Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books and a PhD. He is also Executive Vice President of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a consulting and intellectual capital brokerage firm based in Reston, VA. He was commissioned in the US Army in 1976 after one year at VMI and four years at West Point.
His groundbreaking books, Breaking the Phalanx (1997) and Transformation under Fire (2003) has influenced change inside America’s ground forces. His doctoral dissertation, The Soviet-East German Military Alliance, published as a book by Cambridge University Press in 1989.
In 1991, he was awarded the bronze star with “V” device for valor under fire with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment that destroyed a full-strength Republican Guard Brigade on 26 February 1991. The Battle of the 73 Easting, the U.S. Army’s largest tank battle since World War II is the subject of his book, Warrior’s Rage. The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.
Macgregor has testified as an expert witness on national security issues before the House Armed Services and House Foreign Relations Committee. He is a frequent guest commentator on radio and television.
John Nagl's counterinsurgency failed its way to popularity before, and is now trying to make a comeback.
By Kelley Vlahos • October 31, 2014
Security & Defense Agenda / cc
Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with
your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death
you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it. –Weird Al Yankovic
In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife.
It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or
frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in
Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing
to do with eating humble pie.
In Knife Fights, Nagl
has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a
memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a
outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency
(COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan
Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book,
which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting
knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and
decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has
promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.
Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,”
uses his memoir to a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency
in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are
“unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”; b) to distance
himself—and COIN—from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for
why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and c) burnish his own
resume—which takes up much of the book—for a possible return to a
Democratic administration in 2016.
This might sound cynical, even abrasive, but consider the stakes: the
U.S. is currently engaged in another military intervention in Iraq,
against an enemy that never went away even after COIN allegedly “won”
the war there. When someone who not only promoted prolonging the
conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly sold the snake oil that
surged hundreds of thousands of troops into harms way is now attempting
to rehabilitate himself suggests a return of at least 15,000 more troops
to Iraq, is it not wise to examine the merits and timing of what Peter
Mansoor hubristically calls, “a magnificent memoir from one of the most
brilliant officers of his generation”?
Ret. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a long-time COIN critic who is singled out in Knife Fights, certainly thinks so. He tells TAC the book reads more like “a Hollywood director hoping to turn (his memoir) into a swashbuckling movie.”
“Nagl’s new book is not about research and scholarship,” he charges,
but is actually “about proliferating a myth, constructed by him and
other proponents of counterinsurgency, that COIN can work as long as
stupid armies are transformed and saved from themselves by clever COIN
doctrine and savior generals.”
COIN was supposed to create a safe space in Iraq for political
reconciliation and democratic governance to grow. That is what Nagl and
his “COINdinistas,” led by Gen. David Petraeus (who still plays the
savior role in Knife Fights), said would be the measure of success for the 2007 troop surge.
By all objective metrics, that did not happen before Petraeus declared the surge a success in front of a beaming, COIN-bedazzled audience
at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2009. In hindsight,
the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki, who would rule Iraq for the next several years with an
American-sanctioned whip hand.
This was accomplished not through so called “population centric warfare,” but through intensive capture/kill campaigns
and immense American firepower deployed against both Maliki’s Sunni
enemies and his Shia rivals in Baghdad during the surge—which Petraeus
explained in great detail at that ’09 CNAS event.
This is the kind of slight of hand that Nagl & Co. have been
playing from the start—suggesting that COIN’s successes came from
non-kinetic approaches, like special ops forces living among the people
and anthropologists air dropping in to help win hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, they paid some 90,000 Sunni fighters to side with them and
helped Maliki kill or torture the rest.
Nagl continues the Kabuki less effectively in Knife Fights, which
he prefaces by trying to say the book is “about modern wars and how
they affect the lives of young men and women.” It is actually about John
Nagl, who generally takes credit for bringing COIN to the upper
echelons of the military culture, getting top brass to embrace it, and
birthing a generation of young junior officers hooked on the juice.
Furthermore, he demands that “our politicians … approach future wars
with greater humility,” when he shows no such willingness to do so
himself. He says “the final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur
if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about
counterinsurgency over the past decade of war.”
Yet the book makes no
attempt to tell us what those lessons are. It merely makes excuses as to
why it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq,
which he calls “an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of-victory.” He
acknowledges that COIN under Petraeus was “imperfect and left behind a
deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,” but claims
it now has a “government the United States can live with.” (More on that
According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to
blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of
counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an
Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before
they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the
people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.
Interestingly, Nagl also throws Gen. Stanley McChrystal under the bus in Knife Fights, saying
Petraeus “had done a good job of underpromising and overdelivering in
Iraq, but McChrystal took the opposite approach” in Afghanistan. That is
almost laughable when the entire Beltway universe was on the COIN
bandwagon at the time, “overpromising” an Iraq Redux in Helmand.
Worse, Nagl says McChrystal, “overinternalized the guidance” in the
counterinsurgency field manual, or COIN bible, published in 2006. “Only some of
the best weapons for COIN don’t shoot bullets,” Nagl writes, “and
although dollars are weapons in this kind of fight, bullets work pretty
well in a lot of circumstances.”
McChrystal, who made his name as a “man hunter”
in Iraq, was surely aware of this, but one would have to have beeen
living under a rock in 2009 not to have seen that he was under serious
pressure to sell—and employ COIN—as commander of U.S. forces in
Afghanistan. He didn’t write the manual—Nagl did—and as it was full of such pabulum
as, “sometimes the more you protect your force the less secure you’ll
be,” it is no wonder McChrystal had a difficult time translating it on
And lest we forget, CNAS—of which Nagl was the director—published a paper at that very time
saying “protecting the population (should) take precedence over all
other considerations for the time being” and that the U.S. should “adopt
a population-centric counterinsurgency that emphasizes protecting the
population rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the
Taliban and al Qaeda.”
But when McChrystal is fired, for not having a “natural caution” of
the press, hero Petraeus is brought in for the save. He immediately
starts the bombing, “and the results are almost immediate,” Nagl gushes.
Of course he would have kept on winning, Nagl suggests, if Obama didn’t
get in the way and impose a timeline for withdrawal.
And here you have Nagl’s marquee complaint of why COIN did not work
in Afghanistan and why Iraq is a disaster today: it’s all Obama’s fault.
In Knife Fights, Nagl directs his fire at Obama’s choices in
Afghanistan. But that was written before Iraq imploded on the global
stage just a few months ago. Then, the Iraqi government could be “lived
with.” But now, as evidenced in his recent public appearances, Nagl is
accusing Obama of squandering every hard-fought gain made under
Petraeus, and, by withdrawing all combat troops in 2011, being
responsible for ISIS cutting its way through Iraq today.
Talking before a largely sympathetic audience at the New America
Foundation on Oct. 27, Nagl said Obama should have ignored the will of
the Iraqi people and stayed there for a generation at least. Nagl
advocates putting no less than 15,000 combat “advisors” into Iraq now to
get the job done. All those maimed and dead American veterans of Iraq
deserve it. “If it was important enough to bleed there,” it’s important
enough to stay, he charged.
Obama is an easy target these days. One is reminded of how critical
Nagl was of the Bush war architects when that administration was on the
way out, too. Nagl knew Pentagon positions would be opening up—he even
quit the Army in 2008 to hitch his star to the Democratic
“administration in waiting” at CNAS. However, as his colleagues Michele
Flournoy and Kurt Campbell were scooped up for national security
appointments with Obama, Nagl was overlooked. He eventually left the
directorship at CNAS to take a position at the U.S. Naval Academy in
2011; a year later, he became headmaster at The Haverford School, a
wealthy boys prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
For Nagl, timing is everything. Maybe he is hoping Knife Fights will
get him back on the Beltway beat as a strategy guru in Hillary
Clinton’s campaign for president. Not surprisingly, while chiding
Obama’s judgments on Syria last year, he asserts that Petraeus, Leon
Panetta and Clinton are “as good a security team as you’re going to
But the failure of COIN is now well documented, despite Nagl’s
attempts at historical whitewash. For this, his comeback may be
short-lived. The “skunks at the party,”
like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, and Gentile, are
looking at the fairy dust on the floor and wondering why Nagl is still
“The hard fact is that COIN did not produce the outcomes promised,
either in Iraq or in Afghanistan. At best, it allowed the United States
to leave Iraq without admitting defeat. Today, of course, the rise of
ISIS makes even that claim increasingly untenable,” Bacevich tells TAC.
My sense is that the officer corps once more
finds itself in an intellectual void. Filling that void is an urgent
priority, but is unlikely to happen until members of the officer corps
acknowledge that the infatuation with COIN to which Nagl and others
succumbed was from the outset deeply misguided — an excuse to avoid
serious thinking about war and actually existing security requirements.
To wit: the next time we’re told to “eat it,” let’s ask what’s in it
first. That way we’ll avoid the heartburn, and the knife fights
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.