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A young Afghan boy smiles for the camera as U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers visit his village to deliver school supplies and conduct counterinsurgency operations in Morgan Kacha village, Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency expert Dr. John Nagl spoke at the Air Force Academy Sept. 21, 2011, about the Defense Department's efforts in the Middle East. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kenny Holston)
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'Eating Soup with a Knife': Author discusses counterinsurgency with cadets

Posted 9/30/2011   Updated 9/30/2011 Email story   Print story


by David Edwards
Academy Spirit staff writer

9/30/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- After two high-profile guest lecturers in two weeks, cadets must be wondering if their school's academic departments are playing a game of can you top this.

Following closely on the heels of "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden's visit to the Air Force Academy, counterinsurgency expert Dr. John Nagl came to deliver the annual Truman Lecture.

Nagl was one of the Army officers involved in developing and implementing Gen. David Petraeus' successful "surge" strategy in Iraq. He is now the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

His speech Sept. 21 shared the title of his Oxford University doctoral thesis, which was published as a book: "Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan."

The title refers to an observation made by the legendary Briton T.E. Lawrence about fighting a war against a rebellion. Nagl applied Lawrence's words to an analysis of Great Britain's battle against insurgents in Malaya and the United States' struggles with guerrillas in Vietnam.

He said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America was left without a true enemy. The country's fighting force failed to adapt to the way future wars would be fight under the new paradigm.

"Conventional militaries typically don't do well fighting insurgencies at first because that's not what they're good at," Nagl said. "When a great power loses a small war, it happens for one reason: It runs out of national will."

After writing the book, Nagl was sent to al-Anbar province in Iraq, where he got a chance to test the principles laid out in his book. An insurgency had engulfed Iraq in sectarian violence, and the United States was caught in the middle.

Nagl said that the Army had neglected counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War, primarily because the war had gone so badly that the military wanted to wash its hands of anything reminiscent of Vietnam.

The insurgents in Iraq and subsequently in Afghanistan exposed the Achilles' heel of the U.S. armed forces. After Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, he chastised the Army's top brass to their faces for their lack of preparedness.

"Unprepared is really a bad thing for a (defense secretary) to say to an entire service," Nagl said. "That left a mark."

Nagl called Gates the best secretary of defense the country has ever had. His accession marked a turning point, as Petraeus and junior officers like Nagl were allowed to work their magic.

Reversing the state of unpreparedness required the Army to change its culture and become a learning organization, Nagl said. This concept is drawn from the work of Richard Downie.

According to Downie, the organizational learning cycle is the process by which a large -- and traditionally rigid -- organization figures out how to "adjust institutional norms, doctrine and procedures in ways designed to minimize previous gaps in performance and maximize future successes."

Once achieved, the process becomes self-perpetuating. An important step in the Army's buy-in to the philosophy was the publication of a counterinsurgency field manual.

"We knew our enemies were reading it," Nagl said. "We just had to get our guys to do it."

He outlined the five tools of successful counterinsurgency to summarize the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, which he called "harbingers of persistent irregular conflict." He also said that the war in Afghanistan is "very much on a knife's edge and could break either way for us."

Having imparted the lessons learned from those two irregular conflicts, Nagl directed his concluding remarks to his audience. Earlier in the week, he had spoken at West Point and the Naval Academy, so he kept the theme going at the Air Force Academy.

"I think many of you will be majors and colonels serving in Afghanistan 15 to 20 years from now," Nagl predicted. "Winston Churchill said, 'You can always count on the United States to do the right thing - after they've exhausted every available alternative.' That's the stage we're at now."

In the Q-and-A following the lecture, a cadet asked Nagl what had happened after the "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq to produce such a virulent insurgency. He responded with an anecdote about the repercussions of the decision to bar former Baath Party members from the new Iraqi government and military.

Nagl said that Petraeus had recognized right away that the decision would be disastrous and tried to persuade the policymakers from going ahead with it. That prompted an admonition to the cadets.

"I want you all to think long and hard about what you will do if you are given an order that you think will be injurious to the United States," he said. "That's something you can start practicing now."

Political science faculty members and about 20 cadets stayed for a reception and took advantage of the opportunity to inquire further of Nagl. Among them was Cadet 3rd Class Joseph Abakunda, a native of Rwanda.

He asked Nagl about the likelihood of proxy wars by the U.S. and China in Africa. Afterwards he said that although cadets sometimes doze off during lectures, no way was that going to happen this time.

"To me, this was not a mere lecture; it was a solution in the making," Abakunda said. "I stayed after the lecture because this was one of the few times I had the chance to talk to someone who didn't speak just from an academic's point of view but someone who knew the ins and outs of policy regarding my country."

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