John Nagl: “Counterinsurgency is really hard”


Former Lt. Col. John Nagl gave a lecture at Madsen Recital Hall on Thursday night about counterinsurgency, military strategies and the future of military.

Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security and a visiting professor in the war studies department at Kings College of London. He was a tank platoon commander in the Gulf War and received a doctorate as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford University.

“To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife,” said Nagl, quoting L.E. Lawrence on counterinsurgency.

The history and fact of the British army in Malaysia and the U.S. army in the Vietnam War provided good lessons for the military, Nagl said. The two wars in the 20th century are classic cases of successful western counterinsurgency.

“We learned,” he said. “We figured out how to practice counterinsurgency effectively in Iraq. And we’re going to apply those principles in Afghanistan.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely the kind of wars the U.S. military has to fight in years to come, Nagl said. Everyone, from a soldier to a normal citizen, should know the process about what it takes to win against insurgency because it is the new trend of war. However, the U.S. military did not put enough effort in learning and researching about insurgency and how to deal with it before Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, the U.S. military did not do well at first in both wars.

“If you wear the uniform of our nation, the worst thing someone can say about you is you are unprepared,” Nagl said. “The army has not been ready to do what the nation needed to do in a whole series of operations.”

Despite the fact the army was not prepared, it still can adapt and learn, Nagl said. An effective organization learning process can minimize gap and maximize the chance of successes.

“If they have a choice,” he said. “They choose to fight us not in these conventional armies but in insurgence and with terrorists.”

The strategy that can be used on counterinsurgency is minimize the number of people who are neutral or passively or actively support the insurgence. Moreover, the military also has to help build up the local security forces that they can stand on their own and protect their people, Nagl said.

“Ultimately, you try to change people’s mind,” he said. “You try to convince them that there are better futures by backing the coalition and the government.”

Nagl expressed his admiration and hope for this generation to take the government and military in fighting against insurgency in the future.

“We’ve come a long way,” Nagl said. “But we still have a long, long way to go. And it’s going to be your generation’s task to take us the rest of the way.”

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