War on Terrorism Requires More Than Military Force, Expert Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 19, 2008 Winning the war on terrorism will be a long, slow process predicated on earning the loyalty of people insurgents want to control for their own ends, according to one of the U.S. Army’s premier counter-insurgency experts.
Army Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, commander of 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 34th Armored Regiment, based on Fort Riley, Kan., speaks about counterinsurgency operations. Defense Dept. photo by Gerry J. Gilmore
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“We are not going to kill or capture our way out of this,” Army Lt. Col. John A. Nagl told reporters on Fort Riley, Kan., March 17. The war against terrorism, he said, is a generations-long, global endeavor that requires both economic and political assets to be brought into the fight, as well as military power.
Nagl is the commander of 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 34th Armored Regiment, based on Fort Riley. He and his soldiers instruct U.S. troops on how to advise and train Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
A veteran of operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, Nagl is among U.S. military’s top experts in counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. He also helped to write the new U.S. Army/Marine Corps field manual titled, “Counterinsurgency,” which was issued in December 2006.
Nagl pointed out that the best weapon employed against insurgencies “doesn’t shoot bullets.” Winning over the populace by providing protection and economic benefits, he said, is a time-proven strategy which the British used to defeat insurgents in what was then known as Malaya.
In contrast, Nagl said, the U.S. military in Vietnam mostly pursued a strategy of attrition warfare against Viet Cong guerrillas. That strategy didn’t work, he noted, because it eventually soured the South Vietnamese against U.S. operations and goals, a situation that the enemy was eager and ready to exploit.
Nagl also told reporters that the U.S. Army entered the war against terrorism largely unprepared to take on insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army hadn’t had a new counterinsurgency manual for more than 20 years, he noted, having abandoned its previous counterinsurgency doctrine after Vietnam.
Today, the U.S. military recognizes the necessity of having the right plans and doctrine to confront and defeat worldwide insurgent operations, Nagl said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has played a key role in this endeavor, he said.
Radical Islamic fundamentalist teachings are at the heart of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups’ efforts in furthering their aims, while taking advantage of the world’s pockets of poverty, misery and ignorance to recruit new members, Nagl said.
“To defeat that threat is the core of the problem. That is the source of the poisoned water; we have to dam that up,” Nagl emphasized. “And doing that is not a military task. It is an economic development task and an education task.”
The single biggest thing the United States can do to defeat global terrorism is to recreate the U.S. Information Agency, a public-diplomacy entity that was dissolved in 1999, Nagl said.
“This war is primarily a war of ideas; secondarily an economic war; and third, a military war,” Nagl explained. “We have not, I don’t think, put the proper emphasis on economic development and on the power of ideas and education.”
After serving in Operation Desert Storm, Nagl earned his doctorate degree at England’s Oxford University, focusing on the research themes of insurgency and counterterrorism. His Oxford thesis paper is titled: “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.”
At Oxford, Nagl recalled reading T.E. Lawrence’s book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which details the British soldier’s experiences on the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. “Lawrence of Arabia” became famous for his military leadership of Arab nationalists during successful guerrilla campaigns against occupying Turkish forces.
Lawrence was “an insurgent leader … leading an Arab guerrilla army against a conventional western army,” Nagl said. Conventional armies tend to have problems fighting insurgents, he pointed out.
The British chieftain understood and even empathized with his enemy, Nagl said, citing some of Lawrence’s comments in “Pillars of Wisdom” that illustrate his knowledge of the demoralizing impact that his guerrilla operations were having on Turkish forces.
The hit-and-run tactics employed against the Turks made them feel as if they were fighting a ghost, Lawrence surmised.
Lawrence wrote that his forces’ actions against the Turks out in the desert must appear as “‘a vapor to them; we rise up out of the sand, congeal and strike, and then we dissolve back into the sand. Making war on us must be messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.’”
Nagl is slated to retire from the Army. He said plans to take a position as a fellow with the Center for a New American Strategy, a Washington-based think tank.