On March 19, it will have been 10 years since the United States invaded Iraq. Foreign Policy and the RAND Corporation teamed up to bring together many of the key players who launched, fought, analyzed, and executed the war, including everyone from Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley and Gen. John Allen to Doug Feith, the controversial Bush Pentagon aide who advocated for the war in 2003, and Paul Pillar, the CIA analyst who later went public with his doubts. It quickly became clear that, even a decade later, every aspect of the war -- from its rationale through each phase of its execution -- remains hotly contested. We hope this unique conversation adds to the record of how we understand that war -- and in particular, what its consequences will be, and already are, for future American national security debates. We present here edited excerpts from the second part of the discussion, on America's belated embrace of counterinsurgency in the Iraq war -- and whether and how the legacy of that shift will live on after the conflicts of the post-9/11 decade are long behind us. The session was moderated by FP's Susan Glasser, and you can find a full list of participants and their bios here. The first part of the transcript can be read here.
Susan Glasser, editor in chief, Foreign Policy: Clearly there's a debate around this table on the question of, what was the nature of the insurgency, was it an insurgency, was it a civil war? When did we understand it to be the case? And of course, we have so many interesting perspectives on that, including the person who wrote the book on [counterinsurgency]. So I am going to turn to John Nagl.
I also wanted to dial back in time for one second and say, what if we were having this conversation at the end of the Vietnam War? I assume there were many conversations like this that were in fact held in the 1970s. So why and how did we lose that thread? And in the spirit of that, what are the threads that are most important for us to take away from this going forward?
But I do want to start with John, who did write the book on that. I think there's a little bit of a new conventional wisdom that COIN, counterinsurgency doctrine, was perhaps a tactic that we've turned into a strategy, that we've embraced it as sort of a cure-all. Now maybe there's a backlash to that in the sense that, well, America's not going to get into these wars anymore, and so therefore what do we need it for?
Lt. Col John Nagl (ret.): I tried to figure out why it was that the Army had buried the lessons of Vietnam so effectively, and wrote both the best and the worst doctoral dissertation written on counterinsurgency in the 1990s because it was the only one. And then having written the book, I went and did the research in Al Anbar in 2003/2004.
This was a time when we were forbidden to use the word "insurgency" to describe the insurgency in Iraq. I can refer you to the video of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld correcting Pete Pace, when General Pace used the word "insurgents" to describe the people we were fighting in Iraq at a time I was fighting insurgents in Iraq -- and I was, in fact, fighting both Sunni insurgents and AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq]. And I came back from Iraq, we printed up coffee mugs that said "Iraq 2003-2004." We were winning when I left. [LAUGHTER]
I went to work at the Pentagon -- big change from Al Anbar, in Al Anbar I knew who I was fighting -- and started trying to resuscitate the idea of counterinsurgency. [I] had some success with that, with Dave Petraeus as part of the general relearning process for lessons that have long existed -- that RAND, among other organizations, discovered in the first counterinsurgency era in the '60s.
There is nothing particularly new in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual [written by Nagl and Petraeus]. Two pillars: one of them, protect the population first; the second, learn and adapt, build an adaptive learning organization. And those principles, I think, stand up pretty well.
Counterinsurgency is a set of tools used by the military, and by civilian organizations, and it is primarily civilian. And the military completely agreed that we have not properly resourced those capabilities. But it can only work in the context of a political framework that knows what we're trying to accomplish.
If there's one thing that we failed to do in Iraq and in Afghanistan as effectively as we should have, it's security forces assistance -- a long-standing principle required for success and counterinsurgency. We continued to not resource that properly. That is the raison d'être for the American Army in this century. It is refusing to accept that. We are continuing to mess that up, and will continue to mess it up until somebody grabs the Army by the shoulders and shakes it and says, security force assistance is your job. Do it.