Octavian Manea continues his excellent series at SWJ, interviewing the leading theorists, practitioners and critics of pop-centric COIN. This most recent interview is with Dr. John Nagl, formerly president of CNAS, author of Learning how to Eat Soup with a Knife and currently a professor at the Naval War College.
Nagl has been, it hardly need be said, one of the major proponents of pop-centric COIN and an important figure in the debate over the “Surge” in Iraq and it’s second iteration in Afghanistan:
Q: Have we basically relearned, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old lessons and principles in countering an insurgency? Are the broad historically proven principles of countering an insurgency, still valid guidelines for today?
Nagl: History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. I am currently teaching a course at the US Naval Academy on the history of modern counterinsurgency campaigns. And it is interesting to see how the same principles continue to present and reassert themselves, that the same mistakes are made early as armies adapt to the challenges of counterinsurgency and they learn the same lessons time and time again. They learn lessons like the importance of being keenly sensitive to the human terrain, of understanding its hierarchy of needs, of comprehending the culture, the ethnicity, the religion of the insurgents and of the population. Protecting the population is the key to success. It is important to get the population on your side in order that you can derive intelligence from them on who the insurgents are. It is important that you reform governance to give people hope that if they do side with the government and the counterinsurgents, their lives will be better. It is important to provide inducements to the insurgents. Very rarely are you going to kill or capture every insurgent, although you may coerce some of them away from the fighting. All of those lessons could be drawn from the headlines of the past few weeks on the fight in Afghanistan. I am increasingly convinced that the classic historically tested counterinsurgency principles broadly apply across cases and they continue to apply today, although with variations for the particular country, region, ethnicity, and grievances faced by the population.
Q:What would you respond to the many critics that point out that pop-centric COIN is just a “collection of tactics” and techniques not a strategy in itself?
Nagl: I would say that they missed the first chapter of the FM 3-24. The strategy is to strengthen the government while weakening the insurgents in order to reach an end state in which the government with minimal outside assistance can defeat internal threats to its security. There are a number of tactics required to achieve that, both the killing and capturing of insurgents, strengthening host nation security forces, and improving governance. It all adds up to diminishing the strength of the insurgency, increasing the capabilities of the government and its forces and reaching a crossover point where the host nation forces can carry on with minimal outside assistance. We are about to test this hypothesis in Afghanistan over the course of the next two years.
Read the whole interview here.
It may be that Dr. Nagl uses the word “strategy” in a different sense than I do, or perhaps in a much narrower, context.
Strengthening a third-party government could be a broad US policy expressed in a variety of ways. Or it may mean, the US military training and equipping certain host nation agencies for particular tactical skills, or leading these allies in counterinsurgency operations. By itself, “strengthening” appears to me to be better described as a form of “Ways” in the classic “Ends-Ways-Means” triad of strategy. It may or may not be the best option to take – some governments are truly their own worst enemies.
Whether it is a good idea for the US to take upon itself the task of strengthening the host nation state in the first place, is a more strategic question.