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John Nagl says the U.S. isn’t finished in Iraq

Kai Ryssdal Oct 15, 2014
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American soldiers found chemical weapons in Iraq as long as a decade ago, left over from Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran, according to a New York Times investigation. Some U.S. troops were injured by the shells. Both the discoveries and injuries were kept secret. 

This comes against the backdrop of deepening American involvement in the region, where we’ve already invested close to $2 trillion in Iraq alone. 

John Nagl helped write the Army and Marine Corps’ “Counterinsurgency Field Manual.” In a new memoir he details the cost of the wars – both in terms of money and, in his view, credibility – through the lens of his own life. A retired Lt. Col. and Pentagon official, Nagl served in Iraq twice. 

“There clearly is another war happening in Iraq right now,” Nagl said, referring to the 1,600 troops on the ground as military advisers, plus the supporting planes, ships, and intelligence officers. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be as big for the United States as the last Iraq war was, or my first Iraq war was. But the implications of the war and the necessity of to get it right is just as big as it was the last two times. 

Nagl’s new book”Knife Fights,” catalogs what he sees as the costs of the second Iraq war through the lens of his personal experience in the region: 

1990
Nagl deployed to Iraq in first Gulf War

2003-2004
Nagl deployed to Al Anbar province, Iraq

NYT Magazine cover story: Prof. Nagl’s War 

2004 
Saddam Hussein captured. 

Nagl returned to Washington, DC to work in office of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. Co-authored the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual with Gen. David Petraeus.

Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq 

Job prospects for Petraeus

2007
Iraq Surge: U.S. sends additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province

Troop cuts could mean contractor surge

2011
Official end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq

U.S. troops quit Iraq, but large U.S. presence remains

What Iraq taught us about reconstruction

2014
Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

ISIS gains control of key infrastructure in Iraq


Read an excerpt from “Knife Fights” below:

PREFACE

 

This is a book about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women. It is a tale of wars that needed to be fought and wars that were not necessary but that happened nonetheless, at enormous cost in blood and treasure. It is also an intellectual coming-of-age story, that of both the author and the institution to which he devoted most of his adult life, the American military. It is a book about counterinsurgency and its journey from the far periphery of U.S. military doctrine to its center, for better and, some would argue, for worse. It is also, then, a book about America’s role in the world, and specifically about when and how we use military force abroad in the name of national security.

The book largely takes the form of a memoir, which feels somewhat self-indulgent to me—I was very much more shaped by than shaper of the events this book relates. But my hope is that following the arc of my own learning curve will be the easiest way for a reader to understand the broader story of the American military’s radical adaptation to a world of threats very different from those involving nuclear weapons and Soviet tanks massed at the Fulda Gap that I studied at West Point a generation ago. Following that arc will also help to explain why, after decades of responsibility for the lives of American soldiers, I have recently shouldered the responsibility to prepare another generation of young men for a life of service far from the battlefield, in the classrooms and on the playing fields of friendly strife as the ninth headmaster of The Haverford School.

The U.S. military changed quickly after 9/11—not quickly enough from the perspective of those we lost and had injured, but quickly indeed by the standards of very large, hierarchical institutions. Some say the military in fact has changed too quickly, embracing counterinsurgency with a fervor that has had unforeseen negative consequences. I do not take that view. This book is not a pep rally, not a victory lap around counterinsurgency’s successes in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan, where they have been thinner on the ground. But as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., liked to say, the right question is often “Compared to what?” Any intellectually serious reckoning with America’s post-9/11 wars has to contend with what the alternatives were once the decision to invade Iraq had been too hastily made and too poorly implemented. In the wake of mistakes there are sometimes no good choices; in both Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency was the least bad option available.

I had the rare opportunity to be involved in both the theory and the practice of war, helping write doctrine and also living with the consequences of implementing doctrine in the field as an officer responsible for the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The bulk of my combat experience was in Iraq, and Iraq is central to the story this book tells. But the shadow of Afghanistan hangs over all of it, even the Iraq story.

The first post-9/11 consequence of the American military’s pre-9/11 focus on large, conventional combat operations wasn’t the failure to see the Iraq War for what it was. First there was the Afghan campaign of the fall of 2001, a campaign conceived of and initiated by the CIA because the American military had no plan on the shelf that spoke to such a situation. The Afghan campaign’s initial success at scattering America’s enemies allowed us to make the mistake of immediately pivoting to Iraq, sinking us into the morass of two ground wars in Asia when one would have been more than enough.

Focusing on Iraq meant taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and gain strength, blinding us to the true nature of the situation there until it was almost too late.

If Iraq was the midterm, Afghanistan is the final exam. It’s a lot harder than the midterm. And while we eked out a passing grade on the midterm, after a horrible start, the final grade remains in doubt, an incomplete. We’re unlikely to know the answer for some years to come, but the Afghan end state is important for the future of the region and for America’s place in the world—a world that is likely to be roiled by insurgency and counterinsurgency for decades to come.

The story begins in a very different place and time, a time when the Soviet Union had just been tossed into the dustbin of history, its internal contradictions rendered unbearable after its own painful war in Afghanistan. America stood unchallenged as the world’s only superpower for the first time in history, but Saddam Hussein had misread American determination to enforce the international security regime it had created in the wake of the Second World War. For the first time since Vietnam, the United States deployed the full weight of American power abroad. It was a heady and unsettling time for a young man who had studied war but never seen it.

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