Book Launch – Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice by Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.)

By Matthew Mullarky

On Thursday, January 8th, the Center for Security Studies hosted retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl at a luncheon where he discussed his newest book, Knife Fights: Modern War in Theory and Practice. Lt. Col Nagl served in both the Persian Gulf War and in the Iraq War. His experience in the field and extensive research on counterinsurgency warfare led to his co-authoring the United States’ Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual under General Petraeus in 2006.

Throughout the event, Lt. Col Nagl spoke about his experience and difficulties in implementing counterinsurgency warfare doctrine and, more broadly, about the importance of having an adaptable military.

Nagl opened his remarks by sharing how the Persian Gulf War convinced him that the United States would increasingly find itself fighting in unconventional wars and in counterinsurgency operations. “The US Military spent the next decade after desert storm working to get even better at something it was already the best in the world at. That is fighting mirror image conventional armies in combat. Tank on Tank; plane on plane combat…The US military is so clearly the best in the world at conventional combat, that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Desert Storm nobody is ever going to fight us that way again.” For Nagl, Operation Desert Storm showed that it was insensible for other states to engage in conventional wars with the United States. A smart enemy would instead take an asymmetric approach. This would require a new response from the United States, separate from its conventional warfare capabilities.

This led Nagl to explore a history of counter-insurgency operations while working on his dissertation in the nineties. His research on the British experience in Malaya and America’s in Vietnam attracted little attention at first. He recalled that one publisher asked “why are you studying a topic that has so little contemporary relevance?”

The growth of insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan soon showed the importance of conducting proper counter-insurgency operations and the publication of the counterinsurgency manual and leadership under Petraeus seemed to signal that the United States military had adapted to the threat. The manual was “downloaded a million and half times in the next month, translated and critiqued on jihadi websites, copies found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan.” However, challenges remained. “So we knew our enemies were reading it, we just had to get our guys to do that.”

While the United States military began to recognize the value of a counterinsurgency strategy, Nagl said there were some instances where the services were slow to adapt. He provided the specific example of the Marines’ initial opposition to purchasing Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which offer increased protected to IEDs, becuase they worked poorly with amphibious operations. For Nagl, the delayed purchase of MRAPs was just one of many instances where traditional thinking undermined efforts to adapt to counterinsurgency operations.

Nagl also spoke of the political role in counterinsurgency warfare. Nagl specifically credited the 2006 midterm elections for causing the Bush administration to reevaluate its strategy for pacifying Iraq. The surge and extended tours that followed the reformed strategy nearly broke the all-volunteer army, but he noted that “violence dropped by three quarters over the time, eighteen months, that Petraeus was in command…and Iraq was well on its way to becoming a reasonable facsimile of a democracy and a country that had a foreign policy that was, broadly speaking, aligned with the interests of the United States.” Similarly, he stated that the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 resulted in the United States losing leverage over the al-Maliki government and worked to undermine some of the previous gains.

Following the lecture, some members of the audience asked for Nagl’s view on the future of counter-insurgency in the United States’ military doctrine. “I see no reason to believe that counter-insurgency is going to go away or that conventional combat is going to replace it.” While he did say that the United States should maintain its high end capabilities as an effective deterrent against conventional threats, he also thought that hybrid war, “some blurring of the lines between conventional war, insurgency, terrorism, and information warfare” is what we are likely to see in the future. Expressing the necessity for the military to stay doctrinally nimble in the full range of conflicts he further argued that “armies need the ability to adapt and learn. And in particular they need the ability to adapt and learn how to conduct irregular warfare to defeat insurgencies and terrorists.” This is especially true for counterinsurgency operations, since time and casualties are the ways that conventional powers are defeated in these conflicts.

Lt. Col Nagl closed the lecture by pulling back and looking at the bigger picture. The United States could be forgiven for discarding counterinsurgency doctrine after the Vietnam War, he reasoned, because it needed to concentrate its resources for a possible larger and much more important war with the Soviet Union. However, with the Soviet Union gone and the United States lacking a comparable conventional rival, Nagle stated it would be a great mistake to discard the lessons and knowledge gained from counterinsurgency warfare now. There is no bigger battle over the horizon. He tempered his claim that unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations were the future for the United States military with a phrase familiar to Security Studies students. Counterinsurgency is often a slow and expensive process and “we should avoid it whenever we can while retaining the capability and the knowledge.” Even with these drawbacks in mind, it is sometimes the “least bad option.”

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