The Cult of Counterinsurgency

John Nagl's memories of Vietnam are vague, at best. He was, after all, only two years old during the 1968 Tet offensive and was in grade school in Omaha, Nebraska, during the fall of Saigon. It is perhaps for this reason that Nagl, a former tank commander turned military strategist, does not see Vietnam as a symbol of dishonor, the way older military officers do. Rather, the Vietnam War is a subject to be studied: Nagl's acclaimed book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, explores lessons from the American experience in fighting an insurgency in Vietnam. He's been one of the foremost proponents of applying those same techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Vietnam War, he writes, shows the importance of understanding tribal loyalties, working to improve the lives of civilians, and training local forces. Many of these lessons were forgotten in the decades following Vietnam. Nagl believes this is an oversight, and he has worked harder than almost anyone to bring these fundamental tenets of counterinsurgency into the military mainstream. Indeed, he has helped turn things around so dramatically that now counterinsurgency not only is seen as a legitimate and honorable pursuit but has become the guiding doctrine of the U.S. military.

Nagl (pronounced like "boggle," he says), who led a tank platoon in the first Gulf War and fought in Anbar Province in 2003 and 2004 (23 soldiers from his unit were killed), retired from the military this summer and is a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. The 42-year-old Rhodes scholar is armed with missionary zeal, an arsenal of quotations about military strategy, and Red Bull-ish energy on the conference circuit. He is constantly tapping his feet, twirling his pen, and slamming his hand on tables when he talks. (An admitted self-Googler, he is adept at self-promotion.)

Nagl has so successfully popularized counterinsurgency in the military and the general public that he is known as the doctrine's Johnny Appleseed. One Pentagon insider says his achievements can be attributed "solely" to his ability to flirt. But, sitting at an outdoor patio table above Pennsylvania Avenue on a late summer morning, Nagl denies the charge. "I am shocked, shocked," he says, jokingly explaining that he finds it "appalling and demeaning and absolutely untrue." Then he leans back in his chair, takes off his glasses, and shakes his head slowly. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," he says.

To that end, Nagl has helped rewrite the U.S. Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, which is currently being used in Iraq. He believes that a new-and-improved counterinsurgency strategy will lead the United States to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and will ensure peace and stability in those countries and elsewhere in the world. In different venues, ranging from television studios to meetings with government officials, he has outlined tactics and reviewed his own battle-tested strategies of counterinsurgency, and he is widely recognized as one of the main reasons that the doctrine holds sway in Baghdad, Ramadi, and, most importantly, in Washington.

Counterinsurgency means, more or less, an attempt to defeat guerilla fighters who hide among a civilian population over an extended period of time (the word "guerilla" comes from the Spanish term for "small war"). These types of "low-intensity conflicts," as they are known, were fought by the French in Algeria, the British in Malaysia, and the Soviets in Afghanistan. The current U.S. strategy includes a heady mix of politics and military might and is based on French and English doctrine from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as lessons from Vietnam. Counterinsurgency has a special allure for liberal writers and thinkers because it offers a holistic approach, emphasizing efforts to win the hearts and minds of local people, and attempts to transform formerly autocratic governments into ones that respect human rights, women's education, and the rule of law. At least, these are the goals. Whether or not the strategy has been successful, or whether it even has the potential to succeed, is a matter of debate. Skeptics say that despite a sophisticated veneer, counterinsurgency is warfare of the nastiest, most brutal kind, and it lasts for years and years.

After John F. Kennedy became president, one of his first questions was "What are we doing about guerilla warfare?" Thanks in part to Nagl's success in promoting counterinsurgency doctrine, the new president will not need to ask. John McCain and Barack Obama have been trying to outshine each other with their praise of Gen. David Petraeus, who implemented counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq. Both candidates have also endorsed a proposal for a military advisory corps, a program promoted by Nagl that will ensure the U.S. continues to use counterinsurgency tactics around the world. It's clear to anyone who has spent time in military and foreign-policy circles: The debate is over. Counterinsurgency is here to stay.


Iraq didn't start out as the test case for Nagl's favored military strategy. In the early days, counterinsurgency tactics were only used on an ad-hoc basis. Some commanders tried to build relationships with local civilians in order to track down insurgents; other units descended into lawlessness and violence. It wasn't until several horrific incidents made headlines -- namely the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, followed by the killings of Iraqi civilians at Haditha in 2005 -- that the military began to re-evaluate its conduct and to attempt to implement a doctrine that would address some of these issues.

The wanton violence among some units as well as the dismal state of the war prompted Petraeus (himself a student of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency tactics) and others to devise a program to coordinate counterinsurgency efforts. In February 2006, Petraeus hosted a workshop, co-sponsored by Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to revise the U.S. Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. During those meetings, Nagl and other experts laid out the strategy for an intellectually challenging kind of warfare in which civilian and military activities are integrated, allowing soldiers and Marines to cooperate with humanitarian workers in an effort to win over the local population. It's a strategy that employs anthropological tools such as graphs that map social networks in local communities. The field manual represents a dramatic shift in the way the U.S. sees its military and its role in the Middle East and other places around the globe.

"The Army could have issued a document that says ?What to do in Iraq -- now,'" says Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They didn't do that. What the field manual prescribes is to make a vast political and economic effort to change Iraq, and the implication is ?This is what we should be doing around the world.'"

Perhaps the biggest post-Vietnam test of counterinsurgency doctrine has been the deployment of approximately 20,000 additional troops to Iraq in 2007 -- the effort known as "the surge." A precipitous drop in violence followed, and proponents of the surge were quick to claim that it had worked. But the reality is much messier and more complex. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward says the reduction in violence is due to a program known as High-Value Targeting, or the capture or killing of insurgent leaders, as well as the number of troops. Nearly everyone gives credit to the Anbar Awakening (the U.S. is paying approximately 100,000 individuals known as the Sons of Iraq about $300 a month to keep the peace, and Sunni tribal sheikhs make millions more through U.S. contracts) and to a pullback by the militia led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. These disparate elements, some coordinated by the military and some coincidental, have come together and tamped down the bloodshed.

While these various factors are still the subject of some debate among foreign-policy experts, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the situation in Iraq has improved largely because of the new approach. In many ways, it does not even matter whether or not this is true. Counterinsurgency, as promulgated by Nagl and other military scholars, has become the accepted answer to what had seemed to be an intractable problem, and in a short period of time, the doctrine has become such a powerful force that it is cast in near-biblical terms. As David Kilcullen, a friend of Nagl's and a special adviser for counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, recently explained during a panel discussion at the National Press Club, there is "B.C. -- before COIN" and "A.D. -- After Dave" (as in Petraeus). According to Nagl and other supporters, the reduced violence in Iraq is a sure sign that counterinsurgency can work. A new president should be able to take the lessons learned in Iraq and, after adapting them slightly, apply them to Afghanistan, then Pakistan, the Philippines, Colombia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Critics such as Col. Gian Gentile, an associate professor of history at West Point and an Iraq veteran, argue that counterinsurgency tactics not only divert resources from other types of military training but also alienate civilian populations on a massive scale. "We could lose our edge in our ability to conduct other kinds of operations," warns Gentile. If China does something dramatic, the U.S. may be in trouble with its troops and resources bogged down in counterinsurgency efforts.

The new president could stop the buildup of troops in Afghanistan -- an effort that could be called a "pre-surge" -- and redirect the resources of the military toward more conventional warfare. But that seems unlikely. Many high-ranking military advisers are true believers in the doctrine. Skeptics like Gentile are in the minority. "It's not like I'm a dweeb who has to sit off by himself," he says, but he acknowledges that "the intellectual climate of the Army is pretty much stuck in counterinsurgency."


John Nagl does not like the word "colonialism," at least when it comes up during discussions about counterinsurgency. "It is such a bad word," he says, explaining that the U.S. has an important role to play in the world. "Madeline Albright got in a lot of trouble for the phrase ?The United States is the indispensable nation.' But to a large extent that's true."

Many people say Iraq is a lesson: This kind of thing will not -- should not -- happen again. But Americans have sworn off intervention before, most recently after the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia, and since then the U.S. has been involved in a new conflict (Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan) roughly every two years. It's a pretty safe bet that the strategy Nagl promotes, whether it is called neocolonialism or counterinsurgency, will be applied in various regions over the next several years, with the incoming president's oversight.

Counterinsurgency is known as a thinking man's war, and it has attracted some of the country's best and brightest. In many ways, the doctrine comes across as refreshingly law-abiding, a product of a post-Abu Ghraib era. The field manual, as Nagl and other supporters point out, has a chapter on morals and values. Counterinsurgency is big on hearts and minds. In the wake of the Iraq War, no wonder it has been embraced.

The doctrine is so appealing and intellectually fascinating that it has its own subculture in Washington. There are rock stars (Nagl and Kilcullen, who were celebrated on a now-defunct military gossip blog for their personalities as much as the doctrine they espouse); a celebrity couple (Kilcullen and Janine Davidson, author of the forthcoming book The Fog of Peace); a guru (Petraeus); a cult-classic film (Battle of Algiers); and a magazine (Small Wars Journal). Many in the counterinsurgency movement are, like Nagl, too young to have fought in Vietnam. They see counterinsurgency as a doctrine that has been unfairly vilified.

Among all of these major players, Nagl stands out. His detractors call him a show-off. But most everyone, including Nagl's skeptics, agrees that he has played a key role in establishing counterinsurgency as a dominant military strategy. "It took a lot chutzpah and a lot of intellect to do what he did," says Lt. Col. Conrad C. Crane, a retired Army officer and the chief author of the counterinsurgency field manual. "He's an important force in the intellectual ferment that produced this."

One of the most enduring legacies of the doctrine may be its scope: It is an all-encompassing effort that requires various parts of government, and it extends beyond the traditional role of the armed forces. Counterinsurgency, as Nagl explains, is "80 percent political, 20 percent military." (He is quoting David Galula, "the Clausewitz of counterinsurgency," a French army officer who wrote about Algeria.) What happens on the battlefield may matter less than how this joint military-civilian project unfolds in Washington.

The new president, Nagl says, will have to work to achieve a balance among the State, Treasury, and Agriculture departments and other agencies that are needed in this effort. State Department employees, for example, have been asked to join provincial reconstruction teams that provide medical, engineering, and other assistance for rebuilding Iraq. The president will also be dealing with a military that has, for better or worse, become counterinsurgency-centric. Three of the most prominent officers who support the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq were promoted to brigadier general in July. Not to mention Petraeus, who was recently named head of Central Command, which oversees all military operations in Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. The president will have to figure out how to implement the new doctrine, or else incur the wrath of some powerful military men who have invested their lives in it.

When asked about the cost of the new counterinsurgency model, Nagl shrugs. "Losing wars is really expensive, and sons of bitches flying airplanes into our buildings is really fucking expensive," he says. "So let's not do that anymore."

Administration of the counterinsurgency doctrine could be modeled on the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS, a program that coordinated military and civil affairs in the late 1960s in an effort to defeat the insurgency in Vietnam. Nagl talks about creating a new position, senior director for counterinsurgency, on the National Security Council in order to oversee the effort. A tough job, he admits. "You need somebody really persuasive." It is not hard to figure out who he might have in mind.


Outside a trailer at the Marine Corps' Center for Irregular Warfare in Quantico, Virginia, a thermometer shows 101 degrees. The place looks hastily thrown together, and it smells of wood from railings secured along a walkway outside the trailer. This training center is part of an ambitious campaign to teach counterinsurgency tactics to a new generation of soldiers and Marines. On other training grounds across the country, the military has built mock Iraqi villages, complete with "real Iraqis," as one Marine tells me, hired by private contractors. Soldiers in the dusty hills of Yakima, Washington, and in the swamps of Louisiana are being trained in the doctrine. And counterinsurgency academies have been established in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through these efforts, the military is approaching counterinsurgency in a systematic way. Troops are studying manuals on cultural awareness and learning the basics of Islam. They are also learning how to fight in a civilian environment.

On a September morning, three Marines are sitting around a table in a conference room at the Center for Irregular Warfare. The chairs rumble when an MH-60 helicopter flies over the building. The three men, Col. Daniel Kelly, Col. Nick Marano, and Lt. Col. Tommy Scott, are all working on programs to train Marines in irregular warfare. Kelly, a barrel-chested man in desert boots, and Marano, who has dark hair and bushy eyebrows, have both served in Iraq and do not seem like bookish types. Yet over mugs of coffee, they argue passionately about the differences between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, as defined by military doctrine. "Counterinsurgency is more holistic," says one. "Counterterrorism involves broader reach of power," explains another. The Marines are engaged, openly and passionately, in a discussion set in an empirically based field of study. Yet somehow they remind me of the guys in Reservoir Dogs -- jewelry thieves who join in a textual analysis of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" while sitting in a diner.

Nothing against the Marines at the Center for Irregular Warfare -- all three seem smart, friendly, and law-abiding -- but their conversation illustrates how the science of counterinsurgency can seem absurd. The difference between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, for example, may be more political than semantic. Counterterrorism is "the long war," as the global war on terrorism is now called, and counterinsurgency is part of this effort. But semantics do matter. When Marines break down the door of a house in Baghdad, they could find an insurgent or a terrorist, depending on what they choose to call the captured suspect. That designation has serious implications. As one human-rights advocate explains, U.S. officials call people terrorists when they want to make them sound really bad -- or send them to Guantánamo.

Like counterterrorism, counterinsurgency may also involve dirty tactics. In Reservoir Dogs, the guys at the diner are in a shady business. If you are involved in counterinsurgency, chances are you, too, will encounter barbarism. Americans have been tortured, mutilated, even crucified, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nagl tells me that he believes journalists should carry a gun in certain parts of Iraq -- to use on themselves if they are captured. Some argue that the behavior of America's enemies, whether they're called terrorists or insurgents, has been so savage that the U.S. must also engage in unconventional tactics. As Vice President Dick Cheney famously explained, Americans must go to "the dark side." In counterinsurgency, things are done in shadows. This is part and parcel of the doctrine, and the new president will have to figure out where to draw the line.

In Vietnam, "the dark side" of counterinsurgency was a clandestine project known as Operation Phoenix. It involved getting rid of Viet Cong leaders "by any means necessary," as Nagl writes in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. Through Operation Phoenix, which was part of the CORDS program, 20,587 Vietnamese were killed. Nagl admits that Operation Phoenix incurred "human-rights violations." Not to mention "a huge amount of controversy" says Carter Malkasian, director of the Stability and Development Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, a military think tank, and co-editor of Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare.

"There are some drawbacks," says the 33-year-old Malkasian, "but it's considered to be worthwhile." And that is why the underlying ideas of Operation Phoenix have worked their way back into the U.S. military. The Iraq-era version of this is known as High-Value Targeting. It involves house raids, sometimes called "snatch missions," which used to be carried out by Special Forces only. Now just about all troops conduct them. U.S. and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan have increased, and so have civilian deaths, which tripled between 2006 and 2007, according to Human Rights Watch.

"If you kill a very large number of civilians, you'll cow a population," Malkasian says. "But it's the wrong thing to do." On the phone, his voice is measured, as if he were conducting a cost-benefit analysis. You get the feeling that Malkasian, like many of the people who are involved in counterinsurgency campaigns, is open to all sorts of possibilities.

And, yes, it is possible for counterinsurgency to succeed, says Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It depends on how much "blood and treasure" you put into it. Few people know as much about irregular warfare as Luttwak does -- and he is not impressed by what he has seen in the Middle East. Luttwak, 65, who is the author of Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook, says U.S. troops should pull out of Afghanistan. "What the fuck are we doing there?" he asks. "Much better to abandon it and do occasional punitive expeditions as opposed to counterinsurgency and its enormous costs. I've been to Afghanistan. Basically, you'd have to kill every single Afghan and take all the children and put them in boarding school, preferably in England."

Luttwak has come to the conclusion that the U.S. doctrine of counterinsurgency is doomed, largely because nearly all counterinsurgency campaigns end in disaster. Other critics say the current policy is less about making the world safe for democracy than it is about making the world safe for U.S. economic and political interests. The specter of Vietnam -- with all its disappointments, bloodshed, and suffering -- looms.

Finishing up his coffee, Nagl tells me that he is an admirer of British novelist Graham Greene. "He does a wonderful job of showing that motivations are not simple and that the best of intentions go awry," he says. "In The Quiet American, he delves into America's guilt and shows how, with the best of intentions, it was responsible for profoundly screwing up in Vietnam. There are obviously parallels with our actions both in Iraq and Afghanistan."

But, Nagl says, he believes that today Americans can do things better. And that, more or less, is where the conversation ends.