John Nagl and 'the future of counterinsurgency'

I just got back from an incredibly depressing lecture by John Nagl at King's College London entitled "Afghanistan and its lessons for the future of conflict." Unashamedly addressing the problem from the perspective of the US army, Nagl took us through his conception of counterinsurgency warfare, how the US -- in his analysis -- have responded and learnt from mistakes made in the past, and what this might mean for Afghanistan at the moment and the wars of the future. There were quite a few points and broad themes where we were in complete agreement: the absolute importance of the information or 'strategic communications' element in Afghanistan to any success that might manifest itself, or in terms of any buy-in from Afghans; we agree on the importance of history ("history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes") and on the need for careful, diligent study in order to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.

We differ, though, primarily on the different basis of our professional and personal experience. John Nagl served many years in the US Army, taking part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as well as Operation Enduring Freedom post-2001. He is concerned with the institution that he knows best (the US military), the people who form its staff and worried about its ability to adapt to change from within. These are all valuable pursuits, but it's a very different world to the one that I inhabit, sharing in the ordinary problems and insecurity that Afghan friends face on a daily basis -- with the caveat, of course, that I have a foreign passport and can leave at any point that I choose.

Almost entirely absent from tonight's presentation was the Afghan narrative -- the ordinary experiences of people who have to exist at the sharp end of the spear. I'm not even talking about the 'counter-narrative' which we're starting to see more of from the policy community -- specifically the kind of thing that Mullah Zaeef's book seeks to encourage, and that recent talk of negotiations will only promote further (at least in name).

To that end, I am incredibly worried about his seemingly wholehearted endorsement of 'community defence initiatives'. I don't think I need to go into the reasons why creating and funding tribal militias in southern Afghanistan is to open Pandora's Box -- others have written about it -- but the US military's continued involvement with this idea (with what amounts, by now, to wilful ignorance of the very loud counter-discourse) indicates, to my mind and from where I'm sitting, an emphasis on short-term fixes over long-term strategy and consistent communication of those goals.

There's a whole literature now from scholars, military practitioners, and also from within the US establishment, on how and why the fostering of these tribal or local defence groups is a bad idea, and the only thing to explain it is a reliance on something I like to call 'hope tactics'. About half a year ago, I received an email from a American soldier about to deploy to Nuristan. He'd read a post I'd written together with Felix on tribal militias and wanted to know more about why I thought it wouldn't work. In the end we had to agree to disagree, but he had these words in final response:

It's not that militias are good or bad for Afghans - rather which militias, in which geographical/political setting, with what mission, under whose supervision/ownership, for what purpose, and with what training. In my view - seconded by quite a few Afghans I have interviewed - a locally sourced, tribally/communally managed, non-militarized, properly trained over the long-run, arbakai force may be the preferable solution in some areas of Afghanistan.

...which is all fine and well, except just to go ahead anyway in the hope that you'll be the one who can make it work (even if we forget that people are never deployed long enough to see this kind of thing through to the conclusion and in the kind of detail and perspective that an incredibly important decision like this should entail) is just wishful thinking.

There was also a lot of talk of 'enemies' tonight. Obviously there is a dialectic at the core of counterinsurgency studies -- the insurgent vs the counterinsurgent -- but to my mind this needs to be complicated by the on-the-ground reality that there are no such clear lines dividing government, people, Taliban and all the myriad of other 'groups', particularly in somewhere like southern Afghanistan. While the Q&A session afterwards had him admit more of this detail and 'messiness', this didn't come across in the quite confident presentation that preceded.

Finally, the most worrying of all was his suggestion that, for the future, maybe "the military needs to become more like the State Department, and the State Department need to become more like the military." One of the biggest problems -- in my analysis -- that we suffer from in southern Afghanistan is western political establishments' almost complete reliance on the military to form policy in the absence of their own more creative and useful alternatives. We see this with the United States in particular, but also in the United Kingdom. What we most certainly DON'T need, is a further creep of political power into the hands of the military who, we must remember, only come with a limited toolbox and set of resources to respond to different kinds of problems, notwithstanding Professor Nagl's hopes to the contrary.