Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military
He gives us a clear and appealing vision, but one that is deadly wrong IMO. Only a first rate mind could have conceived it something so attractive and yet destructive.
In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed. Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world. Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.
— John Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, retired), in his review of Brian McAllister Linn’s book, The Echo of Battle – The Army’s Way of War, RUSI Journal (April 2008). Note: the link to his review is at the Small Wars Journal, posted courtesy of the RUSI Journal.
In my opinion this is flawed strategic doctrine, on multiple levels. The tone and language are colonialist. “We protect its people…” We “allow them to control their territory…” The problem with these is not bad marketing or a trivial issue of semantics. Formulating our goals in these way starts us down the wrong path.
First, this arrogates to ourselves the dominate role in foreign lands. We protect. We allow them to control. We decide who is the insurgent and who the legitimate government. Nationalism has been one of the world’s most powerful social forces for several centuries, and this formula puts us in opposition to it. It will sound terrible to them, because it is inimical to their control over their land and society.
Who decides what are the “norms of the civilized world? The local people? The UN? Or us?
Second, any government that accepts our help under this doctrine puts its legitimacy at risk — and it probably already has low legitimacy or they would not need our help. Soldiers operating with this doctrine wil likely have an attitude of casual contempt towards the local government (often seen in Iraq, right up to the highest levels of the US government).
No matter how noble our original intentions (unlike Iraq, with our interest in bases and oil), such a strategic view risks polluting our thinking. Even Kilcullen, to some extent inoculated against this by his training in political anthropology, often exhibits neo-colonial attitudes. Note these excerpts from his slides at a September 2007 presentation (see the link to my October 2007 post for a more detailed analysis).
The fundamental problem is CONTROL – of people, terrain and information. (Slide 14)
Control over the population (through a combination of coercion and consent) is the goal of both government and insurgent – “The Population is the Prize” (FM 3-24 / Galula) (Slide 19)
Third, this puts on us the burden of structuring these foreign polities. I have said this many times, in many ways, so here will quote Lexington Green:
Also, we need to be more humble than Nagl seems to be. We don’t even know how to create fully viable, lawful societies in Roxbury, Massachusetts or the West Side of Chicago or East LA. Africa, Andean South America or Central Asia are much tougher nuts to crack. Set the ambitions small enough to succeed, case by case.
(1) Hat tip on this to Zenpundit, who often sees valuable insights in things I have deeply buried in my reading pile. I wish I knew how he does this.
(2) This analysis looks only at one paragraph Nagl writes, in a book review. This hardly reflects his full vision about these things.
(3) For more on this, see Chet Richard’s latest book If We Can Keep it, a must-read for anyone seeking to understand our grand strategic options in the 21st century.
(4) Nagl’s bio, from the Small Wars Journal:
John Nagl is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A retired US Army officer, his last assignment was as Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kansas. He led a tank platoon in Operation Desert Storm and served as the operations officer of a tank battalion task force in Operation Iraqi Freedom. A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl earned his doctorate from Oxford University, taught national security studies at West Point, and served as a Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the writing team that produced the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
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For more information about US COIN doctrines
- Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War (6 October 2007) — Neocolonism in theory and practice.
- The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24 (19 March 2008)
- A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual (20 March 2008)