The New York Times Magazine
Major John Nagl was a leading military scholar on how to fight a resistance. But could he make his ideas work on the ground in Iraq?
January 11, 2004
Maj. John Nagl approaches war pragmatically and philosophically, as a soldier and a scholar. He graduated close to the top of his West Point class in 1988 and was selected as a Rhodes scholar. He studied international relations at Oxford for two years, then returned to military duty just in time to take command of a tank platoon during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, earning a Bronze Star for his efforts. After the war, he went back to England and earned his Ph.D. from St. Antony’s College, the leading school of foreign affairs at Oxford. While many military scholars were focusing on peacekeeping or the impact of high-tech weaponry, Nagl was drawn to a topic much less discussed in the 1990’s: counterinsurgency.
At Oxford, he immersed himself in the classic texts of guerrilla warfare. There are different schools of thought, but almost every work in the canon imparts the message that counterinsurgency is one of the hardest types of warfare to wage. Nagl read “Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice,” by Col. C.E. Callwell, a British officer who in 1896 warned of “protracted, thankless, invertebrate war” in guerrilla terrain. Nagl also read “Small Wars Manual,” published in 1940 by the United States Marine Corps, which cautions: “Every detachment representing a tempting target will be harassed or attacked. The population will be honeycombed with hostile sympathizers.”
The more Nagl read, the more he understood the historical challenge of insurgency. Julius Caesar complained that his legions had trouble subduing the roving Britons because his men “were little suited to this kind of enemy.” In the early 1800’s, Carl von Clausewitz wrote of “people’s wars” in which “the element of resistance will exist everywhere and nowhere.” The book that most forcefully captured Nagl’s imagination was written by T.E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, the British officer who, during World War I, led Arab fighters against the Turkish rulers in the Middle East and described the campaign (taking liberties with the facts) in his counterinsurgency classic, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
Lawrence’s is one of the few books in the canon written from the point of view of the insurgent. (Another is Mao Zedong’s “On Guerrilla Warfare.”) In a near-hallucinatory state, suffering from dysentery and lying in a tent, Lawrence realized the key to defeating the Turkish Army. “Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head,” he wrote. Lawrence’s guerrillas, by contrast, “might be a vapour.” For the Turks, he concluded, “war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”
In his own research, Nagl focused on two modern insurgencies in Asia. In Malaya in the 1950’s, the British successfully suppressed a Communist revolt (comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese) by generally steering clear of excessive force and instituting a “hearts and minds” campaign to strip the insurgents of public sympathy. In Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the United States military took a different approach and failed. The Americans resorted to indiscriminate firepower and showed little concern for its effect on the civilian population. Comparing the two efforts, Nagl demonstrated that a key issue for a counterinsurgent army is to calibrate correctly the amount of lethal force necessary to do the job with the minimum amount of nasty, counterproductive side effects. Even if using force with restraint meant the mission would take more time or reduce the level of force protection, it was still an indispensable step: a successful counterinsurgency took care and patience. When Nagl’s doctoral thesis, “Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam,” was published in 2002, it carried the subtitle “Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife.”
Nagl’s scholarship helped earn him a post as a professor at West Point. But when I met him last month, he was testing his theories far from the classroom. Nagl is now the third in command of a tank battalion in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which extends north and west of Baghdad. The counterinsurgency expert is, for the first time in his life, practicing counterinsurgency.
Over the course of two weeks I accompanied Nagl as he did everything from overseeing raids to detaining Iraqis, meeting local sheiks, doling out grants to schools, attending a memorial service for a fallen soldier, picking up bits of human flesh after a car-bomb attack, playing ultimate Frisbee with fellow soldiers and dodging rocks and bullets that Iraqis were firing at him and his soldiers. In the first of many discussions we had, I described him as an expert in counterinsurgency, and this made him laugh.
“The ‘expert’ thing just kills me,” he said. “I thought I understood something about counterinsurgency, until I started doing it.”
Nagl is the operations officer of Task Force 1/34 Armor, an 800-soldier battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Jeff Swisher, that is part of the First Infantry Division. The battalion is stationed a 90-minute drive west of Baghdad, at an Iraqi air base, not far from the city of Falluja, that is now known as Camp Manhattan. The main town in the battalion’s area of operations is Khaldiya, a few miles from the base. Like Falluja and Ramadi and other former Baath Party citadels, Khaldiya is a staging ground for anti-American attacks, and five of the battalion’s soldiers have been killed and more than 40 wounded. Local allies of the Americans, or people seen as collaborators, live dangerously, too; in September, assailants killed Khaldiya’s police chief, firing 25 bullets into his body.
Despite that attack, Nagl knows that effective counterinsurgency can’t work without the formation of local security forces. Foreign troops don’t know the terrain and its people as well as locals, and besides, foreign forces cannot remain forever. And so, soon after arriving in Iraq in September, Nagl and his battalion set out to retrain Khaldiya’s corrupt and hesitant police.
When the first detachment of American soldiers went to the Khaldiya police station in an effort to form a joint patrol, the policemen on duty at the station, seeing the Humvees rolling up, scrambled out the back windows, Nagl told me. They were frightened at the prospect of walking the streets with the occupiers. The next day, when Nagl went to the station, the same thing happened. He and a few of his men walked across the street to the police force’s administrative office and collared two of the officers there, informing them that they would have the honor of patrolling with the Americans. He put AK-47’s into their hands and said it was time to move out. The conversation, as Nagl remembers it, went like this:
“You’re going to walk with us,” Nagl said.
“No, we’re not,” one of the officers responded.
“Yes, you are.”
“You’re going, buddy.”
Nagl laughed as he told me the story. He and I were sitting on cots in the room where I was staying with the battalion’s translators. One of them had Scotch-taped a few centerfolds from a soft-porn magazine above his cot. A few feet away, another translator was on his knees, praying. Nagl, like every other soldier in his battalion, was far from home.
Nagl is 37, the eldest of six children. He grew up in a Roman Catholic household in Omaha, Neb., and said he decided to attend West Point out of a desire to serve his nation and spare his family the expense of putting him through college. (His father was an electrical engineer who served in the Navy.) Nagl found, in the gulf war, that combat was his metier, or one of them. During the invasion of Iraq last spring, he watched impatiently from the sidelines at Fort Riley, Kan., with his wife and infant son; he wanted to be in the action and thought he had missed his chance. Now, in and around Khaldiya, he is getting his chance. I asked whether it was different from what he expected. He laughed again.
“I understood intellectually that counterinsurgency is an intel-driven event,” he began. “You have to have the local nationals tell you who the bad guys are, and then you act on that information. But the steps between there were not clear to me.”
What did he mean?
He offered an example: “The local comes in and says, ‘There’s a bad guy in my neighborhood who is planting I.E.D.’s”‘–improvised explosive devices–“‘and is an arms dealer and fires mortars at you.’ Wow, that’s great intel. ‘So tell me where he lives.”‘
He paused for effect.
“There aren’t any addresses in this country. The streets don’t have names, there are no street signs, there aren’t numbers on houses; all the houses look the same.”
Nagl said he would next offer a map or satellite image to the local and ask him to point out the house. The Iraqi, in most cases, would scratch his head.
“These clowns don’t know how to read maps,” he continued. “So how exactly do I find out which house the bad guy lives in? I’ve got to get the Iraqi in a Humvee and drive past the house and get him to point out the house–but he doesn’t want his friends to see him in a Humvee. I can put him in a Mercedes and put myself in local garb, but if I do that the Geneva Conventions say I lose my rights and protections. Conventional soldiers don’t usually do that sort of stuff.” (It is the sort of thing the Special Forces are doing. I was told–though not by Nagl–that S.F. operators occasionally visit his base, wearing local clothes or outdoor gear that regular soldiers are not permitted to wear.)
Much of Nagl’s time in Iraq is taken up with conundrums like this. His days start before dawn, and by the time he goes to sleep, he can hardly remember everything that happened since he opened his eyes. For a student of guerrilla warfare, he knows, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. He is like a paleontologist given the chance to go back in time and walk with the dinosaurs. But Nagl can’t simply stand around and take notes. He is responsible, with the rest of his battalion, for taming an insurgency, which is as difficult as teaching dinosaurs to dance.
The American counterinsurgency war in the Philippines, which began in 1899, cost more than 4,000 American lives and left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead. The British forced the relocation of nearly half a million peasants in Malaya in the 1950’s. The French in Algeria. The British in Northern Ireland. The Turks and the Kurds. The Israelis in Palestinian lands. The Americans in Vietnam. The dour lessons of the past are very much on the minds of Nagl and other American officers trying to implement a workable strategy in Iraq, but they are playing catch-up. In the 1990’s, and in fact until 9/11, counterinsurgency was a musty corner of the American military. The Pentagon referred to it as “military operations other than war” or “low-intensity conflict.” As the Iraq situation shows all too grimly, however, counterinsurgency is war, and there is nothing low-intensity about it.
Nagl understands this intellectually and intuitively. The portions of his book that focus on Vietnam stress the erroneous and muddled thinking of American military and political elites, especially Gen. William Westmoreland, who (as the historian Max Boot recounts), when asked his solution to the Vietcong, replied with one word: “firepower.” As a counterpoint in his study, Nagl quotes Marine Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak, who concluded: “You cannot win militarily. You have to win totally, or you are not winning at all.”
For Nagl, Vietnam stands as an encyclopedia of what shouldn’t be done. Foremost in the do-not-repeat category are the indiscriminate use of firepower, the resort to conventional tactics to fight an unconventional threat and the failure to implement an effective “hearts and minds” campaign. The preferred strategy has been referred to as “total war,” though the phrase is often misunderstood as referring to a scorched-earth strategy. John Waghelstein, a retired Special Forces colonel who led the team of American advisers in El Salvador in the 1980’s, is regarded as an astute though controversial practitioner of counterinsurgency; he promotes the “total war” strategy but does not define it as the vicious practices used by some of his pupils in the Salvadoran Army. Instead, Waghelstein, now a professor at the Naval War College, offers a subtler definition.
“Total war means you use all the elements of national power,” he told me recently. “It’s at the grass-roots level that you’re trying to win. You can kill enemy soldiers–that’s not the only issue. You also need to dry up their support. You can’t just use the military. It’s got to be a constant din of propaganda; it’s got to be economic support; it’s got to be elections. As long as you only go after the guy with the weapon, you’re missing the most important part.”
Ignoring the civic side of counterinsurgency has been likened to playing chess while your enemy is playing poker. Though this truism is now well known in the military, Nagl acknowledges that it is not being applied in Iraq as well as it could be.
The civic chores are supposed to be shouldered by the American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, led by L. Paul Bremer III, but the C.P.A. remains isolated and rather inept at implementation. Its presence is minimal outside Baghdad, and even in the capital the C.P.A.’s thousands-strong staff spends much of its time in the so-called Green Zone, in and around Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, behind elaborate rings of security and far removed from Iraqi civilian life. Some of the staff are on 90-day tours: they arrive; they learn a little; they leave. On the few occasions when C.P.A. officials venture outside the compound, they are usually escorted by G.I.’s or private guards.
One morning, during breakfast at the battalion canteen, I asked Nagl about the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has yet to see a C.P.A. official at the base, he said. He pointed to an empty plastic chair at the table and asked: “Where’s the guy from C.P.A.? He should be sitting right there.”
Given the weakness of the C.P.A., Nagl and other soldiers are effectively in charge not only of the military aspects of the counterinsurgency but also of reconstruction work and political development. Trained to kill tanks, the officers at Camp Manhattan spend much of their time meeting local sheiks and apportioning the thin funds at their disposal for rebuilding; the battalion maintains a list of school-improvement projects known as “the Romper Room list.” It is not unusual for Nagl and Colonel Swisher to go out in the morning on a “cordon and search” raid and return in the afternoon to their tactical operations center for a meeting with the second in command, Maj. David Indermuehle, about dispersing small grants to local health clinics.
The entrance to Camp Manhattan discourages direct attacks. Approaching cars must park in a dirt lot about 100 yards from the front gate. The car and anyone in it must undergo a search before proceeding further. Any vehicle trying to reach the gate without stopping for a search must first run a slalom of concrete barriers that slow it down, and along the way it will be fired upon and destroyed. This makes the base a hard target.
On a bright Sunday morning in December, insurgents in Khaldiya struck a soft target–the police station. Not long before, the officers there had been jumping out windows to avoid working with the Americans, but in the intervening months, Nagl had begun to build trust, and relations had improved. That changed on Dec. 14. At 8:32 a.m., a car packed with plastic explosives and ball bearings detonated outside the station, killing 24 policemen as well as two women and a child. Colonel Swisher and his troops arrived at the blast site within minutes, and Nagl followed soon after. When Nagl arrived, the smell of cordite was still in the air, with blood and charred flesh on the ground. An eight-foot crater had gouged the spot where the car exploded.
That evening, as we sat in the cramped room in the battalion’s tactical operations center where Nagl worked and slept, he told me about the attack and its aftermath. A portrait of Saddam Hussein was hung, with coy humor, over his bed. Above his desk, he had taped up a Dilbert spoof that a few of his soldiers had created about him. The Dilbert character, intended as Nagl, says: “At Oxford I learned to use my huge brain. But I try not to frighten ordinary people with any gratuitous displays of mental superiority.”
The crowd that gathered after the blast, Nagl told me, didn’t seem angry at the insurgents responsible for the carnage. Instead many of them blamed the G.I.’s. The mother of a dead policeman, who was allowed inside the hastily formed perimeter, shouted insults at the Americans until an Iraqi police officer escorted her out. A rumor swept through the crowd that it wasn’t a car bomb that had caused the blast but a missile fired by the Americans, who were angry, so the rumor went, because the police were not supporting the occupation.
Though a car bombing like this one might seem indiscriminate, there are in fact at least two strategic reasons for such attacks. First, they discourage cooperation with American forces, creating precisely the kind of fear that made the police reluctant to aid the Americans in the first place. They also create chaos. If an occupying power is unable to guarantee security–and car bombs have a way of showing it can’t–the insurgents might, over time, win over the populace. It is a real-world employment of the Russian revolutionary slogan, “The worse, the better.”
In the early afternoon, a funeral procession passed by Nagl and the police station, on its way from a mosque to the cemetery. A bit later, as Nagl and other soldiers recounted it to me, another procession neared the station, larger than the previous one, with about 1,000 people, many of them shouting anti-American slogans. Nagl, who was on the street, couldn’t see much of the crowd, but one of his tank commanders, Capt. Ben Miller, had a better vantage point.
“Crowd coming,” Miller warned over the radio. “Recommend we mount up now and pull back.”
“Roger,” Nagl replied. “Execute.”
The crowd threw rocks at the retreating soldiers, who sprinted to an American outpost 400 yards away. The rocks hit some of Nagl’s men, and as the mob surged forward, on the verge of overwhelming the G.I.’s, the Americans fired warning shots to disperse the protesters. Nagl’s soldiers then retreated behind coils of concertina wire at the outpost. Most of the crowd continued to the cemetery, but several hundred stayed behind, staring at the Americans from the other side of the wire. Anything could happen, Nagl recalled thinking: perhaps they’ll rush the wire; perhaps they’ll throw grenades or fire AK-47’s.
Sitting in Nagl’s room, I mentioned that a few days earlier a commander in a nearby area had told me how he’d instructed his snipers, before a planned anti-occupation march on their base began, to identify the leaders of the march and, if the crowd became violent, to shoot the leaders dead.
Nagl said he wasn’t surprised by the idea that Americans would fire on protest leaders. “I’m only surprised he told you that,” he said.
In his own standoff, Nagl went on to say, “I was running through what to do if they rushed us, and there were not any particularly good answers to that question.”
What if the crowd attacked?
“You look for the leaders,” he replied, quietly.
After a half-hour, the crowd filtered away, leaving Nagl with a metaphor for his hearts-and-minds effort: “Across this divide they’re looking at us, we’re looking at them from behind barbed wire, and they’re trying to understand why we’re here, what we want from them. Almost inconceivable to a lot of them, I think, that what we want for them is the right to make their own decisions, to live free lives. It’s probably hard to understand that if you have lived your entire life under Saddam Hussein’s rule. And it’s hard for us to convey that message, particularly given the fact that few of us speak Arabic.”
In many ways, the standoff was also a metaphor for something larger: the American counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. The standoff could have gone either way, just as the war could go either way.
Nagl seemed to want to find a positive lesson in the day’s events, and eventually he did. “We had soldiers surrounded by an angry crowd, and if the soldiers had not acted under pressure with discipline, as they had been trained to do, it could have been a very ugly situation,” he said. “It is very easy to imagine one of the soldiers panicking and firing into the crowd, and that would have really set us back a very long way.”
A few hours after the car bomb detonated, the American military announced that Saddam Hussein had been captured. The news did not elicit shouts of joy at Nagl’s base. The reaction among Nagl’s men was summed up by a soldier who didn’t hesitate when I asked whether he thought Hussein’s capture would make his job easier. “Nah, there are too many bad people here,” he replied. “They don’t need Saddam Hussein to tell them to do bad things.”
Writing more than a hundred years ago, C.E. Callwell, the British military historian, predicted in his classic text “Small Wars” a dilemma that would face every counterinsurgent force of the 20th century. “In a guerrilla situation,” he warned, “the guerrilla is the professional, the newcomer the amateur.” Callwell offered this remedy: “It cannot be insisted upon too strongly that in a small war the only possible attitude to assume is, speaking strategically, the offensive. The regular army must force its way into the enemy’s country and seek him out…. It must play to win and not for safety…. It is not a question of merely maintaining the initiative, but of compelling the enemy to see at every turn that he has lost it and to recognize that the forces of civilization are dominant and not to be denied.”
Callwell’s solution tends to create a new problem, however. What is the right amount of offensive force to use? At the outset of the Vietnam War, Col. John Paul Vann, who would emerge as one of the most thoughtful and ultimately tragic officers in the war, recognized the paradox and realized his firepower-loving commanders had not. In 1962, he warned David Halberstam, then a young reporter for The New York Times, that the wrong strategy had been adopted. “This is a political war, and it calls for the utmost discrimination in killing,” he told Halberstam, as recounted in William Prochnau’s “Once Upon a Distant War.” “The best weapon for killing is a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery. You have to know who you are killing.”
Nagl, in his book, portrays Colonel Vann–the protagonist of Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book “A Bright Shining Lie”–as a clear-eyed officer who saw what was wrong and had the courage to say it out loud. Nagl understands the message Vann imparted to Halberstam and tried to impart to the generals he served under: counterinsurgency requires an excruciatingly fine calibration of lethal force. Not enough of it means you will cede the offensive to your enemy, yet too much means you will alienate the noncombatants whose support you need.
Nagl struggles to achieve the right calibration in Iraq. I went on several cordon-and-search raids with him and his men, and as we drove in his Humvee he would always make a point of waving at civilians. A small gesture, for sure, but it showed what was on Nagl’s mind. The gesture was appreciated by some; from others it elicited hard stares.
The paradox might be impossible to resolve. The United States military has done a good job, in general, of limiting what it refers to as “collateral damage” in its occupation of Iraq. Yet for every raid that finds its target, there seem to be nine that don’t, and in those nine, soldiers often point weapons at civilians, drive through fields and backyards, break down doors and detain people who are later released. This is the inherent messiness and slowness of counterinsurgency that T.E. Lawrence wrote of, and it is a key reason that the failure rate in counterinsurgency is so high.
“I didn’t realize how right Lawrence of Arabia was,” Nagl said to me once. “My first experience of war was the gulf war, which was very clean. We shot the tanks that didn’t look like ours, we shot the enemy wearing a uniform that didn’t look like ours, we destroyed the enemy in 100 hours. That’s kind of what I thought war was. Even when I was writing that insurgency was messy and slow, the full enormity of that did not sink in on me. I am seeing appreciable progress, but I am starting to understand in the pit of my stomach how hard, how long, how slow counterinsurgency really is. There is no prospect it’s going to end anytime soon.”
The United States Army that marched into Iraq was a big-war army, with lots of armor and lots of plans for crushing a massed enemy, after which the people would offer flowers and sweets to their liberators. The Army has not completely adjusted itself to counterinsurgency, but it has undergone alterations. Nagl’s soldiers, trained to guide tanks over open ground, are now negotiating Humvees through mud alleys. Artillery and bombs, which Vann identified as the least effective weapons in Vietnam, are being used in the Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign with the precision of the knives that Vann recommended–or so the Americans believe.
Soon after arriving at Camp Manhattan, Nagl’s battalion was the target of mortar attacks by an insurgent who was nicknamed “the mad mortarman.” The soldiers were unable to catch him in the act, but counterbattery radars pinpointed the field he was operating from, and Nagl’s troops fired artillery and mortars at it one night. When American soldiers went to the scene the next morning, local civilians, who hadn’t enjoyed the experience of having American shells landing by their homes, told the Americans who had been firing the mortars; four men were detained later that day.
According to the American troops, there were no complaints from local men and women about the American shelling; nobody was injured, and the locals apparently understood it was not an indiscriminate assault but a targeted response to targeted attacks. Nagl says he believes that makes a difference, and he points to declining attacks to support his case.
“Direct-fire attacks on us have dropped dramatically,” he told me. “We have a pretty clear message. If you shoot at us we will do our damnedest to kill you, and most of the time we will. And if you live in a neighborhood and you know there are bad people and you don’t want Americans to return heavy fire into your neighborhood, endangering your families, you need to turn in the bad guys. That message is being received.”
The picture was the same across Iraq as the year ended: the number of attacks against American forces, which averaged about 40 a day in November, fell to an average of about 20 a day in December, according to American officials. The capture of Saddam Hussein is a reflection of better intelligence; he was found not by chance but after hard intelligence work buttressed by raids in which associates of his were found and persuaded to offer tips on his whereabouts. It is, in the annals of counterinsurgency, a notable achievement.
Military officers and scholars are conducting an unusually open debate about counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, focusing on the question of calibration of firepower and the use of other pressure tactics, like surrounding hostile villages with barbed wire–this has been done on at least two occasions by American units in the Sunni Triangle–and demolishing houses used by insurgents and detaining their relatives. In March, the Marines will return to Iraq, and the man who will command the 20,000-strong force, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, said in an interview last month with The New York Times that the Marines will use a softer touch than the Army. “I don’t want to condemn what people are doing,” General Conway said. “I’ll simply say that I think until we can win the population over and they can give us those indigenous intelligence reports, that we’re prolonging the process.” Referring to the Army’s use of airstrikes against insurgent targets, Conway added: “I do not envision using that tactic. It would have to be a rare incident that transcends anything that we have seen in the country to make that happen.”
It’s not clear why the Marines believe a softer touch will be more effective. During the war and its aftermath, no Marine battalions were based in the Sunni Triangle outside Baghdad, which is where the majority of attacks against American forces have occurred and where American tactics have been the most hard-nosed. Yet it is true that the Marines are, historically, more experienced at counterinsurgency warfare than the Army.
When I asked Nagl what he thought of Conway’s critique, he shrugged in a dismissive manner–his way of saying the Marines don’t understand the reality on the ground in the Sunni Triangle. But at least one Sunni leader said he thinks Conway’s critique is spot on. Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar is deputy chief of one of the largest Sunni tribes and a member of the American-appointed Governing Council. Al-Yawar is a moderate who wants the occupation to succeed and Iraq to become a democracy. However, he doesn’t see the Army’s counterinsurgency doing much to bring real security and peace.
“The United States is using excessive power,” he said when I visited his residence in Baghdad. “They round up people in a very humiliating way, by putting bags over their faces in front of their families. In our society, this is like rape. The Americans are using collective punishment by jailing relatives. What is the difference from Saddam? They are demolishing houses now. They say they want to teach a lesson to the people. But when Timothy McVeigh was convicted in the bombing in Oklahoma City, was his family’s home destroyed?”
Al-Yawar continued: “You cannot win the hearts and minds of the people by using force. What’s the difference between dictatorship and what’s happening now?”
The formation of “indigenous” forces, as they are called, is considered a paramount element of successful counterinsurgency. In his book, Nagl emphasizes that one of the many shortcomings of American policy in Vietnam was America’s inability to build a capable South Vietnamese fighting force. “Vietnamization,” when it finally came along in 1969, was too little, too late. During one of our discussions, Nagl explained the use of Iraqi forces as a matter of efficacy and necessity.
“There are lots of reasons why Iraqis are going to be better at it than we are,” he said. “They know who is supposed to be where and what they are supposed to be doing. They can see patterns of behavior that are irregular in a way that our untrained eye cannot. They can talk to everybody in a way that we cannot.”
A patchwork of Iraqi security forces is being created. In addition to the beleaguered police, there are, most notably, the new Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or I.C.D.C. The first battalion of the new Iraqi Army went through a nine-week training course late last year, but within two months of its graduation, nearly half of the battalion’s 700 soldiers had quit because their pay, about $60 a month, was too low. Although pay scales are now being reviewed, the army remains embryonic and is unlikely to assume significant counterinsurgency missions for some time. The I.C.D.C., on the other hand, already numbers more than 10,000 and is regularly engaged in joint patrols with American troops. Still, members of the I.C.D.C. appear far from ready to take over the hard-core missions being carried out by the occupation force.
Last month, I went to a base in Balad, about 50 miles from Camp Manhattan, where the Fourth Infantry Division’s First Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, was training a class of about 50 I.C.D.C. recruits. Each course takes two weeks, the first week in the classroom and the second week in the field. The battalion had already trained three classes, but not without hitches. The first commander and deputy commander of the I.C.D.C. in the area were fired after it emerged that they were extorting kickbacks from the recruits. One recruit was found to be trying to organize other recruits into an anti-American cell that would use its training to mount attacks against the occupation force; he was thrown into prison. “In every class there are people we’re concerned about,” an American officer told me. “There are people in the I.C.D.C. now who we’re concerned about.”
The classroom was situated in a concrete airplane hangar in which Iraqi and American flags hung from the ceiling. The recruits, wearing red baseball caps with “I.C.D.C.” printed in English and Arabic, ranged in age from their late teens to their mid-40’s. Because the American trainers were having a hard time recalling the recruits’ Arabic names, the Iraqis were given English nicknames. (One of the recruits, a pudgy Iraqi in his 20’s, was called Flounder, after the character in the movie “Animal House.”) When I visited, they were being trained to say, in English, “Raise your hands!” and “Drop your weapon!”–a strange choice in a country where few people speak English.
The recruits came from local villages, and most of them had joined the I.C.D.C. for two reasons: because they wanted better security and because they needed the money. When the classes started in October, the first group of recruits faced harassment from other locals–sometimes even from family members–who threatened to kill them if they worked with the Americans. According to Lt. Col. Aubrey Garner, the battalion commander, the quality of recruits has increased and threats against them have diminished as the local population realizes the money is useful and the Americans are not going to leave tomorrow. Yet Garner harbors no illusions about his I.C.D.C. recruits.
“We had this idea that we could train them and they could start independent operations quickly,” he said. “But what we learned is that a two-week training regimen isn’t going to turn them into soldiers like we have.”
Because the I.C.D.C. has been so slow to mature, American officials decided in December to form a special I.C.D.C. battalion composed of veteran fighters from the militias of the five major Iraqi political groups. This special battalion is intended as a strike force of determined soldiers who will focus on capturing or eliminating insurgents. The plan drew instant criticism from some Iraqis who say they believe the new battalion will focus not on fighting the insurgency but on eliminating the enemies of their political patrons. Al-Yawar, the Sunni tribal leader, is one of the plan’s harshest critics.
“It means civil war in the future,” he said. “If they do this, there will definitely be warlords.”
The creation of a strong security force can backfire in unexpected ways. In the Middle East, as in most of the third world, security forces do not behave terribly well. In Egypt, to take just one example, the army and other security forces have an abysmal human rights record. True, the American military has more of a guiding hand in Iraq, but that doesn’t guarantee much. The American-trained and -equipped Salvadoran Army, which was an effective fighting force in the 1980’s in the sense that its soldiers were excellent killers, eliminated not only the leftist rebels who were its official enemies but large numbers of ordinary civilians and political activists who were not bearing arms. Moreover, in countries that lack strong political leaders–and Iraq today is such a country–strong military leaders have a habit of exercising political control in a fashion that does not favor democratic development or political reconciliation.
For these reasons, it seems unlikely that Nagl and soldiers like him will soon be able to cede their role as the principal counterinsurgency force in Iraq. And while they wait, their work will probably not get any easier.
Two days before the attack on Khaldiya’s police station, a soldier in Nagl’s battalion, Sgt. Jarrod Black, was in a convoy that was attacked by an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., in Ramadi, a Sunni city 10 miles from Khaldiya. Black, the father of two boys, whose wife was pregnant at the time, was killed by the blast; he was the 455th American soldier to die in Iraq.
Three days later, just 24 hours after the Khaldiya car bomb, a memorial service for Black was held at an American base in Ramadi, and Nagl attended. Nagl had warned me that the final stretch of our trip to the base, about a mile’s drive through the busy center of Ramadi, might be dangerous because American convoys often got stuck in traffic, where they turned into easy targets. But the drive there was uneventful.
After the service, Nagl returned to his Humvee–there were five vehicles in the convoy, including two, in the front and back, that had .50-caliber machine-gun turrets. The convoy left the base and headed back into Ramadi. The main street has four lanes divided by a large median; two lanes go east, two lanes west. The eastern lanes were blocked by a crane placing cement blast barriers in front of the municipal building. All eastbound vehicles were being diverted into one of the westbound lanes. After a few hundred yards, traffic snarled.
From the eastern end of the street, near a mosque that was about 500 yards away, a crowd was marching toward the convoy. At the same time, pops of gunfire were heard; they quickly became a fusillade, like Chinese New Year with bullets, though the firing was vertical–the gunmen were shooting into the air. In a sign that violence beckoned, shopkeepers began pulling down the shutters of their stores and women and children along the street began to run.
Because the convoy was stuck, bumper to bumper, Colonel Swisher, in the Humvee ahead of Nagl’s, ordered his men to drive their vehicles over the median to the unfilled lanes on the other side and get out of town immediately. The median was high, about two feet. Nagl’s driver, Specialist James Regester, who goes by the nickname Reggie, backed up a few inches–that was all the space he had–and revved the engine, throwing it into first and jumping the median in a lurching heave that rocked Nagl back and forth in the cabin. The other Humvees did the same, but Colonel Swisher’s got stuck on the median, its front wheels in the air.
The soldiers left their vehicles and set up a perimeter, keeping their eyes on the crowd and rooftops, their weapons pointed at the protesters, who by now had encircled the Americans. The Iraqis were gripped with anger, jeering and shouting slogans in favor of the recently captured Saddam Hussein. They thrust their fists toward the Americans, they waved the soles of their shoes–a particularly low insult in the Arab world–and some of them spat toward the G.I.’s. Gunfire was everywhere.
Nagl tried to get brigade headquarters on the radio but couldn’t get through. He was talking with Colonel Swisher about alerting the base’s Quick Reaction Force to rescue the trapped convoy. Although the convoy had two .50-caliber machine guns, whose carrot-size bullets can cut through several rows of massed people, there were fewer than 20 American soldiers on hand, and one of them was a chaplain. A gun battle would leave many dead on both sides; and the crowd, about a thousand strong, controlled the rooftops.
Nagl recognized that although the protesters were furious, most of them were not insurgents. In typical insurgencies, fighters make up just a small part of the population, which is why winning the loyalty of the population is just as important as killing insurgents. The crowd’s mood might have revealed that their hearts and minds, on that day at least, were beyond the grasp of the Americans. But no one was shooting at Nagl’s men–at least not yet.
The moment was perilous. If the G.I.’s were fired on and returned fire, or if they fired first, the inevitable results–dead civilians with American bullets in their bodies–would be broadcast by Al Jazeera throughout Iraq and the Arab world, delivering a useful propaganda victory to the insurgents. The insurgency has so far favored the tactics of detonate-and-run, but any quick-thinking fighter in the crowd might realize that he could instigate a bloodbath by firing a round at the sitting ducks by their Humvees.
Nagl tried to ease the tension with a wisecrack. “Ever see ‘Black Hawk Down’?” he asked me.
After five minutes that seemed much longer, the colonel’s Humvee was freed from its marooned perch. The soldiers jumped into their vehicles and began moving out. All along the street, men jeered and threw rocks. Then heavy gunfire–boom-boom-boom–erupted. It was only later that Nagl learned the fire came from one of his Humvees; its gunner saw someone with an AK-47 shooting–or preparing to shoot–at the convoy and responded with a burst of .50-caliber fire.
As the convoy raced toward home, young men along the highway jeered the passing Americans. As our Humvee reached the outskirts of Khaldiya, Nagl could see, not far from the bombed police station, a crowd on the road, waving flags and chanting slogans that included “Saddam is in our blood and soul.” A smoke bomb, detonated by the protesters, covered the road with an orange haze.
Children in the crowd threw rocks and stepped into the road to stop or slow down the Humvees; the kids jumped out of the way when Reggie gunned the engine. In such situations, with projectiles striking Humvees and the soldiers inside them, the rules of engagement allow soldiers to fire, because it is hard to determine whether an object that is thrown at them is a rock or a grenade. Nagl was worried that Reggie, who was steering the Humvee with his left hand and aiming his M-16 out the window with his right, might put a bullet between the eyes of one of the rock-throwing youths.
“Don’t shoot them!” he shouted. “Don’t shoot kids!”
“No, sir, I’m on safe, I’m on safe,” Reggie replied.
That evening, back in his office, Nagl told me that military intelligence had informed him that the demonstration we encountered was in fact against Saddam Hussein and in favor of his capture. It seemed hard to believe that the crowd, in the Sunni heartland, was happy about Hussein’s capture, especially given the chants I heard supporting Hussein. But when I said so to Nagl, he insisted the people were happy about Hussein; their anger, he said, revolved only around the fact of occupation.
I later learned that similar anticapture protests had occurred in Tikrit and Samarra, also Sunni strongholds. And Nagl told me that there had been more bloodshed in Ramadi after our convoy escaped the city. In our wake, American reinforcements showed up at the municipal center, which was besieged by the crowd. According to a press release from the United States military, members of the crowd fired on the G.I.’s, wounding one of them. The soldiers shot back, killing two Iraqis and wounding one. Another American convoy was attacked by several dozen Iraqis; the Americans returned fire and killed one Iraqi, according to the press release.
The best explanation for the fact that insurgents in the crowd didn’t open fire on Nagl’s convoy was simple self-defense: they knew that although they could kill some of the trapped G.I.’s, they would be killed, too. But they acted that way because the Americans had threatened and used lethal force on many occasions, and this had not won their hearts or minds. It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Would the crowd, or any crowd in the Sunni Triangle, be less hostile if they hadn’t previously been threatened with lethal force and, on occasion, shot at?
John Paul Vann assumed there was a calibration of lethal power that would work in Vietnam or in any counterinsurgency effort–the right amount of force, the right number of friendly waves. I began to wonder whether such perfection is attainable. Nagl, sounding a bit more hard-line than before the events in Ramadi and the car bomb in Khaldiya, said he thought a balance was being struck.
“I’m not really all that concerned about their hearts right now,” he said that evening. “We’re into the behavior-modification phase. I want their minds right now. Maybe we’ll get their hearts later, as we spend $100,000 on their schools and health clinics this week and another $100,000 on their schools and health clinics next week and $100,000 on their schools and health clinics the week after that. Over time I’ll start winning some hearts. Right now I just want them to stop shooting at us, stop planting I.E.D.’s. If they’re not involved in these activities, they should start turning in the people who are. Whatever techniques that are legal and moral that I have to use to accomplish that, I will. Counterinsurgency is not always a pretty thing.”
In what I had planned as my last day with Nagl’s unit, I walked to the tactical operations center at 9:30 in the morning to say goodbye and get a ride to the front gate, where my driver was waiting for me. From a few hundred yards away I noticed that a line of Humvees was idling in front of the center, about to move out. I ran the rest of the way, and as I neared Nagl’s Humvee he opened the back door and said: “Get in. We took a hit.”
As the convoy raced out the front gate Nagl explained that an attack on a checkpoint from a rocket-propelled grenade had just wounded and perhaps killed two of his soldiers. We soon arrived at the scene: an armored personnel carrier that had been parked next to an unfinished cinder-block hut was surrounded by blast debris and bloody bandages; the wounded soldiers had already been taken away for treatment. Soldiers immediately set up checkpoints on the road–a tank, with the words “Assault & Battery” on the barrel of its gun, stood on the median–and began questioning the residents of nearby houses.
Nagl strode to the nearest house. In its courtyard, a man held a glass of tea in his hand. His family members–several adult women and about a half dozen children–had gathered a few feet away, next to a wall, with terror in their eyes.
“Did someone say they saw the guys?” Nagl asked a soldier who had sequestered the family.
“No one says they saw the guys,” the soldier replied.
Nagl stared at the man with the glass of tea.
“This guy is coming with us now,” he said, sharply.
Nagl walked to a yard in front of the house and found footprints that he suspected belonged to the insurgent who had fired the grenade. The Army had never trained Nagl to be a crime-scene investigator, but that’s one of the things he has become. He walked briskly across the street, back to the cinder-block hut. There was a small crater next to the damaged armored personnel carrier, the inside of which was stained with blood. Nagl began digging in the rubble and soon found fist-size chunks of shrapnel, too large for a rocket-propelled grenade.
“It was an I.E.D.,” he shouted–an improvised explosive device.
Nagl continued digging, unearthing the burned remains of a motorcycle battery. There are two types of detonation devices for I.E.D.’s in Iraq: either a wire is attached to a detonator held by the insurgent, who might be 50 to 100 yards away, or an electrical detonator, attached to a small battery, is triggered by a remote control, like a repurposed garage-door opener. Nagl had found the remnants of the electrical detonator.
A few feet from Nagl, in a corner of the cinder-block hut, his soldiers had flexicuffed a middle-aged, overweight man and pulled his kaffiyeh over his eyes. The Iraqi said he didn’t know who set off the I.E.D. He was trembling and said he was sick and wanted to sit down. He was told to remain standing. On the street, soldiers were stopping cars and searching them; there was no friendliness in any soldier’s demeanor this day.
Nagl had figured out what happened. The insurgents had buried the I.E.D.–two artillery shells wired together–and waited for a patrol to pull up to the hut. When that happened, an insurgent who was across the street, in the front yard of the house, pushed the remote control. Nagl knew that the Americans could have avoided the attack. They had provided an easy target because they had used the hut before as a resting spot for patrols and checkpoints. The insurgents, conducting “pattern analysis,” had noticed this.
An order went out immediately to the battalion: do not stop at the same place for patrols or checkpoints. The only good news of the day was that this lesson had not been learned at a fatal cost. The wounded soldiers would survive.
The insurgency has weaknesses. Its ranks are composed of ex-Baathists, Islamists, small numbers of foreign fighters, criminals and dirt-poor men who agree to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at a passing convoy for $500. It is not cohesive. Nor does it have a positive vision, or any vision, of how Iraq should be governed if the occupiers are driven out. Particularly with the capture of Saddam Hussein and close associates of his, whatever central leadership may have existed has been badly crippled. The American military is hoping that a headless insurgency with dwindling finances will melt away under the pressure of continued raids and precise airstrikes.
Yet the insurgency’s weaknesses are, in a looking-glass fashion, also its strengths. A senior adviser to Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, advised me to read an article in the winter issue of The Washington Quarterly by Steven Metz, the director of research at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Metz is highly regarded in military circles. In the 1990’s he presciently warned that insurgencies would soon return to challenge the United States.
In his article, Metz wrote that disunity among the Iraqi insurgents is not as much of a disadvantage as it might seem: “Unifying the various strands of the Iraqi insurgency behind any one strategy or objective, at least in the short term, will certainly be difficult if not impossible. Yet, this same complexity means that quashing the insurgency will be just as difficult or impossible.” Metz also noted that insurgencies, like those in Colombia and Sierra Leone, often use money to attract fighters, rather than ideology.
In the end, it is not the guile or ingenuity of the insurgents that will determine whether they succeed–their hit-and-run tactics are similar to those seen by Julius Caesar, after all, and they employ an attritional strategy that guerrillas have used for centuries. Instead, the deciding factor will be the guile and ingenuity of the counterinsurgents. If the history of counterinsurgency demonstrates anything, it is that Nagl and officers like him will have to be wily, tenacious and perhaps a little lucky to win. In Iraq today, it would not be unreasonable to consider the American counterinsurgents–though they are equipped with enough firepower to destroy every building in Iraq and enough technology to listen to any whispered conversation–the underdogs.
Even if the insurgency is kept at a low boil, what will happen when an interim government takes control of Iraq in July? Will the government have enough legitimacy? If American forces take a back seat to Iraqi security forces, as they hope to do, will fighting break out among Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds? Will the security forces be strong enough to keep order? Or will they be so strong that they turn Iraq into a dictatorship that exterminates insurgents and civilians alike?
These are risks that Nagl, at least, is willing to run. When I asked, one morning, whether the war was worth its human and financial costs, he described the goal of the occupation as freedom for blighted Iraq. He concluded by enthusiastically using a four-letter word that soldiers utter more frequently than “the” or “and,” followed by, “yeah, it’s worth it.”
Nagl is a gifted officer with the common sense not to confuse hopes with facts. He says he believes he is winning his war, and his grasp of the present, as well as of the past and the future, is as sharp as anyone’s. He knows, though, that the war will be messy and slow, as T.E. Lawrence warned, and he knows enough about wars to realize that the outcome is not assured. That is the nature of guerrilla wars, especially–they are chaotic and confused and only fools predict their results.
Yet if predicting the future is a hopeless endeavor, learning from the past is not. The counterinsurgency books that Nagl studied do impart an important lesson. The goal the United States hopes to reach in Iraq–a successful counterinsurgency that does not drag on for years and does not involve a large amount of killing–has never been achieved by any army.