground in Iraq. What are the most important lessons to be learned?

I would contest your claim that I was one of the fathers; I would say that I was an uncle twice removed. The lessons learned are: You have to protect the population first. And learn and adapt. What Gen. Petraeus and his team did in Iraq over the past two years was those two things. They focused first on protecting the population. But they also had a flexible and agile mindset that constantly evaluated where they were and what they wanted to accomplish and tried to figure out the best way forward based on the continually evolving situation on the ground. And it was that mindset that allowed Petraeus' team to take advantage of things like the Sunni Awakening through outreach to the tribes.

There is growing evidence that the Sunni tribes reached out first. Why were Gen. Petraeus' predecessors not ready to take advantage of tribes' willingness to cooperate?

It appears that Gen. Casey actually changed his position on tribal engagement. He started some tribal engagement late in 2006 with the Sunnis. In particular Col. Sean McFarland did so in Ramadi. What Petraeus did was take advantage of the work that had been done by a number of people including Gen. Casey to flip the Sunni tribes. And that is probably the single most important factor. Once the Shia no longer needed any militias to protect themselves against the Sunni insurgents, violence dropped dramatically. And that's where we are now.

Some back in the U.S. have been using the word "victory." Do you expect the war in Iraq soon to be over?

No happy dancing in the end zone. There is still very much a fight going on in Mosul. The remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq are fighting us in Mosul. The two battalion commanders on the ground there, Lt. Col. Chris Johnson with 1-8 Infantry, Lt. Col. Keith Barclay with 3/3 Armored Cavalry Regiment, still have a fight on their hands. I am confident that they will succeed. The critical fight now is for political progress from the Iraqi government, particularly in terms of reconciliation with the Sunnis, that matches the military success we've had on the ground. I'm reasonably confident that we will see that political progress over the next year as long as we continue to provide security guarantees in Iraq.

The focus now is shifting back to Afghanistan, where security has been deteriorating for a number of years. What has to be done?

The good news is: We are now winning in Iraq. The bad news is: We are not winning in Afghanistan. The fact is that we have not had the level of thinking about the Afghan campaign that we have about the fight in Iraq. And we need that desperately. It's time to encourage good hard thinking and doing about the war in Afghanistan.

Are there lessons from Iraq you can apply in Afghanistan?

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. The principles of counterinsurgency that we put in the first chapter of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual can also be applied to the fight in Afghanistan. The lessons don't transfer directly, but the principles continue to apply. The first thing we have to do is secure the population in Afghanistan. To do this we need more troops on the ground. Now we are standing in front of the dike and we got 10 fingers and 10 toes and one nose and we have been trying to fill 30 holes. The first thing you got to do is get enough people to fill the holes and then you can start building the dike up stronger.

Both candidates for the White House speak of a troop reinforcement of two to three brigades. Can more American boots on the ground alone turn the tide and stabilize the country?

In the short term they have to be American troops. But in the long term to succeed in this fight they have to be Afghan troops. Secretary of Defense Gates made an incredibly important decision a few weeks back when he decided to double the size of the Afghan National Army. We need to put lots and lots of resources into training and equipping and recruiting and organizing and growing the Afghan National Army because this is our exit strategy.

The war in Afghanistan is set in a totally different arena than the one in Iraq. Where do you see the biggest challenges?

Afghanistan is a much harder problem than Iraq was. First the world needs to understand this. And it has to understand how important it is that we all succeed in creating a stable Afghanistan. We have a bunch of things that are not going well there. The chain of command is convoluted. National caveats on what forces can do are not helpful. I understand that NATO signed up for a different level of responsibility in Afghanistan. It didn't look like it was going to be an active counterinsurgency campaign, but it is. Afghanistan is an important testing ground for NATO and its member states. NATO is not passing that test right now.

Compared with Iraq, two major differences stand out: geography and opium. How can an effective counterinsurgency best address these problems?

One has to bear in mind that Afghanistan has never in its history had a strong central control of the country. It has never had the infrastructure that is required to reach out from Kabul into the whole country. The challenge in Afghanistan is extraordinary. When the Romans faced an insurgency in a distant province the first thing they did was build a road. And a key part of our counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is building roads so the government is able to reach the people. Then it is important to defeat corruption and create a government that is responsive to the needs of the people. The opium problem finances the insurgency and incites corruption from government agents. The road answer also helps that: We can't convince farmers to grow wheat rather than opium unless they can ship the wheat to the market. In that terrain if you have to feed a family you can ship a whole lot more opium out on the back of a mule than you can wheat.

Then there is the long border to Pakistan and the tribal wilderness behind it where insurgents group, train and launch their attacks into Afghanistan. What is the best way to deal with this problem?

We really have to think of Afghanistan not as a problem in itself but in conjunction with Pakistan. The Pakistan problem is huge and growing. The combination of the two is perhaps the greatest midterm national security threat the world faces today. The next U.S. president is absolutely going to devote significant time and resources to that challenge. What we need is a combined strategy for both countries. And this strategy has also got to include India. I believe the United States and NATO should play a key role establishing confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan because Afghanistan is in some way a proxy war between those two countries. And establishing good governance, expanding the reach of the Pakistani government into the tribal areas of Pakistan is a challenge just as great as expanding the reach of the government in Afghanistan, but we are much less able to control it.

Next Page: Cross-border raids 'come with significant political costs' . . .

President Bush signed an order in July authorizing new rules of engagement that allow U.S. troops to pursue insurgent targets across Afghanistan's 1,500-mile long border with Pakistan. Do you consider such cross-border missions as an indispensable part of a counterinsurgency strategy?

It is impossible to kill or capture your way out of an insurgency. Although cross-border raids can be tactically effective, they come with significant political costs that must be weighed carefully. In general, except against the highest-value targets, they should only be conducted in conjunction with forces of the country in which the operation happens.

The recent spate of U.S. strikes under the new rules has provoked sharp condemnation from top Pakistani government and military officials. Do you see other effective ways to solve the cross-border insurgent problem?

Ultimately, defeating any insurgency requires the support of a capable host nation government and its own security forces. This is the long term answer in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, as well as in Iraq. Efforts to build the capacity and capability of the Afghan and Pakistani governments are the first order of business.

The Taliban recruit generally from local Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun fighters have a reputation as proud and extremely determined fighters who have never in hundreds of years surrendered to a foreign power. How can you either defeat them or win them over to your side?

Insurgents vary in degree of commitment to their cause. I like to think of an insurgency as an onion, with many different layers. It took us a long time in Iraq to understand that we could peel away the top layers of the insurgency, which were not as committed to the cause as those further inside, through negotiations and accommodations. It's only the very core of the insurgents who will not negotiate and must be captured or killed. In Afghanistan, we are fighting Pashtun nationalists, members of the Taliban, and terrorists from al-Qaida. We need a different strategy for each group, as each wants different things and will accept different inducements. There are a lot of similarities in my eyes between the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and the Sunnis in Iraq: fierce fighters who we were able to flip by exploiting fissures between them and their nominal al-Qaida allies.

The Taliban have had some important victories on the propaganda front. Their attacks are broadcast on the Internet and via Al-Jazeera. Recently the French weekly "Paris Match" shocked the nation by publishing photos in which the murderers of a French commando parade in the uniforms they stripped off the dead soldiers. How does a counterinsurgency strategy plan to deal on the propaganda front?

In the new Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, we discuss six different logical lines of operation that must be pursued simultaneously to defeat an insurgency: conducting combat operations to provide civil security; building host nation security forces; establishing essential services for the population; providing good governance; and encouraging economic development are five of those lines of operation. But the most important, the line of operation that encompasses all of them and is ultimately decisive, is conducting effective information operations. This is the most important of all tools in defeating an insurgency, and it is the area we currently do least well. There is enormous room for improvement in information operations -- and a real opportunity to dramatically change the situation on the ground when we begin conducting them more effectively. Any counterinsurgency operation is ultimately a war over support of the population. We can win that war if we fight both harder and smarter, using all of the tools at our disposal.

You have repeatedly emphasized both in public and in meetings with military leaders that in counterinsurgency the key to success is largely with small groups of U.S. military advisers. You called for an advisory strategy with a total of 20,000 combat advisers. What makes the role of an adviser so important?

I spent the last 18 months at Fort Riley, Kansas training what we call military transition teams, small groups of 11 to 16 American soldiers who embed inside Iraq or Afghan battalions, brigades, and divisions. These advisory teams are a wonderful resource. They bring with them access to some of things that America has an abundance of and that other countries don't have as much of: access to intelligence, the ability to analyze intelligence and use it effectively to target enemy forces in a counterinsurgency campaign, access to reconstruction funds, access to artillery, air support and medical evacuation, and perhaps most importantly the culture of training and discipline that are the hallmarks of American forces. These small teams of Americans have an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. This mission, known as "Foreign Internal Defense," is traditionally done by Special Forces. Unfortunately, demand for Special Forces exceeds supply, so we have to convert American conventional forces to do this mission. We have done this to date in a rather ad hoc fashion. I have recommended professionalizing the selection, the training and the employment of these forces.

The idea behind this advisory strategy is T.E. Lawrence's dictum: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands." Do the old lessons of the legendary "Lawrence of Arabia" still apply?

T.E. Lawrence is a role model for how to conduct the foreign internal defense mission. He had an appreciation for the cultures and the customs of the host nations, the Arab tribes, he worked with. Those lessons matter as we think about how to select, train and deploy our advisers. Those advisers have to have a real affinity for the forces they are working with. Based on hard experience, I have called it "Diarrhea Diplomacy." You have to live with them. You have to eat their food to truly make them listen to your advice and for them to model themselves after you.

A doctrine for an advisory mission is still not in effect. Why is that?

Recently I have talked to a number of senior generals about this and asked this very question: "Why don't you have any doctrine to this mission now that you have done it for almost seven years?" We are making progress, but it is not as fast as I would like it to be. Secretary of Defense Gates also believes that this is a very extraordinarily important mission, and he also believes that we can do it better.

The coordination among NATO allies in Afghanistan has been difficult for a long time. Why?

Winston Churchill said: "There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them." This is not a new problem. But in Afghanistan it is grave. There is no common understanding in NATO what counterinsurgency is. The Dutch are writing the NATO counterinsurgency manual now. This is a good thing, but it's a little late. It was Gen. Petraeus' advantage in Iraq that he had this fingerspitzengefühl [intuitive sense], he understood the problem intellectually and instinctively. We are not at that point with all the countries in NATO. The U.S., too, didn't have a very good understanding of counterinsurgency for a number of years. It's a hard challenge and it takes a long time to figure out, but we can do more as an alliance and can put more emphasis behind building a common understanding of this problem. This will help to remove some of the national caveats, make it clear to all the nations involved what's at stake and what it is going to take to win this fight. Counterinsurgency is a very hard kind of warfare. It isn't peacekeeping. There is no peace to keep. You have to be willing to fight for the security of the population. And not all countries in NATO understand the problem and what we have to do to fix it.

What are the next steps the U.S. plans to make in order to counter the growing insurgency?

The United States is reconfiguring its command structure to increase unity of command, at least over American forces. U.S. Gen. David McKiernan is the new ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander. The key question is political will. Are the countries of NATO willing to give the commander support to the extent of being willing to conduct operations with far reduced national caveats and put their forces more directly into the line of fire to defeat a strong and growing insurgency?

A number of NATO states are not willing to expose their troops on the front line. Do you see other opportunities for them to contribute more in this war?

Absolutely. Afghanistan is the fifth poorest nation in the world. Dollars and euros are bullets in this fight. There is a whole lot more that we can do with economic development. Some of the countries that are not willing or not as able to fight on the front lines may be able to help. There is huge potential and a number of ways that they can contribute. They can help with information operations. They can build roads. They can train Afghan security forces. These are things countries like Germany could do more of. That would make a huge difference. But the key question, again, is political will and leadership.

Urs Gehriger writes for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. A version of this interview appears in that publication's current issue .