John Nagl is the kind of guy who brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wicked line in The Great Gatsby about people who succeed at such an early age that “everything afterward savors of anticlimax.” A star at West Point and a Rhodes scholar, the native Nebraskan was only 37 when he landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in January 2004. In that article, Nagl offered an inside-the-Sunni-Triangle tutorial on what he came to call “graduate-level war.” Nagl’s mantra: “We have to outthink the enemy, not just outfight him.” In an era when small but wily bands of nonuniformed insurgents could stymie America’s mighty military machine with stealthy guerrilla attacks and roadside bombs planted in the night, the U.S. had to figure out how to hunt down the bad guys and cut off their support from the local population. Nagl, after studying the British and French colonial experience, as well as America’s handling of the Vietnam War, helped to develop what has since become famous as U.S. “counterinsurgency doctrine,” or COIN. As his celebrity grew, Nagl proselytized about it everywhere, even on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
By the late 2000s, the precocious Army major had become part of a brain trust around America’s uber-general, David Petraeus, the commander who implemented the Iraq troop surge. Commissioned by Petraeus, Nagl helped to author the official counterinsurgency manual that has since reoriented American military doctrine, shifting the center of gravity from rough-and-ready conventional war fighters to cerebral specialists in irregular warfare and targeted response. After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in early 2008—even though he seemed to be on the fast track to four-star fame—Nagl took over a little-known think tank, the Center for a New American Security, and turned it into what journalist Tara McKelvey called “counterinsurgency central in Washington.”
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Brilliant and brash as ever at the advanced age of 45, Nagl delivers a sober endorsement of the military’s current COIN strategy in Afghanistan, which, because it was adapted from Iraq, is partly his brainchild. It is a strategy that many experts believe is not working—and the skeptics may now include President Obama himself. “I think any sane person would be disillusioned,” Nagl says over a lunch of mussels and mozzarella salad at Finemondo, a lushly decorated restaurant around the corner from his office. Even some of those around Petraeus (who is retiring from the military to run the CIA) are losing heart. But Nagl says that the Janus-faced core of COIN strategy—winning over the Afghan population with kindness, aid, and a multibillion-dollar policy to “clear, hold, and build” towns and villages while ruthlessly killing off insurgents—is just starting to succeed. He laments that the debate in Washington is dominated by critics who complain that the war is almost 10 years long and already more hopeless than Vietnam.
What they don’t fully appreciate, according to Nagl, is that Washington, distracted by Iraq, had mostly neglected Afghanistan until two years ago. “We took a little eight-year goddamn vacation.” Grabbing a piece of paper, Nagl quickly sketches a map that shows how solvable the problem in Afghanistan is as long as COIN is applied. The mostly non-Pashtun (and therefore mostly non-Taliban) north largely takes care of itself; the strategy is working in the south under the Marines; and so the only task left is to secure the east. Meanwhile, Petraeus’s “Anaconda strategy” of attacking the Taliban and choking off its resources is sowing doubt among the insurgent leadership. “I think we’re on the verge of breaking the insurgency,” Nagl says. “It’s exactly the wrong time to change horses.”
Yet a surprising number of military experts seem sure that COIN is failing; that it is not even a real strategy; and that guys like John Nagl, who are perhaps a little too smart for their own good, have been snowing us all along. The newly vocal doubters include some of those who helped develop counterinsurgency in the first place. They run the spectrum from those who think COIN is pretty much a crock to those who still believe in the idea but doubt Washington’s ability to implement it. Among the latter is Lt. Gen. John Campbell, who just handed off command of Afghanistan Regional Command East, the most recalcitrant part of the country but the one Nagl has hopes for. Campbell notes that COIN typically takes a decade or more to work. “I think it’s the way to go, but I don’t think we have time,” he told National Journal in a June 14 interview. “If we don’t show progress, we’re not going to have the money.”
Already, Washington is losing patience. On Wednesday, Obama announced a faster-than-expected drawdown, saying he would bring home the entire 33,000-troop surge by the fall of 2012 and end the war by 2014. “It is time to focus on nation-building at home,” Obama said. As the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way and the political debate centers on the debt ceiling and the deficit, the mounting cost of the war has eclipsed the casualty rate as Topic A. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed “a great deal” to the nation’s debt—more than, say, increased domestic spending or the tax cuts enacted over the past decade. The public is clearly growing disenchanted with COIN’s expense and incremental progress. Even traditionally hawkish Republicans, particularly in the House, have begun to balk. “The budget math has caught up to the theory,” says retired Gen. David Barno, who once commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan but now works for Nagl. Counterinsurgency, the theory goes, can work only with the right balance of war-fighting to take down the bad guys and nation-building to win over the people. It seems suddenly clear that America doesn’t have the patience and cash for both.
This article appears in the June 25, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.