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The cult of counterinsurgency.

On the night of December 1, shortly after Barack Obama announced plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, retired Lt. Colonel John Nagl appeared on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Maddow was dismayed by Obama’s new plan, which she called “massive escalation,” but, when she introduced Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert who has long called for a greater U.S. commitment to Afghanistan--even if it means raising taxes and expanding the military--she was surprisingly friendly. And, after Nagl spent the segment praising Obama’s plan, which he said would throw back the Taliban and enable more civil and economic development, Maddow may have remained skeptical--but she was also admiring. “It’s a real pleasure to have you on the show, John,” she said.

Had someone like Bill Kristol given that same assessment of Obama’s speech, Maddow might have tarred him as a bloodthirsty proponent of endless war. Which is why Nagl is one of the administration’s most important allies as it tries to sell the United States on a renewed commitment to Afghanistan. A former tank commander in Iraq and co-author of the Army’s landmark 2006 counterinsurgency manual, Nagl has become a fixture on television and in news articles about Afghanistan; he’s even made an appearance on “The Daily Show.” With the authority of a man who has worn a uniform in combat, and the intellectual heft of a Rhodes Scholar, he has helped to persuade many liberals that pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the only viable path to success.

Certainly, that’s what Obama and his staff are hoping. During Obama’s Afghanistan review process this fall, top White House aides like Rahm Emanuel were immersed in Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, which argues that counterinsurgency techniques were turning around the Vietnam war until Washington pulled the plug in exhaustion. And, by committing 30,000 troops, plus winning almost 10,000 more from nato allies, Obama has effectively endorsed General Stanley McChrystal’s written assessment of the war, the first page of which calls for “an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign.” “I would say that the decision the president reached is an acknowledgement that counterinsurgency is the least bad of the options available,” Nagl says.

Another reason Nagl has sway with the left and the Obama administration--he was recently named to the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board--has to do with where he hangs his hat. Nagl is currently president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington think tank established in February 2007 by a group of former Clintonites who wanted to reassert the voice of centrist Democrats on military and foreign affairs. Since then, a full 14 former CNAS hands have landed jobs inside Obama’s Pentagon and State Department. Those who remain work on a variety of issues, from China to climate change. But these days, CNAS is most visible for its policy papers and commentary on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its Democratic roots have given CNAS cred from Capitol Hill to the White House to places like Maddow’s set. And its prominence, in turn, has effectively hitched the Democratic wagon to the ambitious ideals of counterinsurgency, with some liberals even arguing that the doctrine--with its emphasis on protecting and improving the lives of civilians--is thoughtful, humane, and, therefore, inherently progressive.

But there is risk in this approach. Washington’s current enthusiasm for counterinsurgency is based largely on its apparent success in stabilizing Iraq--even though it’s not clear that the doctrine’s sophisticated tenets deserve all or even most of the credit. Indeed, an argument is brewing in military circles about whether the doctrine’s potential has been oversold. What happens next in Afghanistan could settle it.

In early 2007, defense analyst Michèle Flournoy and Asia expert Kurt Campbell co-founded CNAS with what they described as a mission of reclaiming the “pragmatic,” non-ideological center of the foreign policy debate. Supported with money from left-leaning foundations and defense contractors, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman, they hired a team of mostly Democratic foreign policy hands and produced policy papers with a generally hawkish bent, including one in 2008 that opposed a fixed timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

CNAS wasn’t intended to be counterinsurgency central. After Obama was elected, however, he raided the think tank to staff the State and Defense departments. (Flournoy took a job as the Pentagon’s senior policy official, and Campbell became Foggy Bottom’s top Asia hand.) Filling the void has been Nagl, who joined CNAS in January 2008 and became its president in February 2009, along with several counterinsurgency-centric colleagues who have joined since its founding. One is Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Exum, in his early thirties, is a bearded and wry native of East Tennessee who advised McChrystal’s review team this summer. Then there’s CNAS’s 32-year-old CEO, Nate Fick, who was a Marine captain in Baghdad and has served as a civilian instructor at a counterinsurgency academy in Kabul. Last year, CNAS also signed up the ultimate counterinsurgency guru in David Kilcullen, an Australian who served as a top adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq. Together, this quartet has churned out a raft of policy papers, opinion pieces, and quotes about counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, ranging from the best way to set benchmarks for progress to warnings about the use of aerial drone strikes. (Exum, Fick, and Kilcullen oppose heavy reliance on the tactic for fear that civilian casualties will cause blowback.)

Though CNAS is loath to be known as a one-trick pony--it recently completed a report encouraging U.S. cooperation with China and runs an energy and climate-based “natural security” program--it is effectively cornering the market on counterinsurgency thought. In addition to its staff hires, CNAS has provided fellowships to book-writing journalists like Tom Ricks, David Cloud, and Greg Jaffe, who have advanced the pro-counterinsurgency narrative. But perhaps the clearest indication of both CNAS’s clout and its current focus came when the think tank held its third annual conference at Washington’s posh Willard Hotel. The keynote speaker was none other than Petraeus himself.

The stakes for the United States in Afghanistan are enormous. But, in a more parochial sense, so are the stakes for CNAS and what you might call the cult of counterinsurgency. Washington is already planning for a more counterinsurgency-oriented future--witness the latest Pentagon budget, which shifts billions of dollars away from high-tech weapons systems designed for fighting a great power like China, toward equipment like aerial drones and armored personnel carriers. Meanwhile, the liberal national security establishment has come to embrace a doctrine that went into vogue under the dreaded Bush regime. In an essay titled “Petraeus the Progressive” published in the journal Democracy last winter, Rachel Kleinfeld, president of the center-left Truman National Security Project, celebrated Petraeus for emphasizing the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds over “outgunning and outmanning the enemy.” Other liberals warm to the doctrine’s intellectual sheen. “Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare--it is the graduate level of war,” states an epigraph in the Army’s counterinsurgency manual.

But some thoughtful skeptics warn that the months ahead in Afghanistan may expose the promise of counterinsurgency as a mirage. One of them is Colonel Gian Gentile, a former cavalry squadron commander in Iraq with a Stanford University Ph.D. in history. Since his 2007 return from Iraq, Gentile, who now teaches at West Point, has relentlessly challenged the arguments of counterinsurgency proponents. Advocates of the doctrine say that it has been repeatedly tested and proved in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Iraq. Through several articles in military journals, Gentile has been fighting this “narrative,” which he says has various historical flaws. He warns, for instance, that counterinsurgency campaigns are more violent than people understand. The British victory in Malaya involved brute force and mass resettlement programs, for example, while the more recent defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka involved a heavy military campaign that caused widespread civilian misery. Even the Iraq surge caused a dramatic increase in civilian casualties from airstrikes and led to a spike in the number of Iraqi detainees held by the United States, notes Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation.

Gentile is especially skeptical of the claim that counterinsurgency saved Iraq. To hear the likes of Nagl tell it, Petraeus implemented a new strategy in 2006 under which U.S. troops left the isolation of fortress-like bases and integrated themselves with Iraqi forces and the Iraqi people, improving training of the Iraqi army, winning the population’s trust, and helping to turn Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province against Al Qaeda. But some contrarian military thinkers warn that the story is far more complicated. It’s not clear that the Sunnis needed our encouragement to turn on Al Qaeda, for instance, and ethnic cleansing may have burned itself out. Celeste Ward, a Bush Pentagon official who advised Army Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli in Iraq, says that some military units had been practicing counterinsurgency in Iraq, to little avail, before Petraeus overhauled the American strategy there. “To think that the reduction of violence was primarily the result of American military action is hubris run amuck [sic],” Gentile writes in the fall edition of the military journal Parameters.

Gentile is convinced that Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan can’t work--at least not in a time frame that Obama or his country will accept. “I think history shows that if a nation is going to try this kind of military method--population-centric counterinsurgency, which is also nation building--it doesn’t happen in a couple of years. It’s a generational commitment.” And, if Afghanistan doesn’t turn around soon, the Democrats who founded and support CNAS, and who have come to embrace the Petraeus-Nagl view of modern warfare, may find themselves wondering whether it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.  

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