2014 November 01 Saturday
John Nagl Still Promoting His Counterinsurgency Ideas

A major US counterinsurgency (COIN) strategist during the US troop involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, John Nagl, has written a book trying to argue that the outcomes in those countries do not discredit him and his ideas. Nagl has excuses.

According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.

But when are the Aghans (I use that term as shorthand for a variety of tribes practicing high rates of consanguineous marriage) going to be ready for democracy? To put it another way: when will their culture become so radically transformed that they do not marry their cousins and do not have extremely strong loyalties to extended family at the expense of loyalty to the nation-state? This sort of change is measured in generations and this sort of change hasn't even started yet.

While I'm at it: Is the Pakistani deep state going to change its approach to Afghanistan any time soon in a way that would help start to cause developments (that would require several generations at least) to enable democracy to work well in Afghanistan? Even if Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI wanted the Afghans to become less tribal could ISI cause this transformation? Hint: Pakistan has tribes (including Pashtuns) within its own borders and has limited control in tribal areas.

US strategy is doomed to fail in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and assorted other places where you should not want to live because US strategy is based on mythology about human nature.

Some of you are too young to remember this but once upon a time some US Secretaries of State were very smart and knew stuff about other countries. That really helps. For example, Henry Kissinger makes some obvious observations about Arab Spring:

The Arab Spring is widely presented as a regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles. Yet Libya is not ruled by such forces; it hardly continues as a state. Neither is Egypt, whose electoral majority (possibly permanent) is overwhelmingly Islamist. Nor do democrats seem to predominate in the Syrian opposition.

Henry goes on to explain how the Sunni vs Shia divide explains Arab state positions on the Syria civil war better than differing opinions about democracy. His whole essay is a refreshing dose of real politik explained with observations that our elites deny and ignore. Read the whole thing.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2014 November 01 10:18 AM 

Black Death said at November 1, 2014 1:54 PM:

When will the Afghans be ready for democracy? Try never. No history of democracy, low per capita GDP, Islam, tribalism in spades - all combine to make a pretty toxic brew for the advocates of democracy.

The British invaded Afghanistan three times and got their butts kicked out every time (the first "Harry Flashman" novel is an excellent account of the initial debacle). The Russians tried it too, with the same result. The current US efforts will meet failure as well.

Nagl sounds like a liberal - when an attempt meets failure, try the same thing again, only harder. Never question the underlying assumptions of a failed program.

I once worked with a guy, a lapsed Sunni Muslim from Pakistan. He had served with the Paki army in the so-called tribal areas near the Afghan border. I asked him what it was like up there. "Pretty wild," he said. "The army tried to control the roads and 100 meters on either side (the locals liked to set up road blocks and extort money from travellers). If we caught them, we killed them, but otherwise we left them alone unless they bothered us, in which case we'd try to kill as many of them as possible."

Colonel Nagl needs a reality enema.

Jim said at November 2, 2014 6:35 AM:

Afghanistan is one of the least likely places in the world for any kind of democracy. I recall reading once that 200 different languages are spoken there including Indic, Iranian, Turkic, and Caucasian languages. It is silly to even speak of "Afghans". There are no such people. "Afghans" are as fictitious as "Yugoslavs".

Dan said at November 2, 2014 4:21 PM:

We should not be promoting democracy. That is stupid. We should be for things like religious freedom, free speech and law and order and openness to people like us. If those ideals and democracy are opposed, then we should favor whoever is for them.

Following this, it would have been obvious to favor Gaddafi and the Egyptian military over the radical Islamist movements that were the opposition. It would have been obvious that al Malaki sucked and that Pakistan was no great ally.

What kind of a superpower chooses foreign policy expressly to close off the world to themselves? Maybe China is the real superpower, because the portion of the world open to Chinese people is much larger than the portion of the world open to Americans. This includes the fact that Chinese are more free to vote, own things and enforce contracts in America than the reverse. This is true of our relations with many nations.

Libertarians are the ultimate betas, advocating noninvolvement with nations that reject our people, while wishing to invite in tons of nationals from those same countries.

The concept, 'America is a communist country' is perhaps not as accurate as simply, 'America is beta.'

albatross said at November 2, 2014 7:49 PM:

To paraphrase Robin Hanson, foreign policy isn't about foreign countries. It's about winning status battles among the elites in US government and media and academic circles.

That's why US foreign policy is so stupid. It's not like the State Dept. or CIA or Pentagon can't find anyone who knows what Afghanistan is like. All three organizations have genuine experts on every country we might ever want to be involved in. But those experts aren't important for making our foreign policy because our foreign policy mostly isn't about those countries. That's why the masterminds of the Iraq war didn't know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and didn't have much idea about what it would have taken for Saddam to have a nuclear weapons program going on. Plenty of people inside the US government could have told them, but the information wasn't important for their decisions. The decisions weren't about stopping Saddam from getting nukes or democratizing Iraq or protecting Israel or fighting terrorism--the decisions were about gaining power internally inside the US.

One way to see that this is true: Look to see whether or not the masterminds of our clusterfucks in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya have lost any status. Do they get ignored now in public debates about foreign policy? Or are they still invited to write op eds, taken seriously by political leaders and decisionmakers? (Similar things apply to our financial regulation and management of our economy.) Stupid, counterfactual policies largely paid off--their authors gained in status by proposing them, and are still taken seriously now, despite their obvious failure. (Indeed, even calling those obvious failures a failure is a little politically touchy--so many poweful people had a hand it them that both parties and most big media outlets have a certain incentive to downplay the awfulness of our decisions.)

Mike Street Station said at November 7, 2014 11:01 AM:

There may not have been anything inherently wrong with Nagl's COIN strategy in and of itself, but you can't separate the military strategy from the political strategy, particularly with COIN. As sophisticated as the military strategy might have been, the political strategy boiled down to: "Democracy, Yeah!"

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