Revenge of the COIN Doctrine
Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it. —Weird Al Yankovic
In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife. It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing to do with eating humble pie.
In Knife Fights, Nagl has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan in 2009.
Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.
Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”; b) to distance himself—and COIN—from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and c) burnish his own resume—which takes up much of the book—for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016.
This might sound cynical, even abrasive, but consider the stakes: the U.S. is currently engaged in another military intervention in Iraq, against an enemy that never went away even after COIN allegedly “won” the war there. When someone who not only promoted prolonging the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly sold the snake oil that surged hundreds of thousands of troops into harms way is now attempting to rehabilitate himself suggests a return of at least 15,000 more troops to Iraq, is it not wise to examine the merits and timing of what Peter Mansoor hubristically calls, “a magnificent memoir from one of the most brilliant officers of his generation”?
Ret. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a long-time COIN critic who is singled out in Knife Fights, certainly thinks so. He tells TAC the book reads more like “a Hollywood director hoping to turn (his memoir) into a swashbuckling movie.”
“Nagl’s new book is not about research and scholarship,” he charges, but is actually “about proliferating a myth, constructed by him and other proponents of counterinsurgency, that COIN can work as long as stupid armies are transformed and saved from themselves by clever COIN doctrine and savior generals.”
COIN was supposed to create a safe space in Iraq for political reconciliation and democratic governance to grow. That is what Nagl and his “COINdinistas,” led by Gen. David Petraeus (who still plays the savior role in Knife Fights), said would be the measure of success for the 2007 troop surge.
By all objective metrics, that did not happen before Petraeus declared the surge a success in front of a beaming, COIN-bedazzled audience at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2009. In hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who would rule Iraq for the next several years with an American-sanctioned whip hand.
This was accomplished not through so called “population centric warfare,” but through intensive capture/kill campaigns and immense American firepower deployed against both Maliki’s Sunni enemies and his Shia rivals in Baghdad during the surge—which Petraeus explained in great detail at that ’09 CNAS event.
This is the kind of slight of hand that Nagl & Co. have been playing from the start—suggesting that COIN’s successes came from non-kinetic approaches, like special ops forces living among the people and anthropologists air dropping in to help win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, they paid some 90,000 Sunni fighters to side with them and helped Maliki kill or torture the rest.
Nagl continues the Kabuki less effectively in Knife Fights, which he prefaces by trying to say the book is “about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women.” It is actually about John Nagl, who generally takes credit for bringing COIN to the upper echelons of the military culture, getting top brass to embrace it, and birthing a generation of young junior officers hooked on the juice.
Furthermore, he demands that “our politicians … approach future wars with greater humility,” when he shows no such willingness to do so himself. He says “the final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency over the past decade of war.” Yet the book makes no attempt to tell us what those lessons are. It merely makes excuses as to why it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, which he calls “an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of-victory.” He acknowledges that COIN under Petraeus was “imperfect and left behind a deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,” but claims it now has a “government the United States can live with.” (More on that later.)
According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.
Interestingly, Nagl also throws Gen. Stanley McChrystal under the bus in Knife Fights, saying Petraeus “had done a good job of underpromising and overdelivering in Iraq, but McChrystal took the opposite approach” in Afghanistan. That is almost laughable when the entire Beltway universe was on the COIN bandwagon at the time, “overpromising” an Iraq Redux in Helmand.
Worse, Nagl says McChrystal, “overinternalized the guidance” in the counterinsurgency field manual, or COIN bible, published in 2006. “Only some of the best weapons for COIN don’t shoot bullets,” Nagl writes, “and although dollars are weapons in this kind of fight, bullets work pretty well in a lot of circumstances.”
McChrystal, who made his name as a “man hunter” in Iraq, was surely aware of this, but one would have to have beeen living under a rock in 2009 not to have seen that he was under serious pressure to sell—and employ COIN—as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He didn’t write the manual—Nagl did—and as it was full of such pabulum as, “sometimes the more you protect your force the less secure you’ll be,” it is no wonder McChrystal had a difficult time translating it on the battlefield.
And lest we forget, CNAS—of which Nagl was the director—published a paper at that very time saying “protecting the population (should) take precedence over all other considerations for the time being” and that the U.S. should “adopt a population-centric counterinsurgency that emphasizes protecting the population rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the Taliban and al Qaeda.”
But when McChrystal is fired, for not having a “natural caution” of the press, hero Petraeus is brought in for the save. He immediately starts the bombing, “and the results are almost immediate,” Nagl gushes. Of course he would have kept on winning, Nagl suggests, if Obama didn’t get in the way and impose a timeline for withdrawal.
And here you have Nagl’s marquee complaint of why COIN did not work in Afghanistan and why Iraq is a disaster today: it’s all Obama’s fault.
In Knife Fights, Nagl directs his fire at Obama’s choices in Afghanistan. But that was written before Iraq imploded on the global stage just a few months ago. Then, the Iraqi government could be “lived with.” But now, as evidenced in his recent public appearances, Nagl is accusing Obama of squandering every hard-fought gain made under Petraeus, and, by withdrawing all combat troops in 2011, being responsible for ISIS cutting its way through Iraq today.
Talking before a largely sympathetic audience at the New America Foundation on Oct. 27, Nagl said Obama should have ignored the will of the Iraqi people and stayed there for a generation at least. Nagl advocates putting no less than 15,000 combat “advisors” into Iraq now to get the job done. All those maimed and dead American veterans of Iraq deserve it. “If it was important enough to bleed there,” it’s important enough to stay, he charged.
Obama is an easy target these days. One is reminded of how critical Nagl was of the Bush war architects when that administration was on the way out, too. Nagl knew Pentagon positions would be opening up—he even quit the Army in 2008 to hitch his star to the Democratic “administration in waiting” at CNAS. However, as his colleagues Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell were scooped up for national security appointments with Obama, Nagl was overlooked. He eventually left the directorship at CNAS to take a position at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011; a year later, he became headmaster at The Haverford School, a wealthy boys prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
For Nagl, timing is everything. Maybe he is hoping Knife Fights will get him back on the Beltway beat as a strategy guru in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Not surprisingly, while chiding Obama’s judgments on Syria last year, he asserts that Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Clinton are “as good a security team as you’re going to find.”
But the failure of COIN is now well documented, despite Nagl’s attempts at historical whitewash. For this, his comeback may be short-lived. The “skunks at the party,” like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, and Gentile, are looking at the fairy dust on the floor and wondering why Nagl is still around.
“The hard fact is that COIN did not produce the outcomes promised, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan. At best, it allowed the United States to leave Iraq without admitting defeat. Today, of course, the rise of ISIS makes even that claim increasingly untenable,” Bacevich tells TAC.
My sense is that the officer corps once more finds itself in an intellectual void. Filling that void is an urgent priority, but is unlikely to happen until members of the officer corps acknowledge that the infatuation with COIN to which Nagl and others succumbed was from the outset deeply misguided — an excuse to avoid serious thinking about war and actually existing security requirements.
To wit: the next time we’re told to “eat it,” let’s ask what’s in it first. That way we’ll avoid the heartburn, and the knife fights afterward.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.