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Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon

Lt. Col. John Nagl was at his peak.

It was 2007, the shimmery dawn of the group think experiment we now call the mass COIN (counterinsurgency) delusion. Nagl’s boss, Gen. David Petraeus, Washington’s newest demigod, had convinced everyone that his Surge Strategy could tame the wild disaster that had become the Iraq War. Nagl, who had positioned himself at Petraeus’s elbow to sell that formula, was now sitting in full dress uniform, his hair in regulation “high and tight,” whacking nimbly at the pathetic softballs lobbed by Jon Stewart  [1]who was being embarrassingly — and uncharacteristically — deferential to his decorated guest.

“It’s a very difficult kind of war, it’s a thinking person’s war, and it’s a kind of war we’re learning and adapting and getting better at fighting in the course of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Nagl pronounced in response to a question about FM 3-24, otherwise known as the “Counterinsurgency Manual,” [2] which was written by committee led by Petreaus, “a remarkable man,” according to Nagl. FM 3-24 became the bible of COIN and the vehicle by which several of its authors, Nagl included, advanced their careers amid some very heady times — from 2007 through 2010 — in the Washington security world (I began sensing the decline as early as January 2010 [3]).

Iraq veteran and writer Carl Prine takes credit for calling them the COINdinistas first [4]. They are the post-Bush civilian and military “crusaders” (as pegged  [5]by arch-COIN critic and TAC contributor Andrew Bacevich) dominating the Washington security establishment. Having gobbled down the fairy dust about the Iraq Surge signifying a new “graduate level,” “population-centric” counterinsurgency strategy (and ignoring our overwhelming firepower over Baghdad and Sunni strongholds and the complicated ethnic dynamics on the ground), they attempted to apply the same hocus-pocus to our war in Afghanistan under President Obama. FM 3-24 became more than a bible, but code for who was in and who was clearly out of the loop, infecting not only the think tank and beltway banditry, but the military agenda, too.


Then Tom Ricks, Washington Post correspondent-court scribe, conducted a full-blown high school popularity contest, literally ranking the “brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military.” In this cringe-worthy “top ten” [6] published in Foreign Policy in December 2009, Ricks places “King David” Petraeus at Number 1, and then Nagl, whose Oxford dissertation-turned-Barnes-and-Noble-bestseller Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife made him a counterinsurgency “scholar,” among other bright lights of the time. Nagl, Ricks predicted, would be “in a top Pentagon slot within a year or two.”

That was just three years ago. Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week’s news  [7]that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School [8], a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

That’s right — Nagl, once called the Johnny Appleseed of COIN, who reveled in his role as face man, tutoring reporters with practiced bookish charm on the “the new way of war,”  and burnishing his personal story to convince everyone that he was a counter-insurgent before his time — a modern T.E. Lawrence — is packing up for good. Turns out that despite all the high hopes, the COINdinistas hit the brass ceiling with a smack, especially once it became clear that the magic they sold was a bag of beans. Among them is Michele Flournoy, who in 2007 founded The Center for a New American Security [9], the COIN-inspired, Democratically-charged think-tank which would become a feeder of the Obama administration. Flournoy was appointed Under Secretary for Defense Policy and the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon in 2009. But not long after Obama appointed Leon Panetta — a career politician and bureaucrat, not a COINdinista — to Secretary of Defense, she left, citing family reasons [10]. Her anticipated rise to Defense Secretary was thwarted as counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, thanks to Commander Petraeus and COIN disciple Gen. Stanley McChrystal, became a huge albatross around the President’s neck.

It is easy to fixate on Nagl because he never seemed to enjoy debating the viability of COIN more than he did selling it, which just happened to coincide with his own professional trajectory. A dogged self-promoter, in 2004 The New York Times devoted a 9,500-word article to him, entitled “Professor Nagl’s War,” [11] recounting his intellectual and battlefield exploits while serving as a battalion commander in Iraq. This resulted in some seriously squishy passages:

(Nagl) is like a paleontologist given the chance to go back in time and walk with the dinosaurs. But Nagl can’t simply stand around and take notes. He is responsible, with the rest of his battalion, for taming an insurgency, which is as difficult as teaching dinosaurs to dance.

By the time the insurgency in Iraq really hit the proverbial fan, Nagl was serving as a military assistant to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. After helping write FM 3-24 “under the stewardship” of Gen. Petraeus, Nagl’s profile soared as did the number of his media appearances. Subsequently, he was shuttled off to command a battalion of trainers and advisers at Ford Leavenworth, Kansas. In January 2008, the year Obama would win the White House, Nagl abruptly announced his retirement from the Army to seek a new career at Flournoy’s think tank,  so “I can contribute perhaps on a different level,” he told [12] The Washington Post at the time.

He managed to curry sympathy with the mainstream national-security press, which blamed the Army for Nagl’s departure. “It’s another sign, more alarming than most, that the U.S. military is losing its allure for a growing number of its most creative young officers,” complained Slate’s Fred Kaplan [13], who pointed out for the millionth time that Nagl was a Rhodes Scholar and an Oxford graduate.

“Nagl, 41, has been one of the Army’s most outspoken officers in recent years. (This is a huge point against him, careerwise; the brass look askance at officers, especially those without stars, who draw attention to themselves),” Kaplan went on. Still, Kaplan says, “Nagl was precisely the sort of officer whose cultivation and promotion has been encouraged by the likes of General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a dedicated warfighter who also thinks strategically.” If that were the case, he couldn’t have been pushed out by the brass — we know Petraeus in his heyday saw to it that his disciples were promoted, not marginalized. There must have been something else going on.

But retirement allowed Nagl to parade his Golden Goose full time. And he did. In her brilliant 2008 profile, “The Cult of Counterinsurgency,” [14] Tara McKelvey recalled her sit-down with Nagl on a summer morning in Washington:

The 42-year-old Rhodes scholar is armed with missionary zeal, an arsenal of quotations about military strategy, and Red Bull-ish energy on the conference circuit. He is constantly tapping his feet, twirling his pen, and slamming his hand on tables when he talks. (An admitted self-Googler, he is adept at self-promotion.)

Nagl has so successfully popularized counterinsurgency in the military and the general public that he is known as the doctrine’s Johnny Appleseed. One Pentagon insider says his achievements can be attributed “solely” to his ability to flirt. But, sitting at an outdoor patio table above Pennsylvania Avenue on a late summer morning, Nagl denies the charge. “I am shocked, shocked,” he says, jokingly explaining that he finds it “appalling and demeaning and absolutely untrue.” Then he leans back in his chair, takes off his glasses, and shakes his head slowly. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” he says.

After Nagl became president of CNAS in February 2009, it was clear that COIN was headed for woodshed, and fast. By 2011, even the CNAS white papers were subtly changing their tune [15] about the viability of COIN in Afghanistan. McChrystal bombed out [16] and was replaced by Petraeus, who managed to confuse everyone about the rules of engagement and his own expectations for Afghanistan before leaving the Army himself to become head of the CIA in the summer of 2011. A clear sign things weren’t going right was when Nagl left CNAS early this year [17] to teach at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Perhaps this is what his future employers at Haverford meant when they praised [18] “his inspirational leadership and passion for educating future generations of boys and young men.”

While Nagl was pushing COIN, Obama surged tens of thousands more young men (practically boys) and women into Afghanistan. Many were killed, countless were maimed physically and psychologically. The FM 3-24 bible is now being rewritten because everyone feels free to acknowledge how lame it is [19]. Even the most die-hard optimists now say the war is lost [20]. How much the Afghans lost, and how much our Army lost as an institution from this painful diversion from reality, we’ll never know.

I asked Col. Gian Gentile — the West Point professor who put his career and reputation on the line by bucking the COIN mantra from its inception — what he thought about Nagl and the COINdinista legacy. Gentile was referred to as the “skunk at the Coin party” in Ricks’s now infamous “top ten” piece.

“I wonder often what has happened to all of the COIN advocates who had the volume cranked up to maximum levels just a couple of years ago with their arguments about savior generals transforming the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he replied in an email yesterday.

“Now with American strategy in Afghanistan in tatters, where are their voices, where are … op-eds and articles claiming that since the savior general arrived the war has been made better? Do many of these folks not owe us an answer for the broken strategies that they helped to put into place?”

Sadly, with Petraeus at the CIA and McChrystal sitting atop his cushy perch at Yale,  [21]it does not appear that accountability is on the menu. But soup still is, and you can bet the rest of Washington has now figured out that it is easier to eat with a spoon.

Correction: Nagl was the S-3, operations officer for his battalion in Iraq. Later, he was a battalion commander in CONUS at Fort Riley, not Fort Leavenworth, as originally stated.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon"

#1 Comment By J Harlan On August 31, 2012 @ 10:03 am

Nagl like many American observers (with lots of help from Brits) misunderstood Malaya. Like all wars it was unique but the differences between it and Viet Nam were so great that it brings up serious questions about Nagl’s skills as a scholar.

Malaya is at the end of a peninsula and bordered not a supporter like the North Vietnamese but an opponent of communism- Thailand. The guerrillas got very little help from China.

The insurgents were overwhelmingly drawn from a visible minority- the Chinese.

The British acceded to requests for Malayan independence very early on- removing any political rationale for the war.

Malaya wasn’t an independent country- the British could have unity of command and not have to deal with an “ally”.

Malaya did not produce enough food for itself. The main agricultural product was rubber. The guerrillas needed food from villages which the British moved into concentration camps called “New Villages” specifically to starve the guerrillas of food. This resettlement was euphemistically called “winning hearts and minds”.

That’s enough but this misunderstanding of Malaya coloured Nagl’s book and subsequent thinking about COIN.

#2 Comment By Nathan On August 31, 2012 @ 10:15 am

Accountability? Who are we kidding? Sooner or later the modern day equivalents to the Vietnam walls will be built for both wars. But just as there was no accountability, real accountability for that war (I refer you Military History Quarterly’s outstanding piece on Mai Lai which states among other things that Hugh Thompson was threatened with courtmartial for trying to SAVE lives while none of the murderers are in jail) there won’t be any here. All the people mentioned get cushy jobs. All the people who violated the Constitution, American law, and the various international accords walk away, pensions intact. One self admitted war criminal Allen West, ends up, as a republican, in congress, maybe an all too appropriate place for him.

Accountability indeed . . .

#3 Comment By J Harlan On August 31, 2012 @ 10:55 am

I should also mention that David Kilcullen (Australian COIN guru), David Barno (ex army general) and Andrew Exum (blogger), all also associated with CNAS, should also share in the ridicule deserved by the coindanistas. They pushed hard to give credence to a nonsensical doctrine and the generals that sought to prosper in it’s wake.

#4 Comment By Memory Hole On August 31, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

Thanks for this article, Kelley. You’re one of the few who understands the importance of holding these people to account. The intellectuals behind these blunders and disasters cannot be permitted to skulk off to plush bolt-holes before – at the least – having their names inscribed on some sort of permanent roll of dishonor. It may even keep them from reemerging, resumes suitably recast, selves suitably reinvented, to do more damage.

#5 Comment By What On August 31, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

This just gets it so incredibly wrong, I do not even know what to say. It completely correlates career decisions with shifts in how DOD views policy.

Why can’t Flournoy just leaves because she wants to spend more time with her family (cf. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece)? What about leaving for reasons like getting out of DC or wanting to spend time with one’s family. This article just completely misreads these people, especially considering the only person really interviewed is Gian Gentile, an officer who likes to shit on CNAS in general.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 31, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

Strategies to wage war may go in and out of favor, but it seems that despite going from failure to failure, the appetite for war remains forever with us, unable ever to be slaked.

There’s a moral failure about this that is due to the darkness of the human soul in all of us, but what fuels it day to day is the enormous amounts of money earned waging it by those who remain far from the battlefield, safely ensconced within their national security perimeters by “Homeland Security.”

In a nation that worships extreme material success measured in dollars, with no more profitable enterprise possible, warfare ends up being elevated to the highest and noblest calling, bloodthirsty and immoral an example of mass murder as it is.

#7 Comment By Morgan On August 31, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

I find it hard to decide whether I agree with this article’s assessment or not, because it is not clear what “winning” would look like in Afghanistan or what the goals even are. From what I understand, what we were doing before COIN wasn’t considered to be working very well either – so, some guys got together and came up with another plan, perhaps a bit radical, but one that they legitimately believed was more practical and realistic. It didn’t work (according to this article). Its not clear why it didn’t work; the author of this article seems to think its because the guys who came up with the plan were dirty or immoral somehow. There could be other reasons. FM-24 seems to be based on building a relationship with the local authorities; that might not work after quite a bit of bad blood has already been spilled, or if the guys reading the field manual think the strategy is a bunch of hooey. Doesn’t make it a bad idea, just a failed execution. Either way, lesson learned, I don’t see any reason to pillory the architects – they certainly already know it failed. As I said, I’m not sure what the goals the author or the military have in mind. It seems the only other options are to just leave, or to use brute force unilaterally, massacre everyone, and then just leave.

#8 Comment By Lorraine B. On September 1, 2012 @ 7:55 am

I never bought into the COIN strategy. Afghanistan is not Iraq, in fact Iraq is not even Iraq anymore. All COIN ever was is a glorified bait and switch scheme; we baited (bribed) the enemy to switch sides. We tried to buy time and now that the hourglass has run out, so shall we, away from yet another failed attempt to resurrect ourselves from the graveyard of empires. But how many more times will these errors be repeated? And why don’t these guys ever actually read those volumes of “Lessons learned” published at the end of every military adventure? War – what is is good for? Absolutely nothing… unless you are a preening self-promoter, DoD contractor or other member of the MIC.

#9 Comment By DSmith On September 1, 2012 @ 8:03 am

When neocons like Nagl and Kagans team up, prepare for a lot of American and Arab blood to be shed.

#10 Comment By Tom On September 1, 2012 @ 9:23 am

For the most part, What, I think, is right –
career changes do not necessarily correlate with policy changes. That said, what’s reported here is unique. There could have been many reasons behind Dr. Nagl’s departure from CNAS. But I think it’s very interesting that he left the Naval Academy to run a private school (albeit one of the most prestigious ones on the Philadelphia Main Line) in an area of the country that really has nothing to do with the policymaking community, even if he did retain some consulting gigs. This is the sort of departure that really signifies a new start.

As for the others, the only ones who seem to have “emerged” unscathed from this are Generals McChrystal and Petraeus. I personally am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt – in 2007-2008, most people were very convinced that Hillary Clinton (with whom CNAS was originally “affiliated”) was going to be the next president. Petraeus did write a manual, but given civilian control of the military, ingratiating themselves with people who would likely be your boss for the sake of your troops makes perfect sense.

What’s really serious, however, is the results repitition of past mistakes have brought. JHarlan’s observation about Malaya as a unique case is appropriate. Something the “COIN” advocates missed was that Field Marshal Gerald Templer, the commander of the UK’s Malayan effort, was, if I’m not mistaken, highly influential in convincing UK PM Harold Wilson to reject LBJ’s request for UK assistance in Vietnam. Another thought – the “COINdinistas'” required reading list included the works of David Galula, who, as you may all know, was a French military officier who wrote a book on counterinsurgency warfare in 1964 and that was influential in the Vietnam era. His claim to fame was that he had led a successful effort to pacify the Algerian insurgency between 1956 and 1958 in the region to which he was assigned, supposedly using methods that learned from the past mistakes of French colonial warfare. For the record, I’ve never read anything by David Galula. But I like to think one can comment on eventual results – what good were his efforts in the end if the French lost Algeria? And whatever Algerian militias that were fighting on the French side did not, if I’m correct, turn on the French as they are doing now in Afghanistan. One can simply attribute the high military and veteran suicide rate to the facts of war. But the killings of US troops by “allied” militias appear to be unprecedented.

I just think it is tragic that the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghainistan seems to have been just an intellectual exercise for the civilians in control. I think you really can wish that during congressional testimony, a senator would simply show them a picture of, say, a seven year old kid killed in a drone strike along with a picture of their own children (DOD, WH officials, that is) and then ask if they would still say it was worth it if it was their own child. You can get cynical about accountability when you read of cases like, say, McNamara. All I can say is that if there is an afterlife and a day of judgment, and if our leaders have indeed been so nonchalant about the whole thing (and perhaps they were not, as Morgan seems to claim, so this comment would be unfair), I would think those leaders would, at the very least, have some repenting to do.

What can I say? I’m a younger man with memories of Reagan and Bush 1 and who grew up surrounded by many older people (including veterans). And it seems to me that the leaders of the past appreciated the gravity of their actions much more than they do now.

#11 Comment By MoT On September 1, 2012 @ 10:20 am

I’d take blowhards such as Nagl, or any other, seriously if they’d be willing to back up their pet theories with their own boots on the ground in the field and on the front lines for the duration of any exercise. That way they put action to empty words.

#12 Comment By Patrick On September 1, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

Unfortunately, these fakes are not all gone. BG Mark Martins, Oxford graduate too, is now the chief prosecutor in the military commissions, still misrepresenting facts. Ricks admitted in public at a book signing that the surge failed, when challeged on his panegyrics to Petraeus. Martins visibly deflated when told later what Ricks had said, like, “what, he said that, well, it would have worked if we could have kept on handing our CERP money,” or words to that effect.

#13 Comment By AnotherBeliever On September 1, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

Was what was in before COIN working very well? To my recollection, no. And I was deployed to Baghdad during the height of the nastiness. I was relatively safe with a nice FOBbit position, but could still watch and hear the sectarian ethnic cleansing going on a few hundred meters from our position. COIN worked, for a while, in Iraq. My second deployment, a year later, was notably quieter. It may have worked better had we done it longer, but nobody, including the iraqis had any stomach left for it. I can’t speak for Afghanistan, I’ve never been there. But as Morgan pointed out, what’s the alternative? Other than not getting into these situations at all, of course.

#14 Comment By Bob On September 1, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

It’s both funny and sad to see how journalists and a number of others bag on COIN, especially when they cannot tell you, or explain, what the tenets of COIN are and when they should most likely be used. The FM 3-24 was an ATTEMPT to address an organizational failure that appears to be returning today.

COIN is executed poorly because it often requires skills, a mindset and certain types of personalities and application not often found in conventional forces. COIN does have its place. COIN is a shaping tool; addressing it in detail will take me off point. There are really no set rules because COIN is about constant adaptation to apply force (hard/soft) and/or avoid it. This article sadly attacks several people who attempt to make a failed policy work.

Journalists, and other so-called smart people, fail to understand one major important point about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iraq and Afghanistan were/are nation building missions. This policy was not created by the people on the ground; it was created/approved in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, Title VII, Section 7104. 7104 is also known as Afghanistan Freedom Support Act Amendments of 2004. 22 USC 7501note. 22 USC 7511 note. Here is an excerpt of the piece that is noteworthy:

(1) FINDINGS.—Consistent with the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Congress makes the following findings:

(A) The United States and its allies in the international community have made progress in promoting economic and political reform within Afghanistan, including the establishment of a central government with a democratic constitution, a new currency, and a new army, the increase of personal freedom, and the elevation of the standard of living of many Afghans.
(B) A number of significant obstacles must be overcome if Afghanistan is to become a secure and prosperous democracy, and such a transition depends in particular upon—
(i) improving security throughout the country;
(ii) disarming and demobilizing militias;
(iii) curtailing the rule of the warlords;
(iv) promoting equitable economic development;
(v) protecting the human rights of the people of
(vi) continuing to hold elections for public officials;
(vii) ending the cultivation, production, and trafficking of narcotics.

The ‘so-what’ to the excerpt above is simply this- the US military does not holistically train for the endstate and direction dictated to them by the IRTPA. Second, the findings basically tell US service members their job is to go into a foreign land and stand up a new government and promote democracy in order to deny terrorists sanctuary. So, in an effort to bring some sort of stability in the midst of chaos, COIN was implemented…implemented by a force focused on destroying things and people- not building or rebuilding them.

COIN is population centric. COIN is just one tool to HELP build a nation, or to HELP stabilize it. The metric for success in COIN has nothing to do with conventional forces winning. COIN has everything to do with stabilizing a society just enough so the people can start running their own country again. Second, that effort is to be prosecuted by the indigenous population as much as possible. If US forces are the dominant force, then the country is not ready to rule itself and will likely instead fragment until a dominant power, or powers, establish some type of homeostasis.

So to lay the blame on a mid-grade US Army Major who’s job was not to make strategy, but to execute it is totally short-sighted, unfair and indicates a total lack of grasp of reality and an utter failure to understand that the conflict was prosecuted to meet the demands of a specific approved policy. Congress found that to protect to the United States from future terrorist attacks it had to deny terrorists sanctuary. To deny sanctuary to terrorists’ means the US has to have a partner in the fight, or being seen as an occupier. Guess what our problem is…

I do agree that the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan should have never been to nation build, but to simply focus on going after a select few in a judicious and patient manner. But I also think the journalists should go after other journalists, academics and politicians who directed this policy be enforced in the first place. This is a bipartisan screw up of the highest magnitude, yet the people being attacked served on the ground, in country, away from their families; killed many terrorists and insurgents and kept the fight in the enemies’ areas of operation and areas of influence. This article makes Generals Stanley McChrystal and Petraeus, Major Nagl and Aussie (Dave Kilcullen) casualties of war.

This article, Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon, is tripe.

Cheers, Bob Howard

#15 Comment By Patrick On September 1, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

What’s the alternative? You answered your question with the only right answer, “Not getting into these situations at all, of course.”

I remember back in the 1990’s that ambitious officers latched on to their fad of that moment, TQM, Total Quality Management. Then they got into Lean Sigma Six, then shock and awe, and then COIN. All of these were fads for grown-ups wearing uniforms, with as much value as a hula hoop. But at least a hula hoop didn’t cost much to anyone and did not result in the greatest strategic disaster in our history, as LTG Odom said, like the latter two. By working to legitimize failed strategies, COIN ignoramuses are engaging in historical revisionism to cover up their strategic failures. All COIN did in Iraq was provide the “Decent Interval” necessary for the US to get out of its lost wars. But by perpetrating the big lie that COIN actually worked versus simply advancing the interests of Shiites allied with Iran, presumably not our military objective when we went into Iraq but predictable to anyone but the morons who believed W. Bush was the second coming of Napoleon (wait, I guess he was, Napoleon couldn’t quit until Waterloo) makes it more likely we will buy into this fantasy again. That’s why frauds like Nagl and Petraeus must be held acountable. The cost to our nation is too high if they’re not. The COIN cultists are doing to our nation what the Soviet Central Committee did to theirs in the 1980’s. Bankrupting it and shifting strategic strength to any competitors.

#16 Comment By C Martel On September 1, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

Pretty snarky article from someone who didn’t have a clue as to what to do in these wars and didn’t have the gumption to sign up. Must be convenient to write articles without having any responsibility — if what you say is wrong it really doesn’t matter. As opposed to guys developing the strategy who have Soldiers’ lives in their hands. A more logical and charitable guess on why Nagl is taking this position is that the Dems are likely to lose in Nov, and the odds of a position in the administration are slim. No different than the other administration officials taking finding better offers outside DC.

#17 Comment By Don Bacon On September 2, 2012 @ 12:22 am

The principal problem with COIN is that its foundation was false. You can’t build a castle on sand, you need to go down to solid rock.

FM 3-24 describes assistance to an established government beset by insurgents, not a resistance to a US invasion and a US puppet government.

Example: The French resistance in WWII was not an insurgency, it was a resistance to German invasion and Vichy government.

So call it counter-resistance, not counterinsurgency, and then the situation becomes much clearer. The people don’t want the US military in their country! Simple as that.

FM 3-24 COIN
Legitimacy Is the Main Objective
1-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.

And of course this has not happened in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, in fact, the government will change as the US military pulls out. Karzai must leave. We ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, methinks.

#18 Comment By Richard W. Bray On September 2, 2012 @ 2:43 am

Jon Stewart tried to crawl up Admiral Mullen’s keyster and give him a prostate massage:

*From what I’ve seen of these men and I have to agree with you that the people I’ve met in the military are astonishingly capable and superior. There is a feeling of calm that comes over you when you really get to know the men and women that are serving.*

According to Time magazine, every 80 minutes a veteran commits suicide. That’s what happens when we try to convince ourselves that our very human soldiers are superhuman Warriors and then assign them with impossible tasks.

#19 Comment By Bob On September 2, 2012 @ 4:09 am

“American strategy in Afghanistan in tatters…”

There is a reason why guys like Gentile are permanent professors – they are academics, not warriors.

If you really think the strategy in Afghanistan is in tatters, I’d invite you to come visit me at the IJC headquarters in Kabul and see just how much progress we have made in enabling and building the Afghan forces, and how capable they are of securing their own population. Yes, COIN is messy. Yes, it’s not a perfect doctrine. But violence is down to levels not seen in years, and every day the ANSF become more capable. I’d invite COL Gentile and the author of this article to come over and take a look for themselves… believe it or not, we’re still here.

#20 Comment By Nathan On September 2, 2012 @ 8:16 am

You may want to make a strategic correction to this piece: the COIN manual is FM 3-24, not FM-24.

When the last soldiers in Afghanistan exit the radio net and power down the generators in the last fire base, COP, FOB or camp, I hope we can begin to take a clear-eyed look at what this past decade has wrought. We tried to repurpose an Army centered on AirLand Battle into some kind of death-dealing humanitarian aid organization, and our capacity for self-deception about the rampant effectiveness of COIN is directly comparable to our capacity for self-deception regarding the camouflage capacities of the Army Combat Uniform: If we lie ardently enough and drown out valid criticisms with self-praising bromides, eventually no one can tell the difference.

That’s the image I’ll carry for the rest of my life: us soldiers, clad in eyesore pixel-grey pajamas and hulking samurai suits, driving wheezing, armored dump trucks through the desert in an attempt to “establish security and governance” or “support the lines of effort.” For crying out loud — these kids all died for nothing, and they were told that they were volunteering to defend the absolute lifeblood of America. I’ve packed and hoisted a few of the body bags myself. That’s not even counting the untold numbers of Iraqis or Afghans maimed, brutalized, violated or killed. That’s not even counting the physical and mental scars we’ve both received and inflicted and will continue to nurse until our lights turn out, too.

If this was all an intellectual exercise for our defense establishment and our nation as a whole, perhaps we need to ignore the brain and try instead to remedy the spiteful, murderous heart that seems to beat faster with each successive abomination and betrayal. “Learning to eat soup with a knife” was such a pithy metaphor, but it could have been better described as “Trying to extinguish a volcano with hundred-dollar bills and the tortured bodies of your young and eager.”

#21 Comment By 101st Ranger On September 2, 2012 @ 8:51 am

Accountability isn’t required in Washington. Stephen M. Walt has written on this subject a number of times for Foreign Policy this year. LTC(R) Nagl cashed in his check and is moving on. The Surge was coupled with the Sons of Iraq program as well as a US compromise with MAS to provide the time and space for a responsible withdrawal. Certain “intellectuals” capitalized on the efforts of our warriors and Iraqi sacrifices to seek accolades for this temporary success. Hence the birth of COINdinistas and CNAS.

#22 Comment By D Lyle On September 2, 2012 @ 9:40 am

This looks like an attempt to pin the blame on one man for the inability of the entire top level leadership to discuss openly what has made Afghanistan unwinnable, which is mainly this: the Afghan and Pakistani leadership have both been using this war to their own personal advantage, and have needed continued conflict to keep the gravy train flowing. Once we fully realized this with the rigged Afghan elections, and the open revelations of Pakistani complicity in Abbottabad, it also became clear to all that the risks inherent in addressing those deep systemic problems far outweighed the risks of trying to back away in Afghanistan.

So now we’re trying to pin the blame on good men like John Nagl for our failure to achieve what were unrealistic goals from the start given the sociopolitical ecology in that area, a realization that no one wants to talk about. We also see 20/20 hindsight applied to the situation, and attack him for trying to shed new thinking on a problem that we are theoretically still ill equipped to to frame or solve.

As Thomas Kuhn described so well in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the advancement of new paradigms in social and military theory is the “messy” activity we should be talking about, and we should be giving Nagl credit for trying to advance it, not crucifying him for the current state of the social sciences that provides few adequate tools to describe the challenges of an Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even more importantly, the much larger system that is feeding conflict in all of these places. A “warheads on foreheads” approach can tamp down insurgency locally and temporarily, but it’s ultimately a “whack a mole” approach that does little to address the root causes of conflict in the global and strategic sense. 3-24 wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction to seeking more nuanced understandings of the drivers of social adaptation that military force seeks to influence, but can never completely control.

And the Gentiles of this debate have played an important role too – tactics do matter, force is still the “ultima ratio” in human politics, and we shouldn’t forget it. But we need insights from both sides – it will not profit us all to make Nagl a scapegoat for over ten years of collective cognitive failure, bureaucratic dysfunction, and insufficient social, political, psychological, and economic theories that have all combined to create the messy situation we now face in Afghanistan.

And BTW, MoT – Nagl did serve on the ground in Iraq.

#23 Comment By AnotherBeliever On September 2, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

What worries me is that we leave this all behind, intent to never get involved in a messy war again. And that much like the last go around, the military as an institution will selectively forget lessons learned. We don’t always get to pick our wars though. The Army needs considerable conventional and nonconventional strength. It can’t forget or minimize the nonconventional, because that’s likely the way our enemies will continue to come at us. Why field a conventional army at exorbitant expense, when an asymmetric insurgency will do? The cat is out of the bag on these tactics, from suicide bombs targeting civilian populations to IEDs targeting conventional forces. The world was paying attention to their effectiveness. The chances of a clean tank-on-tank battle, on the other hand, are slim to none in the next few decades. The chances of air strikes really working, except in some limited cases with a very short target set, are also minimal. Where does this leave us? Fortunately, FM 3-24 was recorded, and it may come in handy again someday. Hopefully not for several more decades. . .

#24 Comment By OPS NCO On September 3, 2012 @ 12:36 am

I disagree with this. Don’t bash LTC Nagl for initially going against the grain. We entered both wars with total hubris in our technology and firepower. Rummy the dummy thought war could be perfected and his RMA would end it in a matter of months. We did not have a war plan to effectively fight insurgencies. Our brightest hope was to hole up behind Hesco barriers and sweat it out inside mega FOBs while enjoying air conditioning, internet, cable TV, and getting fat on Burger King and KBR chow(how much did the Cheney’s cronies at KBR profit from this strategy anyway?) We were isolated from the Iraqi people. Our impression of “engaging with the population” was to ram people’s cars off the road and shoot at civilians indiscriminately, hoping they learned from it. Before Petreause’s FM 3-24, the army’s pre Iraq war counterinsurgency manual was a joke- only told us how to sandbag the interiors our vehicles; we didn’t even plan to have armored humvees in theater either. FM 3-24 was brilliant, but after 4 years in Iraq and 8 years in A-Stan, COIN was a day late and dollar short. We already screwed it up beyond repair. Today we still do not even have a force on the ground that is even capable of comprehending the paradoxes to succeed in this type of conflict. Some think it is OK to youtube themselves urinating on dead enemy combatants, burn Korans, or shoot up villages of women and children. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water; our warrior generation of trigger happy islamophobic idiots lost it, COIN didn’t.

#25 Comment By Neil Kitson On September 3, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

Crow should be on the menu, particularly for those who thought Afghanistan could be “won” by any means at all. Cutlery of personal choice.

#26 Comment By Kelley Vlahos On September 3, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

Nathan : Fixed. A sloppy mistake. Thanks for reading and for your comments!

#27 Comment By Carl Thompson On September 4, 2012 @ 2:11 am

So, no Generals screwed things up and no politicians screwed things up- just Nagl who is in charge of nothing.

We have a military which cannot win a war. The unit rotation system, which moved guys in and out of country all at once is a horrible idea. It removes all of the institutional knowledge of an area at once and allows the enemy to fight all new troops every year.

There is so much systematically wrong with our military that it deserves a book to itself.

Our government has been backing the Karazai government which commits crimes we would put people in jail for life for in the states. We have been stupid enough to give these guys money and they steal it. You could do a book on that corruption, too.

There is a LOT wrong with Afghanistan, but 2 basic facts are inescapable: we have screwed up backing the Afghan government and our military needs be fixed.

Neither of these issues has anything to do with John Nagl. I hope some Generals and Politicians are paying you well to heap blame at his feet for their failures.

If you are really stupid enough to believe what you wrote in this article is true, it shows how little you understand about how we run our government, military or Afghanistan.

#28 Comment By Matt On September 4, 2012 @ 5:37 am

Really we have fought the Talib 3 times, after 9/11 we won, after 2005 to 2009 we were on the verge of losing. 2009 to 2014. The reason we lost the second Afghan war, was a lack of resources and as the insurgency spread we were reliant on kinetic higher intensity a lot of collateral damage.

Iraq was three wars at once, the Shiites backed by Iran, the Sunni’s and al-Qaida and various other organizations that sucked oxygen from the wider insurgency to survive. And trying to rebuild a state and indigenous security force to boot. Violence is bad in Iraq because the Iraqi forces are lazing and the buffer period we left them has prevented the insurgency from getting over them.

You cannot expect success if you do not give people the resources they require. You have to trust that the commanders are asking for the absolute minimum. A lot of officers Lt Col etc say they need 8 years.

While we said we need 5 years and could be out by the end of 2013. What did we get a July 2010 withdrawal of the surge forces.

We need 400,000 ANSF and 160,000 ISAF, plus LDI’s for a 12 month surge to suck the oxygen out of the insurgency. What we got was operations in the south that spread the insurgency to the north, east and west because we did not have the force structure to saturate the provinces. 560,000 plus the LDI’s to fight, well there were around 1 million Pashtuns that supported the insurgency. Which was what HolBrooke had eluded too. The 50,000 Talib that regenerate themselves like zombies.

COIN is all still about death tolls, the objective is to win over a demographic of the population and isolate the insurgents and kill them until they submit. The only difference is how we kill them away way from the population centers in kill zones. If there are non civilians around use JDAM’s.

At our high point early 2010 I think we won over about 600,000 Pashtuns, leaving us with say 150,000 to kill or what is left of that to the negotiating table. With around 350,000 that supported the insurgency and the shadow government. In that demographic the 350,000 are not our targeted audience male fighting age.

Something like that anyway we only had enough cash for 5 years, in which we had to get the job done. We were not asking for the world.

#29 Comment By KipH On September 4, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

Interesting article, great comments all.

As an NCO on a small team the first time in (08) we learned of COIN via reading about it ourselves.Nagl, Kilcullen, “How to Win in AlAnbar”. Our leaders, LTC and COL level, were too busy as human resources managers with Army blocks to check. Not a slam on them but on the system.

We practiced COIN sloppily, but saw that by treating the locals as human we got better results. Even if the guys laughed when I was holding hands with a guy over chai…

A few stints later, both in and out of uniform, and i am appalled by where we as a nation are. We are given the directive to “win the current fight” but no definition.

The IRTPA extract above finally answers the why. But the FM does not answer the how. Hell, we laughed at it ourselves, and we are not Nagl’s academic equals. No, we are the guys who do the heavy lifting.

I guess all in all what i personally feel after reading this is, to put it bluntly, fucking pissed. That our leaders, Army, politicians, talking heads, etc can get us into this without a strategy or endstate, is unexcuseable.

Yet after reading about past conflicts, I fear it will happen again. Hell, we can’t even remember what pressure plates were used last year ( FLASH REPORT!!! NEW ENEMY TTP— uh, we saw that before) to the self licking budget suck that JIEDDO and COIC are, to finding out that HQN and Talib are infiltrating the ANSF.

Above all, from my turret it looks alot like we are trying to fight a Maoist or independence seeking enemy. Whomever posted Islamophobic may need to consider the religio-econo-political Gordian knot that is the enemy’s entire life.

We suck at war.

#30 Comment By OPS NCO On September 7, 2012 @ 4:45 am

I don’t think Nagl is going anywhere.


#31 Comment By Major Joe D On September 8, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

This article has one point that is well made and generally true: the media, and perhaps even the military itself, was a bit overzealous and too quick to ascribe a silver-bullet characterization to counterinsurgency (COIN) as preached by John Nagl, published in FM 3-24, and practiced by GEN Petraeus. However, this near-fanaticism should not discount the fact that it worked – at least as it was applied by GEN Petraeus in Iraq.

It is also true that the military itself was perhaps responsible for this buzz when it combined the rebirth of COIN with another reactivated (and retitled) technique used by the US government and military – Strategic Communications. It was an undoubtedly deliberate effort in which John Nagl took this concept to the media to achieve precisely the multitude of cognitive effects his blitz did indeed have. And why not? During this period, Americans were struggling to come to grips with the fact that not only might we NOT achieve some version of success in Iraq, but we might actually be thoroughly and decisively defeated – on the world stage no less. Certainly members of the military and their families felt no differently. The rediscovery and revitalization of COIN placed a necessary element of power back onto the table – the resurgence of national will. This resurgence of will was fanned by winds of hope, and these winds of hope were stirred by the concept of COIN. This probably explains the contemporary fanaticism regarding this topic at during this time.

Now, regarding COIN in general and its application elsewhere to include Afghanistan, it should be noted that COIN is not a strategy, but is at most an operational approach to a segment of warfare occurring within a theater of operation. It has no direct links to national objectives in and of itself. To imply that GEN McChrystal abandoned original thinking and all other methods of executing warfare and, as a direct result, failed to achieve national objectives is misguided at best and malicious at worst. Yes, it would have been a tragic mistake if he attempted to solely insert COIN into Afghanistan exactly as applied in Iraq, but this is not what he did. Operational cookie cutters do not exist, and I am certain GEN McChrystal was aware of this.

Your assertion, as expressed by a quote from COL Gentile, that the American strategy in Afghanistan is suddenly in tatters implies that this is something new. You imply that there actually was once a strategy in Afghanistan, but now it is lost. Furthermore, you imply that this loss of strategy is directly attributable to John Nagl, GEN McChrystal and GEN Petraeus. I am not convinced this is true. What I am certain of is that without clear, consistent and attainable political objectives set forth early and often in any conflict, military objectives, no matter how well developed and executed, are worthless.

-Major Joe Dzvonik, US Army