Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

John Nagl, Industrial Scale Counterinsurgent

Thesis: John Nagl, THE American counterinsurgent, knows that counterinsurgency won’t work in Afghanistan, and I’ll prove it to you.

John Nagl knows that counterinsurgency won’t work in Afghanistan.  I know this because I read Chapter 2 of his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.  Nagl is aware of the geographical issues I laid out last week, because he wrote about them.  On page 16, Nagl approvingly quotes someone named A.H. Sollom:

…swamps, mountains and forests where mobility is limited to movements on foot and in light vehicles.  The fact that the partisan operates in such terrain will be to his advantage for in an environment of this nature the regular forces lose the use of their vehicles and artillery as well as the ability to mass superior numbers.  In essence, the terrain reduces the better equipped, better trained, and better armed regular forces to a level where the partisan is equal.

Later in the chapter, on page 25, Nagl writes, “Similarly, nations composed of a large number of small, autonomous villages are hard to conquer, as each individual village will fight on individually after the defeat of the national army and will have to be individually subdued.”

I’m assuming Nagl owns a contour map of Afghanistan, or can utilize google to find one.  From those two statements we can conclude that Afghan “partisans” will be “equal” to American soldiers because of their terrain advantage and each of the more than 30,700 villages in Afghanistan might have to individually subdued. (This UN report is the source of the 30,700 number, page 11.  It sounds high to me, but that’s the number.)   Again, based on those two facts, and without knowing anything else, I’d say counterinsurgency is a bad bet.

Nagl recognizes that factors outside of the control of the counterinsurgent, like say geography, impact the counterinsurgency campaign.  I know this because he wrote it.   Page 29: “…the achievement of national objectives depends to a great extent on factors outside the control of the army conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, including geography, strength of the local government and of the insurgents, and degree of popular support for the campaign in the nation supporting the beleaguered  government.”

(Tell me why we’re doing this again?)

There’s another contradiction in Nagl, and he knows this one too.  Nagl advises using what he calls the indirect approach to counterinsurgency.  Under the indirect approach, the counterinsurgent “attack[s] the support of the people for the insurgents.”  This is in contrast to the direct method which theoretically could consist of “…killing all of the natives down to and including domestic animals as advocated by William Rufus.”

The preference towards the indirect method seems reasonable to me.  The idea of killing every Afghan and their domestic animals is repulsive.  But then try to square Nagl’s preference with this statement from Nagl on Frontline describing Joint Special Operations Command’s kill/capture campaign in Afghanistan,

We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this extraordinary machine, an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.

An “industrial scale killing machine” you say?  William Rufus approves!

You might object to my utilization of that quote because it looks taken out of context.  Well, it is, but the context around it strengthens my position.  The Kill/Capture Frontline episode is almost exclusively focused on the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.  The context around the quote is Afghanistan.

I’ll deal with what I consider the most obvious problem with that statement last.  But first, by spring 2011, when the Frontline ran, there was plenty of evidence that the Kill/Capture campaign was not only pissing off the Afghan population, but it was also counterproductive to the overall campaign because it is “inadvertently creating opportunities for al-Qaeda to achieve its objectives and preventing the achievement of core goals of the United States…”  We might just be killing our way into a bigger problem.  But don’t let contradictory evidence get in the way of a good idea, Dr. Nagl.

When I watched the program when it aired in May, the “industrial scale killing” statement from Nagl struck me.  Here we have a senior level advisor to the Pentagon–THE American counterinsurgent–bragging about killing people on an industrial scale.  It is as if Nagl’s excited about the efficiency America has achieved in killing people–like Kill/Capture is the Henry Ford of killing efficiency.  There’s not a lot of morality in war, and it is very easy to lose one’s moral compass during war.  But it saddens me that we have to fight war at all.  I know that certain people in the world wish to do America harm and we don’t have to mourn the deaths of these people.  But we also don’t need to stand over their bodies and celebrate–we don’t have to cheer violence and killing.   And we most certainly don’t need to congratulate ourselves on achieving industrial scale efficiency in the field of killing.


Written by keithboyea

December 18, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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