Two Sides of the COIN

Review: John Nagl, ‘Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice’

John Nagl / Screenshot from CSPAN


Shortly after 1st Lt. John Nagl led the tankers of Red Platoon, Alpha Company, First Battalion, 32nd Armor to their share of a crushing victory over the hopelessly outmatched Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm, the leadership of the U.S. defense establishment allowed itself a moment of self-congratulation. The stain of Vietnam had been washed away. The military, and in particular the Army, had finally been able to fight the war it had always wanted to fight: no insurgents blending into the population, no jungle, no mountains, no (significant) protests on the homefront—just Iraqi fish in a vast, open barrel.

Lt. Nagl did not concur. In his compelling and at times moving memoir, Knife Fights, Nagl—who retired from the Army in 2008 as a lieutenant colonel, and is now the headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia—describes coming to the unsettling conclusion that, having witnessed the outcome of Desert Storm, no other enemy would ever allow the U.S. military to do that to them. They would find other ways to fight. Returning to Oxford for his doctorate, having earned a degree there a few years earlier as a Rhodes Scholar, Nagl researched the history of counterinsurgency warfare. He ultimately produced a thesis that compared the British experience in Malaya with the American experience in Vietnam. The bottom line: insurgencies are an unavoidable element in the military challenges that face great nations, and they can be defeated, but the knowledge of how to do so keeps being lost, at great cost to soldiers and Marines forced to recover it on the fly.

Nagl jokes that his work was the finest doctoral thesis produced in the 1990s on counterinsurgency warfare anywhere in the world—namely because it was the only thesis produced in the 1990s on counterinsurgency warfare anywhere in the world. Though unconventional, it turned out to be a prescient bet following 9/11, when the United States found itself embroiled in two major insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the while contributing to a global counterterrorism effort that worked to keep the insurrectionist devil down in its hole from Yemen to the Philippines.

The subtitle of this memoir asserts that the book explores "modern war in theory and practice," which is apt, considering that shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq now-Maj. Nagl found himself in Anbar province as the operations officer for an armor battalion suddenly tasked with fighting Sunni insurgents. As we all know, this proved to be far more challenging than defeating the Iraqi army in the first place, and though Nagl’s study of counterinsurgency theory had prepared him for a hard task, he was unprepared for just how hard it would actually be. After a difficult tour that was costly in human life, both American and Iraqi, Nagl took a job at the Pentagon on Paul Wolfowitz’s staff, and eventually found himself tasked by David Petraeus with codifying the lessons of counterinsurgency theory in a new manual.

Thus, for a time, did certain notions become commonplace in the U.S. military: that the focus of a counterinsurgency ought to be to protect the civilian population and separate it from the insurgents; that killing the enemy was all well and good but ultimately insufficient; and that terrain must be held by significant numbers of troops who must be replaced by reliable elements of local government. Peak COIN was a heady time for its architects, and Nagl found himself on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, profiled in the Wall Street Journal, mentioned in numerous other books and articles, and, in a kind of apotheosis for an author of military doctrine, interviewed by John Stewart as a guest on The Daily Show.

The newly revived COIN doctrine also helped turn the tide in Iraq, when properly resourced as a result of President Bush’s Surge. The effort was led by a general (Petraeus) who was intimately acquainted with this style of war, and, critically, inadvertently aided by a vicious, incautious primary enemy that seemed dedicated to alienating itself from its Sunni base of support. (Of course, that enemy, Al Qaeda in Iraq, would reemerge in the guise of the Islamic State after the abandonment of Iraq by President Obama.)

In Afghanistan, the results were more mixed. Nagl, who did not deploy there but has been a close observer of the fight against the Taliban, devotes some space to explaining the shortcomings of that effort. He cites the existence of a sanctuary for the Taliban in Pakistan and the corruption of the Kabul government as two factors that, historically speaking, tend to correlate with failure in counterinsurgency campaigns. To this we might add that nothing in counterinsurgency theory suggests that victory will be cheap, quick, or easy—quite the opposite on all counts, in fact. Perhaps the problem has been lack of national commitment, of inability to accept that some conflicts are going to take decades.

Or, perhaps, there was something about the square peg of counterinsurgency theory that was never going to fit well into the round hole of Afghanistan. Post-Saddam Iraq may have been a disaster, especially following the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the later sectarian crack-up brought about by al-Qaeda’s terrorism, but it was a place with a clear sense of what it means to be a somewhat modern state. Hussein, however brutally, had just ruled one there. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is less amenable to the state-building project that COIN theory suggests is necessary to defeat an insurgency. Not only had it been shattered by a war ongoing since 1979, but even before then many areas of the country had little notion of what it meant to be ruled by a state apparatus.

Nagl argues passionately that the post-Iraq and Afghanistan backlash against COIN theory is foolish, due to the fact that the U.S. military can’t simply pick and choose what kinds of wars it wants to fight. He is surely right about this. But the apparent shortcomings of the doctrine in Afghanistan certainly suggest that the theory itself would benefit from further examination. In the wild, complex mix of political, tribal, and criminal allegiances in a place like Helmand Province, does the doctrine impose binary categories of "insurgent" and "counterinsurgent" that are misleading? How can one plot a path to victory that must run through the construction of a Western-style state in a country with absurdly low levels of adult male literacy? What does "corruption" mean in a place where the abuse of public office for private gain is less a cultural transgression than the commonplace exercise of patterns of patronage that stretch back further than memory?

Nagl describes ours as "an age of unsatisfying wars." In an era when nuclear weapons seem to keep the threat of major power conflicts at bay, more dirty, unconventional, and brutal fights on the fringes of civilization are sure to confront the United States. It is a moral imperative to determine whether things failed to reach an acceptable conclusion in Afghanistan not only because of a loss of national willpower, or of shortcomings in the execution of counterinsurgency doctrine from 2009 on, but also whether deeply-buried political assumptions in the doctrine itself played a role. Rather than cast COIN back onto the dustheap of doctrine, only to have to retrieve it again years from now, the military would be better served to preserve it, and to build on it.

Aaron MacLean   Email Aaron | Full Bio | RSS
Aaron MacLean is a senior writer at the Washington Free Beacon. A combat Marine veteran, he was educated at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Balliol College, Oxford. He served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan, and his final assignment in the Marine Corps was teaching English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was the 2013 recipient of the Apgar Award for excellence in teaching. Aaron was a 2016 Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and has been a Novak Fellow, a Claremont Lincoln Fellow, a Marshall Scholar, and a Boren Scholar. He lives in Virginia, where he was born.

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