Nagl: Beating Insurgents Takes Unconventional War Lt. Col. John Nagl, an expert on counter-insurgency, is retiring from the Army and moving to Washington, D.C., to work for a new think tank. He says winning a war against an insurgency is possible — but it takes an unconventional war strategy.
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Nagl: Beating Insurgents Takes Unconventional War

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Nagl: Beating Insurgents Takes Unconventional War

Nagl: Beating Insurgents Takes Unconventional War

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

One year ago this week, the U.S. launched the surge in Iraq. The goal was to crack down on a growing insurgency and to create enough breathing space for Iraq's fledging government to advance. There's much debate over that surge has worked, and what lessons the U.S. military should take form the experience.

John Nagl has spent a lot of time thinking about the U.S. should deal with insurgence. Nagl is an Army lieutenant colonel and an expert on counterinsurgency. He's now retiring from the Army and moving to Washington, D.C. to work with a think tank called the Center for a New American Security. He spent time in Iraq in Anbar province. And back home, he's been training soldiers to teach and support Afghan and Iraqi forces. Nagl says winning a war against an insurgency is possible, but it takes an unconventional war strategy.

JOHN NAGL: The key to success is protecting the population. You cannot kill or capture your way to victory in a counterinsurgency campaign, whatever underlying social concerns led to an insurgency developing will reemerge unless you find a way to solve those base problems.

So you conduct some combat operations against identified insurgents certainly, but you also train and develop host nation security forces, which is what I'm doing now here are Fort Riley. You establishment a government that can meet the needs of all the people. You provide essential services to the population, and you do that all wrapped up in a tight information operations campaign that tries win the support of the people and show that, ultimately, your side is going to win and your side has the best interest of the population at heart.

NORRIS: People will be studying these words for years to come in trying to figure out the lessons. But from your vantage point right now as you prepare to retire, move back to D.C., work for a think tank, what do you take with you? What are the key lessons for you in this conflict?

NAGL: The United States unfortunately did not remember the lessons that were learned in Vietnam. It turned away from insurgency. We decided that we weren't going to fight counterinsurgency campaigns anymore. But unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, and our very conventional military superiority has driven our enemies both in Iraq and in Afghanistan to fight as insurgents.

I think, perhaps, the primary lesson of those two wars is that this is the way our enemies are going to fight us for the foreseeable future. Until we demonstrate that we're just as good at counterinsurgency as we are at conventional warfare, our enemies are going to go where we're comparatively weak.

NORRIS: You know, as you're talking about the U.S. now confronting counterinsurgencies from this point forward, that this becomes sort of a standard pro - standard combat protocol instead of unconventional combat, what is the U.S. need to brace itself for? Because we're talking about wars that are long and protracted and drawn out and very, very difficult - a very, very difficult kind of engagement.

NAGL: You know, that's exactly right, Michele. The average counterinsurgency campaign takes about a decade. So these are long, hard, slow wars. They require sustained popular support, and they need a real appreciation from the American people of - first of the chances for success. Historically, only about 4o percent of insurgencies have been successful. About 60 percent of the time, insurgencies fail, counterinsurgence win. So it is not impossible to win this kind of war, but it does take sustained public support and public opinion.

NORRIS: I heard you say that a typical battle against an insurgency is usually drawn out over a decade. What does that mean for our current involvement in Iraq?

NAGL: Well, we're about six years into a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, we're about five years in in Iraq. So history suggests that we're approaching the halfway point in both campaigns.

NORRIS: Now, I got to stop you there because you're talking about a halfway point. And listening to what the candidates are talking about in the campaign, at least on one side, they're talking about pulling people home immediately or within the next year. There are proposals to reduce the number of forces we have committed to the campaign in Iraq, and conceivably to send more forces to the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

And people advocating those modes include - in my understanding - the Joint Staff and Secretary Gates has publicly said that - the secretary of defense has publicly said that he would like to reduce the number of forces in Iraq below the number that's currently planned after the surge will be down to 15 brigades, about 130,000 troops. And many people in the administration would like to pull that down to about 100,000 if the situation on the ground allows. And I'm hopeful that it will. As, again, as we continue to implement a more effective counterinsurgency campaign.

NORRIS: You know what, what I was asking - if I can interrupt, sir, and I'm sorry doing it...

NAGL: Sure. No.

NORRIS: ...but when you talk about being halfway through what could be a ten-year battle against the insurgency, when we hear candidates here in the U.S. talk about a very quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq, is that realistic based on the lessons that you're talking about? And...

NAGL: Some candidates are speaking about more rapid withdrawal than others. All agree, I think, that we need to reduce our commitment of forces to Iraq partly to provide more forces to serve in Afghanistan, partly to reduce the strain on the force. And certainly, the Army is feeling the strain of its deployment in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Iraq as are the Marines.

But I think anyone who understands the history of counterinsurgency campaigns and who understands where we are in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan - particularly in Iraq -understands that we have some momentum there that we are slowly building a government that can stand on its own, that can provide security for the people of Iraq and can be ultimately, hopefully, a security provider rather than a net importer of security.

And the second and third order of facts of two precipitate in American withdrawal of forces from Iraq would be catastrophic in my eyes. So any withdrawal of troops I think has to be based on conditions on the ground. And I see an ability to do that with an increasing focus on advisory efforts, which is traditionally how counterinsurgency campaigns are won. Counterinsurgencies campaigns are won by local forces, enabled by advisers - embedded advisers. And I think that's the direction we're going to go over the next several years. A still substantial tens of thousands, possibly, for several more years, number of advisers, but the frontlines of fighting will be done by the Iraqis.

NORRIS: Why did you decide to retire at this time?

NAGL: Mm-hmm. Absolutely the hardest decision I've ever made, Michele. I love being an Army officer. But the hardest job in the Army isn't being a soldier; it's being married to one. And for the past 16 years, my wife who's a student of our history and language and literature, and she's been following me around. And, really, we put her life on hold.

And I'm at a point in my life now where I can give her some of the things that she's wanted and give my family some of the things that I feel they deserve. I'm coming to terms with that. I'm staring to feel pretty good about it. And I'm starting to think about what I'm going to do when I have to chose what clothes I'm going to put on every morning.

NORRIS: Well, all the best to you and your family. And good luck in this next chapter of your career.

NAGL: Well, Michele, thanks very much. It's a pleasure talking with you again.

NORRIS: Lt. Col. John Nagl is retiring from the Army to work at the Center for a New American Security.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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