Thursday, August 23, 2007

Counterinsurgency on The Daily Show

Tonight's Daily Show with Jon Stewart — the last new show for two weeks! — featured a soldier who helped draft a new counterinsurgency manual for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. As he notes in the interview, the manual was needed for some time before it was written, but it appears to have been written with a sense of long-term perspective that has been so woefully lacking from our military, and especially from our civilian, leaders. There were people, including within the military and the State Department, who foresaw that the Bush Administration's policies, most especially disbanding the police and the army, were a recipe for an instant insurgency, "just add water sand!" Jon Stewart's interview with Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, U.S. Army, appears below the fold, with both a video link and a transcript. Update: link added to PDF of the manual itself.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, original airdate 2007-08-23, ©2007 Comedy Central.
Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, he was a military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and currently commands the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor, at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was also on the writing team for The Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Please welcome to the program Lt. Col. John Nagl. [see also]

Welcome to the show, and thank you so much for joining us.

LtCol John Nagl, US Army: Good to be here.

Stewart: You were involved in the writing of — I guess this is The Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and this is the manual that yourself and other people — General Petraeus also put together?

Nagl: Gen. Petraeus was the lead, sort of the guiding force behind it, along with Lt. Gen. Jim Maddis of the United States Marine Corps, who was my boss in al-Anbar in 2004; they call him "Mad Dog," a fighting general, but also a thinking general. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Maddis came together, the Army and Marine Corps, with a team of writers, produced the strategy, really, that Gen. Petraeus is implementing in Iraq now.

Stewart: When was this written?

Nagl: We started in December 2005 and published it in 2006 — published it about six months ago, December 2006.

Stewart: Incredibly fast. That's quick.

Nagl: Very fast for an Army field manual; the process usually takes a couple of years. Not fast enough. We're fighting a very adaptive enemy who's learning, in a war that's evolving, and we have to out-think this enemy; we can't just outfight 'em.

Stewart: Was there another counterinsurgency manual that was no longer operative, or was there not one?

Nagl: We last had a counter-guerrilla manual in 1987, but as an army, we really avoided counterinsurgency in the wake of Vietnam because we didn't want to fight that kind of war again. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, and our very conventional superiority in war-fighting is driving our enemies to fight us as insurgents and as guerrillas, rather than in the kind of war we're most prepared to fight, which is conventional tank-on-tank kind of fighting.

Stewart: This must be invaluable to the guys in the field, but it also must be coming at them from a different perspective, in that it changes the rules of the game. They're basically being turned from a fighting force into almost a municipal force.

Nagl: You still have to be able to do the fighting. A friend of mine, when he found out I was writing this, Special Forces officer, wrote to me from Iraq, and said, "Remember, Nagl: counterinsurgency is not just thinking man's warfare, it's the graduate level of war," because you have to be able to do the war-fighting stuff — and when I was in al-Anbar, I called in artillery strikes and air strikes, and did the war-fighting stuff — but I also spent a lot of time meeting with local political leaders, establishing a local government, working on economic development — so, you really have to span the whole spectrum of human behavior. We had cultural anthropologists help us with the book, economists, information operations specialists — so, there's a — it's a very difficult kind of war, it's a thinking person's war, and it's a kind of war we're learning and adapting and getting better at fighting during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stewart: How difficult is it for the guys in the field to have rules of engagement change? Because you make the point in the book, there's two ways of fighting an insurgency. There's the "destroy the village to save the village," and then there's the "protect at all costs the civilians," and that's the method you guys have taken here, to some criticism, I guess, within the military community or elsewhere. But, how do you make that decision, and then, for the guys — because that does change their rules of engagement, and I imagine when you're working in a town where you don't know the language, you don't know the customs, a guy that's waving at you as you drive by this way is shooting a mortar at you as you come back this way — you know, you might not want to think, Well, OK, I should ring his bell and find out why he's mad at me. That must be hard for those guys to adjust.

Nagl: If I could sum up the book in just a few words, it would be: "Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill." So, one of the — [audience groans]

Stewart: Yeah, I mean, no, it's — listen —

Nagl: It's a war book —

Stewart: You're absolutely right.

Nagl: It's a good rule for here, too.

Stewart: But it is — Yes, even on the subway. It is — I mean, that is the summation of how difficult it is for these guys on the ground, which is: Get their trust, but know that you may have to also do what an army has to do. Who gives the order to create this type of document? Does it come from the civilian leadership, or does it come from the military leadership?

Nagl: This was a military-originated project. The Army recognized that it wasn't current in this kind of war, that it needed to think through how to fight and win these kind of wars, and Gen. Petraeus — really, a remarkable man, PhD from Princeton, as well as a great war-fighter — assembled this team. [It] took a lot of courage, he had Human Rights Watch help draft an Army counterinsurgency manual, the Carr Center for Human Rights [Policy] at Harvard University helped us think through how to fight this kind of war, because we absolutely want to kill or capture our enemy, every chance we get. Absolutely. But when we kill or capture the wrong people, we can create more insurgents, and that's just pushin' the rock further up the hill, which you don't want to do. So you're tryin' to find that balance, and balance the right amount of force, the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish the military objectives.

Stewart: Obviously, you know, it's not appropriate to get into political questions, but —

Nagl: Do you do that? Do you talk about that on this show?

Stewart: I do talk about it occasionally. But it seems that everything we've heard from the administration runs slightly counter, that there's a certain sense that the civilian leadership is, you know, "We gotta double Guantánamo, we gotta be much tougher," or they weren't really expecting an insurgency, so they didn't plan for that type of thing. Has that put additional stress on the guys? Are there mixed messages coming to them?

Nagl: They are, umm — [long pause]

Stewart: By the way, tell me if that's inappropriate to even ask.

Nagl: No, no, not at all. The soldiers in the field, I think, are getting a very clear message from their military leaders, from Gen. Petraeus, from Gen. Maddis, from the commanders in the field, which is: Use the minimum amount of force necessary, accomplish the objectives, always being cognizant of the fact that the person you're fighting with today (as with the Sunni tribes I was fighing in al-Anbar in 2004) may turn out to be your allies, several years later. And I like to think that some of the reasons for what's called the Sunni Awakening in al-Anbar is because of the way we treated some of the Sunni tribes — some of whose members were fighting us —

Stewart: You're finding that the Sunnis are now going after some of the al Qaeda —

Nagl: The Sunnis are now going after al Qaeda, in part because of the professional way we tried to treat them.

Stewart: How much of that insurgency is al Qaeda, how much Sunni, how much — is it —

Nagl: It's classified, Jon. I could tell you, but —

Stewart: No, no, no. You gotta tell me.

Nagl: No, no. I've gotta tell you?

Stewart: Yeah.

Nagl: Umm, 7.3 percent.

Stewart: Are you kidding?

Nagl: Yes.

Stewart: You know, you really don't expect a sense of humor coming out of you, I gotta say, and when you get it, it's very effective. Well, it's fascinating, it's incredibly complicated and complete, and I admire the fact that what you guys do is the best you can to take care of your people in the field, and that's Job One, and that appears to be unanimous within the ranks, and I think unanimous within the country, as well, and it's a pleasure to have you on the show.

Nagl: It's an honor to be here, Jon.

Stewart: Thank you, sir. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is on the bookshelves, as well; Lt. Col. John Nagl.
If this manual is half as good as it sounds, I'm certainly glad that the military has it and is using it, but I can't help thinking how many Iraqi and American lives could have been saved if we had had a sensible approach to the early days of the insurgency, or better yet, if we had given some serious thought to preventing the insurgency. I'm still digesting No End in Sight, but one unmistakable point stands out from all the accounts of the early days of the occupation of Iraq: Bush and Rumsfeld and the neocons in Washington decided — against the better judgment of both military and diplomatic experts on the ground in Baghdad — to completely disband the Iraqi police and military. We didn't send enough troops to take on everyday police functions for Baghdad, much less for the whole country. We cut loose tens of thousands of trained soldiers and policemen with no jobs, no money, no hope, but lots and lots and lots of weapons — and were surprised when those people formed the core of an insurgency! We made it clear that we cared about the oil ministry building, but not about the citizens of Iraq, nor about their homes, their livelihoods, or their priceless and irreplaceable cultural heritage.

I am still concerned, though, that this new approach to counterinsurgency comes far too late. Rumsfeld, Bush, et al., created the insurgency, recruited for it, nurtured it, assured it of access to enormous stockpiles of small arms and explosives, and did a lot to alienate the people of Iraq along the way. We tore down the existing structure of government, when the obvious choice was to carefully prune the hardcore Ba'athist elements while leaving most of the institutional framework intact. Now we are faced with the task of quelling the insurgency we fostered, with too little support from Iraqi institutions that have not yet been rebuilt, and with an Iraqi government that has — so far, at least — been unable to coalesce the factions into a unified nation-state capable of providing for its people and defending its streets. Even with a much clearer picture of the path forward, the effort will fail unless the Iraqis can make dramatic political progress in the very near future, because the American people will not make an open-ended commitment to Iraq. The Iraqi government — or its successor, if this government fails — must make major strides towards ending its reliance on American military force. The United States will withdraw from Iraq, and we will begin that withdrawal soon. The question is whether the Iraqi and American leaders will take steps to contain the chaos, or whether they will close their eyes and try to simply wish it away.

Update: The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is available for download as a 14 MB PDF file. Thanks to Isaac for the tip.

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