2004 January 11 Sunday
Peter Maass On Major John Nagl, Counterinsurgency Scholar In Iraq

US Major John Nagl, who has studied counterinsurgency at Oxford, is now in Iraq serving as operations officer for a batallion of the First Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle. The always excellent Peter Maass followed Nagl around for two weeks on patrols and wrote a very insightful report on how US military counterinsurgency efforts are faring in Iraq.

Maj. John Nagl approaches war pragmatically and philosophically, as a soldier and a scholar. He graduated close to the top of his West Point class in 1988 and was selected as a Rhodes scholar. He studied international relations at Oxford for two years, then returned to military duty just in time to take command of a tank platoon during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, earning a Bronze Star for his efforts. After the war, he went back to England and earned his Ph.D. from St. Antony's College, the leading school of foreign affairs at Oxford. While many military scholars were focusing on peacekeeping or the impact of high-tech weaponry, Nagl was drawn to a topic much less discussed in the 1990's: counterinsurgency.

The US civilian presence in Iraq is so meager and incapable that the US military is effectively the ruling government and carries almost all the counterinsurgency burden.

Ignoring the civic side of counterinsurgency has been likened to playing chess while your enemy is playing poker. Though this truism is now well known in the military, Nagl acknowledges that it is not being applied in Iraq as well as it could be.

The civic chores are supposed to be shouldered by the American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, led by L. Paul Bremer III, but the C.P.A. remains isolated and rather inept at implementation. Its presence is minimal outside Baghdad, and even in the capital the C.P.A.'s thousands-strong staff spends much of its time in the so-called Green Zone, in and around Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, behind elaborate rings of security and far removed from Iraqi civilian life. Some of the staff are on 90-day tours: they arrive; they learn a little; they leave. On the few occasions when C.P.A. officials venture outside the compound, they are usually escorted by G.I.'s or private guards.

The single year of service in-country for each soldier sent to Vietnam combined with the ticket-punching mentality of so many officers who treated Vietnam experience as essential for their resumes resulted in a serving force that was not committed to victory and which suffered from a continual lack of experience in a way that lasted many years. The US civilian officials in Baghdad are essentially repeating this mistake with their way of staffing and operating.

One morning, during breakfast at the battalion canteen, I asked Nagl about the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has yet to see a C.P.A. official at the base, he said. He pointed to an empty plastic chair at the table and asked: ''Where's the guy from C.P.A.? He should be sitting right there.''

Given the weakness of the C.P.A., Nagl and other soldiers are effectively in charge not only of the military aspects of the counterinsurgency but also of reconstruction work and political development. Trained to kill tanks, the officers at Camp Manhattan spend much of their time meeting local sheiks and apportioning the thin funds at their disposal for rebuilding; the battalion maintains a list of school-improvement projects known as ''the Romper Room list.'' It is not unusual for Nagl and Colonel Swisher to go out in the morning on a ''cordon and search'' raid and return in the afternoon to their tactical operations center for a meeting with the second in command, Maj. David Indermuehle, about dispersing small grants to local health clinics.

But how can the US forces win over hearts and minds when few of the US soldiers can speak Arabic?

After a half-hour, the crowd filtered away, leaving Nagl with a metaphor for his hearts-and-minds effort: ''Across this divide they're looking at us, we're looking at them from behind barbed wire, and they're trying to understand why we're here, what we want from them. Almost inconceivable to a lot of them, I think, that what we want for them is the right to make their own decisions, to live free lives. It's probably hard to understand that if you have lived your entire life under Saddam Hussein's rule. And it's hard for us to convey that message, particularly given the fact that few of us speak Arabic.''

To the extent that US troops in Iraq can not speak Arabic and can not accurately identify who is an enemy and who is a neutral or a friend to that extent the US will use the wrong kinds of force against the wrong targets and will create resentment and build up support for the enemy. Well, US forces have not been trained well enough for counterinsurgency and do not know Arabic or Arab culture in sufficient numbers to be able to function down at the batallion, company, and platoon levels with the finesse and insight that the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq requires.

''I didn't realize how right Lawrence of Arabia was,'' Nagl said to me once. ''My first experience of war was the gulf war, which was very clean. We shot the tanks that didn't look like ours, we shot the enemy wearing a uniform that didn't look like ours, we destroyed the enemy in 100 hours. That's kind of what I thought war was. Even when I was writing that insurgency was messy and slow, the full enormity of that did not sink in on me. I am seeing appreciable progress, but I am starting to understand in the pit of my stomach how hard, how long, how slow counterinsurgency really is. There is no prospect it's going to end anytime soon.''

Maass recounts a visit to a training camp where US soldiers are teaching Iraqi recruits for the new Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). What does it say about US capabilities to train Arabs that the Arabs are being taught to say in English ''Raise your hands!'' and ''Drop your weapon!''? The Americans are giving the Iraqis English language nicknames because the Americans can't remember the Iraqi names. This is ineptitude.

More of the aid money being sent to Iraq ought to be passed down to the batallion level for dispersal by officers on the front line of the counterinsurgency. They ought to have that money to pass out in order to give them more carrots to use along with their sticks. Also, thousands of officers and regular soldiers ought to be getting intensive courses in Arabic in advance of their deployment to Iraq.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 January 11 04:50 PM  Military War, Rumours Of War

AMac said at January 11, 2004 5:33 PM:

The US must have hundreds of thousands of fluent and near-fluent Arabic speakers: immigrant citizens, Green Card holders, J-1 and H-1 visa holders; first-generation Americans who grew up in Arabic or bilingual households; non-Arabic Americans who have learned the language. Where have they been for the past year; where did they figure in the pre-war planning for the postwar period? The need for Arabic-fluent Coalition personnel is not a surprise that could have caught anyone unawares.

Stories about the tensions in the FBI between two camps of translators (sorry, no link to hand) may provide part of the answer. Native-born Americans, some non-Arab, have accused some immigrant Muslim Arabs of sympathizing with detainees who are the subjects of interrogations, and of slanting their translations to put the detainees' answers in the most favorable or innocuous light possible.

And I can't help but suspect a certain schadenfreude among Middle-Eastern-Studies academics and in the State Department, given that many in these circles vehemently opposed American intervention in Iraq. Why bust a gut to help out your ideological and political opponents, when their every failure proves the correctness of your own position? I don't recall reading any evidence to this effect--but I do wonder.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at January 11, 2004 11:36 PM:

I agree. It would seem that we have plenty of Arabic speakers in the US. We need to find a creative way to use them in the counterinsurgency effort. That means dealing with the issue of trust, and also, if the CPA stays weak, having them help the military as contractors so they don't have to join the ranks. If every army company had an Arabic speaking contractor with them, I suspect life would go a lot better. And, of course, there are lots of Iraqis who are bilingual English and Arabic, and who are probably underemployed. Finding a way to use them would also help. A similar approach was used in Vietnam.

Perhaps with the Marines moving in, things will change. They are likely to be more creative in this, and are (as I understand it) better trained and organized for this sort of activity. And the Commandant is not a by-the-book sort of guy, he is very results oriented.

In any case, we need to learn how to do this, because I suspect Iraq is not the last place it will need to be done (hear that, Bashir?).

Wes Ulm said at January 14, 2004 2:53 AM:

A wonderful article, and one can only hope that more individuals like Maj. John Nagl are taking the reins of this operation in Iraq. The guy offers forthright, nuanced, sagacious, unvarnished analysis of a messy situation-- one of those precious assets that's essential right now in Iraq. And his comment about inadequacies in proficiency in the Iraqi native language is right on the money. If we're going to dispatch our military into far-off locales across the world, we need to support them better in meeting the challenges of the local region. Since Arabic is one of the world's most widely-spoken languages, there should be more preparation for it in general, and soldiers with the prospect of a Mideast posting should be offered intensive courses *early on*, the way it's done at the Defense Language Institute-- this applies both to Iraq and to the interpreters working at Gitmo, and to those rounding up al-Qaeda operatives. I'm befuddled by the attitude of some segments of American society that "English is the only language that matters"-- a regrettable fantasy that hurts us every day. This is a lamentable, self-defeating, self-destructive attitude that I've come to detest. We can't pretend to be the world's bellwether if we can't speak to the rest of the world. So there should be a general incentive to inculcate the need for foreign-language training from the get-go, and respect the pursuit of linguistic proficiency. It wouldn't hurt for more kids to be raised bilingually the way it's done in Europe (I guess English and Spanish here), but at the very least there should be a more intensive push to require foreign language proficiency in the high schools and colleges.

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christiaan hamburg said at April 9, 2004 7:51 AM:

Americans lost the war in Vietnam because they did not do what the British did in Malaya only a few years earlier. If you Americans want to successfully deal with Iraq review the British tactics in Malaya. Of course one is not advocating a slavish transposition. The question arises - as the article indicates - about how you deal with the vertical integration of local issues, Iraqi mind-sets and internal v's external power generation. I would also hazard a guess that the poor general education of the American soldier makes them ill-equipped to deal with the situation, not just because Arabic isn't spoken, it is the fact personal interest in the wider world is lacking.

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