John Nagl, a retired U.S. army officer and former Rhodes Scholar, is a well-known proponent of counterinsurgency doctrine. He served as president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), an influential security policy think tank closely tied to the Barack Obama administration, until January 2012.
Along with General David Petraeus, Nagl was a member of a self-described "cabal" of current and former officers who sought to promote counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) from within the army's ranks after the onset of the "war on terror." Describing his book about this campaign, author Fred Kaplan said: "It's the story of a small group of intellectual officers, most of them from West Point's Social Science Department, who conspired (they called themselves a 'cabal' or a 'mafia') to revolutionize the Army from within. Like most revolutions, the ideas hardened into dogma, and so the story devolves into tragedy–or, to put it another way, Afghanistan."
Nagl was tapped to head CNAS in 2009, shortly after Michele Flournoy—the center's cofounder and a well-known "liberal hawk"—as well as several other CNAS alumni were recruited into the Obama administration. When he stepped down from this post in early 2012, many observers speculated that Nagl's decision was in reaction to the Obama administration's increasing disillusion with counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, which had dampened his prospects for landing a Pentagon post. Indeed, in August 2012, when Nagl became headmaster of the private Haverford prep school in Philadelphia after a stint at the U.S. Naval Academy, a writer for The American Conservative opined: "Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week's news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia's Main Line."
Nagl has nevertheless remained a vocal advocate for COIN, penning op-eds in major newspapers to recast the "muddled" results of Iraq and Afghanistan as success stories. "Obama should welcome an Iraq-like end to Afghanistan," he wrote for the New York Times in June 2012. "[A]s contradictory as it may seem, messy and unsatisfying are the hallmarks of success in modern counterinsurgency wars." He concluded that like "any successful counterinsurgency, Afghanistan is likely to end somewhat unsatisfyingly for Americans, with a corrupt but gradually improving government in Kabul, advisers helping Afghan security forces fight a weakening but still dangerous Taliban, and a schizophrenic Pakistan alternately helping Afghan and Taliban fighters. It may also, in the odd logic of counterinsurgency, be more likely to succeed if we leave the project somewhat unfinished."
Later that year, in October 2012, Nagl wrote in the Washington Post that the war in Afghanistan was a success, arguing that since Vietnam, Americans had simply "forgotten" what losing a war looks like. He went on to declare that the United States was likely to achieve its "objectives" of "defeating al-Qaeda; preventing al-Qaeda and its affiliates from establishing permanent bases in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan; and maintaining our own bases in the region from which to operate drones, manned aircraft and Special Operations forces." Pointing out that U.S. forces remain "in countries around the globe where we have fought and won our wars," Nagl argued that the likelihood of a protracted U.S. involvement in the region "is what success looks like in such wars."
Journalist Simon Klingert took issue with Nagl's argument, calling it "intellectually dishonest" and accusing Nagl of redefining the Afghanistan mission's purported goals. "[P]ermanently maintaining bases for drone operators and special forces has never been explicitly articulated by the U.S. government as being a strategic goal, at least not as part of the current mission," Klingert wrote. "It must be assumed that this is Nagl's very own interpretation of U.S. strategic objectives in Afghanistan, and as such, this makes a poor basis for any argument." Countering Nagl's apparent position that "war without end" is a metric for success, Klingert quipped that "per Nagl's definition, success of this mission amounts to maintain[ing] a costly and mostly unwanted presence in a hostile region."
Nagl took over as head of CNAS in early 2009, when Michelle Flournoy, CNAS's cofounder, was appointed undersecretary of defense for policy. Also in 2009, Nagl was named to the Defense Policy Board, a federal advisory body that provides advice to Pentagon officials on defense-related issues. During the first George W. Bush administration, the board was chaired by Richard Perle, who used it to promote an expansive "war on terror" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Although he eschews grand ideology in favor of technocratic approaches to conflicts, Nagl's promotion of counterintelligence doctrine in current U.S. military interventions made him a favorite of neoconservatives, who featured him at the kick-off of the think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI)." FPI is an advocacy group founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan that is viewed by some observers as a successor to the Project for the New American Century, a now-defunct group that played a key role in shopping neoconservatives foreign policies during the Bush administration.
In early 2009, Nagl participated in FPI's inaugural conference titled "Afghanistan: Planning for Success." The event was striking for its support for President Obama, who had recently announced plans to send 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan. A bipartisan group of officials and policy wonks—including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Robert and Frederick Kagan, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and Nagl—praised Obama's escalation policy.
In his speech, Nagl argued that the new troops were "merely a down payment on the vastly expanded force needed to protect all 30 million Afghan people." Offering bipartisan support for militarist thinking of neoconservative groups like FPI, Nagl said, "There used to be a bipartisan consensus in this country on foreign policy, in particular when we have our sons and daughters at war. And I am hopeful that events like this will contribute to that."
Although not a political ideologue in the same vein as the neoconservatives, Nagl shares their deep-seated belief in the value of U.S. military intervention, in particular counterinsurgency warfare. In his writings, Nagl acknowledges the disastrous results of some past U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns—notably Vietnam—while lauding purported successes elsewhere. For example, he has repeatedly characterized the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines in the early 1900s as a success, despite the scorched-earth tactics used to pacify the populace.
Many of Nagl's—and CNAS'—policy prescriptions follow this pattern: a technocratic assessment of problems stemming from politically and/or morally dubious interventions. Describing CNAS, journalist Daniel Luban writes, "The organization's general self-presentation … comes across as more technocratic than political, concerned with tactics rather than strategy."
Nagl's first major publication was his 2002 book, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. Based on his doctoral thesis at Oxford, the book compares Britain's post-World War II counterinsurgency war in Malaysia to the U.S. campaign in Vietnam, arguing that "the better performance of the British Army in learning and implementing a successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Malaya (as compared to the American Army's failure to learn and implement successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Vietnam) is best explained by the differing organizational cultures of the two armies; in short, that the British Army was a learning institution and the American Army was not."
Describing the book and Nagl's application of his analysis, author Tara McKelvey writes, "The Vietnam War … shows the importance of understanding tribal loyalties, working to improve the lives of civilians, and training local forces. Many of these lessons were forgotten in the decades following Vietnam. Nagl believes this is an oversight, and he has worked harder than almost anyone to bring these fundamental tenets of counterinsurgency into the military mainstream. Indeed, he has helped turn things around so dramatically that now counterinsurgency not only is seen as a legitimate and honorable pursuit but has become the guiding doctrine of the U.S. military."
Nagl also argues in the book that the United States is engaged in a "Long War" that could take several decades—a notion initially promoted by hardliners in the Bush administration. Writes Nagl, "Iraq is but one front in a broader war against Salafist extremists dedicated to eliminating Western influence from the Islamic world; winning the struggle may take decades. There is a growing realization that the most likely conflicts of the next fifty years will be irregular warfare in an 'Arc of Instability' that encompasses much of the greater Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South Asia. To cope more effectively with the messy reality that in the twenty-first century many of our enemies will be insurgents, America's armed forces must continue to change."
Commenting on the "Long War" idea, which has been promoted by other "liberal interventionist" groups like the Center for American Progress, activist Tom Hayden writes, "The implications of this doctrine are staggering. The very notion of a fifty-year war assumes the consent of the American people, who have yet to hear of the plan, for the next six national elections."
After serving as an operations officer in Iraq in 2002-2003, Nagl joined a team of academics and military officers (which included the neoconservative academic Eliot Cohen) that was tasked with rewriting the U.S. army's counterinsurgency manual. Describing the earlier manual, Nagl and coauthor Nathaniel Fick, CEO of CNAS, wrote in early 2009: "Two years ago, General [David] Petraeus oversaw the creation of a new counterinsurgency field manual for the U.S. military. Its release marked a definitive break with a losing strategy in Iraq and reflected a creeping realization in Washington: To avoid repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military would have to relearn and institutionalize that conflict's key lessons. At the time, the doctrine the manual laid out was enormously controversial, both inside and outside the Pentagon. It remains so today. Its key tenets are simple, but radical: Focus on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. Assume greater risk. Use minimum, not maximum force. For a military built on avoiding casualties with quick, decisive victories, many believe such precepts veer far too close to nation-building and other political tasks soldiers are ill-equipped to handle. Still others attack the philosophy as cynically justifying the United States' continued presence in Iraq—neocolonialism dressed up in PowerPoint. Either way, the manual's critics recognize a singular fact: The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war."
According to the conservative scholar Andrew Bacevich, Nagl's writings are at the forefront of an emerging trend in U.S. military thinking that insists "Vietnam could have been won" if only commanders had "grasp[ed] the true nature of the problem and respond[ed] appropriately." For Nagl, writes Bacevich, the 9/11 attacks "'conclusively demonstrated that instability anywhere can be a real threat to the American people here at home.' … Instability creates ungoverned spaces in which violent anti-American radicals thrive. Yet if instability anywhere poses a threat, then ensuring the existence of stability everywhere … becomes a national-security imperative. Define the problem in these terms, and winning battles becomes less urgent than pacifying populations and establishing effective governance. War in this context implies not only coercion but also social engineering. As Nagl puts it, the security challenges of the 21st century will require the U.S. military 'not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies.'"
A Nebraska native, Nagl attended West Point, graduating in 1988 near the top of his class. Selected as a Rhodes Scholar, Nagl studied international relations at Oxford for two years before serving as a tank platoon commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After the war, he returned to Oxford to complete his doctorate at St. Antony's College. It was during his time at Oxford, writes author Peter Maass, that 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." Nagl's doctoral thesis, "British and American Army Counterinsurgency Learning during the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War," would later serve as the basis for his 2002 book, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam.
After serving in Iraq as an army operations officer, Nagl became an assistant to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. He subsequently was tapped to serve on the Petraeus-led team that rewrote the Army's counterinsurgency manual.
In 2008, when he retired from the army to join CNAS, Nagl told the Washington Post, "It's not the strain of repeated deployments [but] a belief that I can contribute perhaps on a different level—and my family wants me to leave." He added, "I hope to focus on national security for the remainder of my days. Obviously you don't have to do that in uniform."