Small Wars Journal

Washington Losing Patience with Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 12:11pm
Washington Losing Patience with Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

by Michael Hirsh and Jamie Tarabay

The National Journal

Download the Full Article: Washington Losing Patience with Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

John Nagl is the kind of guy who brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald's wicked line in The Great Gatsby about people who succeed at such an early age that "everything afterward savors of anticlimax." A star at West Point and a Rhodes scholar, the native Nebraskan was only 37 when he landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in January 2004. In that article, Nagl offered an inside-the-Sunni-Triangle tutorial on what he came to call "graduate-level war." Nagl's mantra: "We have to outthink the enemy, not just outfight him." In an era when small but wily bands of nonuniformed insurgents could stymie America's mighty military machine with stealthy guerrilla attacks and roadside bombs planted in the night, the U.S. had to figure out how to hunt down the bad guys and cut off their support from the local population. Nagl, after studying the British and French colonial experience, as well as America's handling of the Vietnam War, helped to develop what has since become famous as U.S. "counterinsurgency doctrine," or COIN. As his celebrity grew, Nagl proselytized about it everywhere, even on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

By the late 2000s, the precocious Army major had become part of a brain trust around America's uber-general, David Petraeus, the commander who implemented the Iraq troop surge. Commissioned by Petraeus, Nagl helped to author the official counterinsurgency manual that has since reoriented American military doctrine, shifting the center of gravity from rough-and-ready conventional war fighters to cerebral specialists in irregular warfare and targeted response. After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in early 2008—even though he seemed to be on the fast track to four-star fame—Nagl took over a little-known think tank, the Center for a New American Security, and turned it into what journalist Tara McKelvey called "counterinsurgency central in Washington."

Download the Full Article: Washington Losing Patience with Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan



Sun, 06/26/2011 - 10:47pm

I wrote in my book about both the political structure and the factors that combined with the surge to bring about the drop in violence. Email me at and I'll send you a chapter or two if you are interested. Same offer for any of the other regulars.

Bob's World

Sun, 06/26/2011 - 8:59pm

Iraq has challenges. Internal factions with low trust, and external factions with their own interests to pursue. Mix in the geopolitics of the key terrain Iraq sits upon, separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, the Tigris and Euprates rivers, the oil.

There are a lot of ways this could go wrong. The surge of resources was important, but that is more logistics than strategy. I really have not studied the political structure there with an eye to design flaws that could increase vulnerability for resurgence of insurgency. It took the US several generations to learn how to become a nation. We forget that.


Bob, you may be right about the integration being the key factor, but I suspect the surge facilitated that to some degree. This will be debated for years, and so far the discussion is largely focused on "our" perception of cause/effect. What are the perceptions of the insurgents and the Iraqi people?

Iraq is experiencing an increase in violence (once again), so that "may" call the integration theory into doubt if they disintegrate after we leave. That would lend some correlation type evidence that the integration that did happen was facilitated by the surge.

I really don't know, just throwing a different view point out there.

Bob's World

Sun, 06/26/2011 - 9:01am

The perspective developed at CNAS was reasonable, and it was certainly what senior officials wanted to hear, and judging by events in Iraq appeared to be valid.

Sadly it was a very biased perspective, drawn from limited examples, and one that never accounted for the ingrained bias of Western "COIN" documents that they were almost wholly written by Western military personnel, sent to some foreign land with the mission to restore a stability that would preserve some puppet regime in power in a manner that would continue to serve the interests of that foreign power as the top priority. Too colonially biased, too military centric. It also never incorporated an understanding of insurgency itself. It was a study of defense without first developing an understading of the game being played.

The key to change in Iraq was not the surge, it was the integration (vs exclusion) of critical elements of the populace into the solution. Without that integration I doubt any level of "surge" or adoption of "pop-centric" tactics would have made much traction. (Not saying that surging or pop-centric are bad, just that they were not the decisive factors they were played up to be).

There are lessones to be learned from this experience, the question is if we will learn the right lessons, or remain focused on seeing the problem as we have historically framed it.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 06/25/2011 - 11:25pm

<em>"The mostly non-Pashtun (and therefore mostly non-Taliban) north largely takes care of itself; the strategy is working in the south under the Marines; and so the only task left is to secure the east."</em>

If that is an accurate narrative of what Nagl said, then he is completely out of touch.

Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 3:21pm

Some day, one hopes, that an enterprising reporter will channel David Halberstam and write a new chapter of "The Best and the Brightest" to chart the path of this generation's set of "whiz kids".

It is not just that we've seen this movie before, but to forget having seen it before is the main problem.

One does hope that if the new whiz kids want to stay in business, and address this nation's future challenges instead of refighting the battles of the past, they will use some of their spare time renewing their knowledge and understanding of history. It might violate their pragmatic biases, but if they were to break out of their mental prisons, they would discover the more general truths that have always been there, ready to be (re)discovered.

I think this debate is going to rage for awhile. Just to add to the debate I have linked below a couple short papers I wrote 2 and 3 years ago on COIN and the Graduate Level of War and a few Random Thoughts on COIN Theory and the Future here on SWJ.

But we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to know COIN theory and how to advise and assist others when faced with an insurgency (and it is in our interests to do so). And of course we need to know COIN in case we are ever threatened with an insurgency and might have to conduct COIN here.

But until we are so threatened here we need to focus on helping others to execute COIN in defense of their nation (again, when deemed in the US national interests to do so and as part of a strategy with balanced and coherent ends, ways, and means resting on valid, sound assumptions and a thorough understanding of the strategic environment - both in the specific country and region and internationally, as well as our own domestic strategic environment).

"Is Counterinsurgency the Graduate Level of War?"

"A Few Random Thoughts on COIN Theory and the Future" (or A Partial Response to the Small Wars Journal Weekend Homework Assignment!!!)