Knife Fights: John Nagl’s Reflections on the Practice of Modern War

Knife Fights: John Nagl’s Reflections on the Practice of Modern War

Interview with Dr. John Nagl on his just released book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice, The Penguin Press, New York, 2014.

What are the lessons that we need to remember from the post 9/11 campaigns as we move forward?

  • American conventional military superiority will drive our opponents to irregular warfare:  insurgency and terrorism.
  • In conventional war, identifying your enemy is comparatively easy, but killing him is hard.  In irregular warfare, the converse is true:  finding is hard, but killing or capturing is easy.
  • In conventional war, politics stops until the war is over.  In irregular warfare, politics and economics continue throughout the war, and are in fact key weapons of war.  This combined political/economic/military challenge is what makes irregular warfare “the graduate level of war”.
  • In conventional war, the civilian population is essentially an obstacle to progress.  In irregular war, winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the civilian population is key to winning the war; their safety and long-term support are essential to the success of whichever side wins.
  • For a number of reasons including American conventional military superiority and the existence of nuclear weapons, conventional war has been on the decline since the 20th century.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that irregular warfare has been a growing challenge over the past two centuries, and the information revolution, demographics, and resource scarcity make it likely to be the kind of war the United States is most likely to face for the rest of this century.  It’s hard, and it’s not going to go away, so we’d better get better at it if we want to win.

Why this title “Knife Fights”? I remember that the title of your previous book “How to Eat Soup with a Knife” intended to give us a sense on a special kind of warfare. Do you refer now also to these fights waged on the Washington battlefield to change the American way of war?

Both. This book begins with a tank fight during the Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war, one fought at long range where you could identify the enemy by uniform and by the vehicles that they were driving. And I compared that war with the wars that I’ve studied at Oxford whose character was so well captured by T.E. Lawrence’s reflection that “war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife”. Having fought a long range conventional war in Desert Storm, having studied irregular war, I fought my irregular in Anbar province, in Iraq in 2003-2004, a war fought at very close range, very different from the kind of war that we were prepared to fight. We were fighting people at ranges so close that our alleged situational awareness, our intelligence resources, everything that the American military invested billions of dollars wasn’t helpful. They were fishes swimming in the sea of the people so it was very difficult to identify who the enemies were.

From Al Anbar, I went almost directly to the Pentagon, working for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz and engaged there also in very close range battles trying to change the way America was fighting, how America thought about counterinsurgency and helping the Army, DoD and State Department to understand the kind of war in which we were actually engaged in. I continued this with the publication of FM 3-24, a knife fight largely with friends. The title refers to my previous work but it is also a good descriptor of the kind of battles I fought in Iraq and in Washington.

What is/was the center of gravity on the Washington battlefield?

It is certainly messy and slow. It doesn’t always appear to have a center of gravity. The center of gravity shifts rapidly. Astoundingly, probably the most important person in making the decision to surge forces into Iraq that General Petraeus led into 2007, the center of gravity of that decision was a man who had no official position in Washington, Retired US Army General Jack Keane.  He became a sort of intellectual father of the surge which was probably the most important decision of the Iraq war other then the initial misguided decision to invade there. Power, like insurgency, is fluid and it changes over time.  And just as it takes a network to defeat an insurgent enemy, it takes a network to change policy in Washington.

Organizational change and innovation is not possible without an enlightened leadership. How would you assess the performance of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense? Was he an RMA guy unable to understand irregular conflict? How can you fight an insurgency when you don’t even use the word/the concept?

Don Rumsfeld was brought to the Pentagon to continue the post Cold War downsizing of the US Military. He had an extraordinary track record in business, in downsizing companies, in doing more with less, so this was the kind of mindset that he brought to the Pentagon. Had September 11th not happened, he might have been a great Secretary of Defense, but he was the wrong man to serve as secretary of war in an irregular conflict against a very different enemy than the one his department had been prepared to fight. Defeating this opponent would require huge changes in the mental construct the department used to think about the world and Rumsfeld was never able to make those adjustments. He suffers here by comparison with his successor Robert Gates who really put the Pentagon on an irregular war footing. Gates’ performance as SecDef over the next several years, including the first years of the Obama administration, earned him recognition as the greatest Secretary of Defense the nation has ever had, and certainly as the greatest Secretary of War we ever had. Arguably, Bob Gates was also an insurgent. The key moments in the insurgency against the American Way of War that laid the foundation for changing the American Way of War were the publication of the Counterinsurgency Manual, the publication of DoD Directive 3000.05, General Petraeus taking command over the surge in Iraq and the leadership of Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense.

Which were the core formative thinkers and the takeaways that shaped your COIN worldview?

Lawrence was not a counterinsurgent, but an insurgent during the WWI but his grasp of the other side of the hill, of how hard must be for the conventional Turkish army to deal with an irregular enemy, helped develop my understanding of what messy, slow business a counterinsurgency was. Robert Thompson was very important in my understanding of how important intelligence is in a counterinsurgency campaign. Mao is the most important of all thinkers, an insurgent himself, because in the end to understand counterinsurgency you have to understand insurgency. Those were probably the three most important influences during my Oxford years. It is much later that I have learned about David Galula, the French officer whose focus on the population is his contribution to understanding a counterinsurgency campaign. His emphasis echoed Mao but he understood Mao certainly more deeply than I did when I was a graduate student, not having conducted counter insurgency myself. I didn’t read Galula until after my Iraq tour, in 2005 when I was in the Pentagon, and then I was reading and understanding Galula in the light of the war I had just fought in Al Anbar. Galula was probably the single strongest influence on FM 3-24.

You focused your PhD thesis on how you change a military culture to fight against an insurgency. Overall the principles are clear now. But tell us more about the ending/the defeat of an insurgency. What role does the governance/administrative part as well as the reconciliation play?

Governance is definitely the hardest part. It has been said correctly that if you are being defeated by an insurgency, you are not being outfought, you are being outgoverned. An insurgency wins whenever the government is unable to meet the perceived needs of a group of its people. You have a competition between the insurgent group and the government to see whether the government can reform itself fast enough while simultaneously conducting military operations to defeat the insurgents. This challenge of good governance that earns the support of the local people is in itself enormously difficult. A common demand in these wars is to have better local partners to work with in delivering good governance. This question of how you do armed state-building or nation-building where the apparatus of the state is not powerful enough, competent enough, honest enough is a crucial variable in thinking about defeating insurgencies. But we have failed to develop the capacity to influence other states’ governance and decision making sufficiently. The problem there is that you need a combination of State and DoD working together using the coercive power of DoD and State’s assets in order to leverage better host nation state behavior. We’ve seen this work in isolated cases. The best example is Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus in Iraq who used Ryan Crocker’s political skills and the coercive power that the presence of ten of thousands of US troops gave to shape the behavior of the host nation government. The consequence of pulling out of Iraq all the American advisors, all the military power was that we no longer had a lever to use to influence Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s decision-making and the Iraqi government actions, and we were no longer able to coerce them to adopt more inclusive policies towards the Sunnis. We removed the counterforce able to push against Maliki’s sectarian tendencies and created the context that allowed Maliki to be overtly anti-Sunni, something that in the end opened the door for the emergence of ISIS.

Can we lose off the battlefield the military gains by not being able to exert enough pressure and leverage in order to maintain the host nation government on the right track?

Not only can we, but we did in Iraq. This is part of the reason why a counterinsurgency is so hard for the US military. The conventional wars of the XIXth and XXth century were based on the understanding that politics stops when the fighting starts and on the understanding that the politics is supposed to start again when the enemy accepted unconditional surrender. Unconditional surrender is not going to happen in fighting against a non-state armed group. One of the major challenges in these wars is that you need to continue practicing politics during the course of the war and at the same be ready to continue the war after the politics has started using the extraordinary leverage provided by the hard power assets deployed on the ground. In my opinion, the leverage of a few American thousands of advisors and special operation forces, keeping these forces there from 2012 to now, could have mitigated the sectarian tendencies and policies of the Maliki government. We would have been in a very different situation now.

From an operational point of view, the Iraqi surge combined with the Sunni Awakening, this synergy framework validates some of the core principles of the counterinsurgency doctrine-protect the population, reconcile with the former enemy and bring them inside the political system. What happened after the surge? What were the errors that prepared the way for losing the peace after the surge?

In Iraq the critical error was the decision to completely pull US troops out in 2011 forfeiting both the military capability, the backbone they provided to the Iraqi security forces, but also, and probably more important, the bulwark against sectarianism in the Iraqi government. In the absence of the American military’s counterterrorism capabilities but also the loss of American political leverage that diminished with the departure of troops, a sectarian government lost the trust and the support of the Sunni people.  Maliki fired the Sunni leadership in the Army, replacing them with political cronies unable to fight a war when ISIS emerged. America fights these wars for her own interests. While the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, once it happened, containing the damage done remains very strongly an American interest. We failed to keep several thousands of American troops in Iraq in 2012, and now we need to put several thousands back in 2014 to fight against an ISIS that was able to reemerge because of the absence of US advisors and political leverage.

You quote Saint Augustine. What does the post 9/11 campaigns tell us about what we need in terms of capacities to build a better peace?

The story of American foreign policy over the last century was using US global power to influence states’ decision making. The broad story of American foreign policy is about fighting wars to build a better peace in their aftermath. We need to be reminded about that lesson. We devoted extraordinary resources to changing our military over the course of the last decade. In his book Robert Gates talks about how hard he had to work to change the direction of the US military to reorient it from fighting conventional wars to fighting irregular ones. We did not do a very good job in changing the rest of our government. We need similar efforts to capture the lessons learned at the Department of State and the National Security Council over the last decade. It is evident that these kinds of wars are not going to go away.  Trends such as the youth bulge and urbanization in underdeveloped states point to a future dominated by low-intensity conflict and states that are too weak to handle what happens inside their borders. The U.S. military is more likely to be called upon to counter insurgencies, intervene in civil strife and humanitarian and epidemic crises, rebuild nations, and wage unconventional types of warfare. They are not going away, so we need to become better at fighting them. And a big part of the effort has to be in improving other government agencies. As we’ve discovered again and again over the past decade, most of the tasks required to succeed in a counterinsurgency campaign are not military. As Galula used to say, counterinsurgency is only 20 percent military and 80 percent everything else (politics, economics, development, information operations) and all must be conducted simultaneously.

As we move forward, do you still see as vital the need to invest “small wars capabilities”? Everyone is running from the COIN mindset these days.

Everyone might be running away from COIN but they better run faster because the insurgents are catching up. They are catching up in Eastern Ukraine where we see a very complex hybrid war using sophisticated weaponry and intelligence assets provided by Russia in support of what it is essentially a guerilla warfare campaign fought by semi-uniformed irregular proxies. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is using some of the same techniques, including intimidation and coercion in addition to the weapons captured in the Sunni provinces. War’s changing character continues; we are seeing an increased move away from the so-called conventional state on state war to the mixed hybrid threats that are using conventional weaponry in support of irregular subversive campaigns to achieve political objectives. I see no sign of that changing anytime soon; in fact there are a lot of indications that this trend will accelerate.

Should NATO and the EU become proficient in waging direct or indirect hybrid campaigns in its neighborhood? To me, what Russia is orchestrating there seems very much like a proxy insurgency.

I certainly don’t disagree with that. Interestingly, NATO’s first Admiral SACEUR, Jim Stavridis, now the Dean of the Fletcher School, when he was in charge of NATO made a big effort in that direction. NATO was heavily involved in Afghanistan over the course of last 10 years and has learned a great deal about countering an insurgency. It is going to need to make that intellectual shift to understanding wars that are being fought using techniques of insurgency much closer to their own borders than the Afghan campaign. The world is becoming more complicated not less with war being a continuation of politics by other means happening on a daily basis.  This trend continues what the world earned from the First Gulf War.  To offset the conventional superiority of NATO other powers must challenge the European security order unconventionally, by employing guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and information operations.

In his farewell speeches and interviews, General Michael Flynn talks about the era of a “prolonged societal conflict” where the empowerment of the individual, demography boom and urbanization will pressure the Westphalian state framework. Is the Arab Spring just the beginning? A snapshot, a flavor of the future?

The so-called Arab Spring was in fact a series of rebellions against corrupt authoritarian governments driven by the youth bulge, by communication technology and the information revolution that put the power of information in the hands of disaffected young people. None of those factors are going to go away. In fact a number of factors are increasing the likelihood of irregular war, and those trends will only increase in years to come. If the industrial revolution put more power in the hands of the state, it is not yet clear who wins in the information revolution, whether the state or the empowered individual. But one fact is clear: the information revolution has given enormous power to individuals in sub-state small groups to disseminate ideas, to organize actions, creating enormous vulnerabilities for the state. In addition population continues to increase in urban areas as people flock to cities for employment and opportunities, putting more pressure on governments to provide public goods or risk rebellion. These are not signs that the rebellions or the insurgencies are diminishing in the world. There are a lot of signs that we will see less conventional war and more irregular war, insurgency and counterinsurgency. It is going to threaten American interests as we see right now in Iraq. If we intentionally turn away from the lessons of the last decade of war-shame on us! It will be our children who have to re-learn these lessons and pay the price in blood once again.

You are also a student of the Vietnam War. Why did we lose in Vietnam and what should be the lessons for the Iraq and Afghanistan?

The Tet offensive was really a tactical and operational defeat for the Vietcong forces. In fact the Vietcong were essentially destroyed. But it was a strategic victory for North Vietnam because all the faith of the American people in the US project in Vietnam was lost. Great powers do not lose small wars because they run out of tanks, soldiers, or money. If a great power like the United States loses a relatively small war like Vietnam, it does so because of a lack of public support at home. The war in Vietnam was lost in 1975 not to insurgents but to conventional North Vietnamese forces, to tanks, a symbol of conventional military power that crashed through the gate of US Embassy in Saigon. Those tanks were able to advance to that embassy to Saigon because America failed to provide the airpower and other military support that we had promised with the peace treaty ending the war in Vietnam. There are important lessons here as we contemplate both what is happening right now in Iraq and what is likely to happen in Afghanistan. In both cases, a relatively small investment of American advisors and airpower would likely preserve the functioning of a host nation government that we have spent thousands of lives and trillions of dollars establishing. Failing to do so violates the grand unified theory in the war against Al-Qaeda: don’t allow them to have a home base again. We violated that in Iraq by pulling out US forces early, and shame on us if we make the same mistake again in Afghanistan.

In its early 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (released symbolically for the first time in the presence of POTUS), the Pentagon explicitly recognized that the US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. Should this emphasis be reversed bearing in mind what we are seeing today in the Middle East and taking into consideration all the trends that are likely to shape the future?

The George W. Bush Administration made many mistakes over its first 6 years in office. But President Bush changed his worldview and his high-level personnel and turned around the Iraqi war because the administration was a learning organization. It is yet to be seen if this administration will similarly learn from its mistakes, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, we should all hope that the Obama administration can become an adaptive learning organization.

Dr. John Nagl is the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania.  He was previously the President of CNAS. Dr. Nagl is the author of Knife Fights:  A Memoir of Modern War and of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the writing team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24).

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