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How the US learned counterinsurgency

Commentary, 2 September 2011
Counterinsurgency, Terrorism
By Lt Col John Nagl<br> After learning painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has become the most capable counterinsurgency force in history.

After learning painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has become the most capable counterinsurgency force in history.

By Lt. Col. (retd.) John Nagl, author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.
More: www.rusi.org/terrorism/911

Iraq counter-insurgency

I first read T E Lawrence's observation that 'To make war on rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife' sometime in 1996. I knew instantly that I had found the title of my doctoral dissertation, but thought that I had discovered much more. As a veteran of conventional combat in Operation Desert Storm and of many hours reading the great works of counter-insurgency in the University of Oxford's Codrington Library, I believed that with Lawrence's help I now understood the bitterness of this ancient form of warfare.

I was wrong. I learned just how wrong seven years later, in a town called Khalidiyah in Iraq that featured an old RAF base and a cemetery where British veterans of earlier Sunni rebellions had found their final resting place. The United States takes her sons and daughters home when they fall in foreign lands, so no Yanks joined the Brits in that little corner of England - but too many of them fell as I experienced how bitter the draught of counter-insurgency tasted, and realised that Lawrence had undersold his story.

The US was coming to the same realisation. What was supposed to be a cakewalk became a rebellion exacerbated by mistakes like disbanding the Iraqi army and barring former members of the Ba'ath party from government service. The US occupiers were the initial targets of a Sunni insurgency that in time shifted its focus to killing newly empowered Shia. In the midst of a civil war, the US continued a too-optimistic effort to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces that were not yet capable of holding their country together.

The midterm elections of November 2006 were a resounding renunciation of American strategy. They led President George W Bush to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - who had forbidden use of the term 'insurgency' to describe the situation in Iraq - with Robert Gates, who stated at his confirmation hearing that the US was not winning the war. General David Petraeus assumed command during some of the darkest days of the civil war, with dozens of bodies of tortured Sunni men turning up on the streets of Baghdad every morning. He implemented his new counter-insurgency doctrine by building joint Iraqi-American security stations throughout Baghdad and encouraged the 'Awakening' of Sunni tribes against Al-Qa'ida in Iraq. By the summer of 2008, the insurgency had been broken - or had burned itself out.

This was in the nick of time, for America's other war was going increasingly badly. Barack Obama, who had campaigned on refocusing attention on the war in Afghanistan, found the situation there so dire that he nearly tripled US forces during the first year of his presidency. For the first time, American commanders had sufficient troops to begin to implement classic 'clear, hold, build' counter-insurgency doctrine in southern Afghanistan. They made real progress on the ground, albeit marred by corruption in Afghan governance, and began handing over more secure parts of the country to Afghan security forces this past summer. Many made silent prayers that the Afghans were ready.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden underlined the success the US had had in dismantling Al-Qa'ida around the globe, largely due to counter-terrorism efforts relying on drones and special operations forces, but aided by broader counter­insurgency efforts. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks finds the United States military as the most capable counter­insurgency force in history, but with little appetite for exercising that hard-gained competence again on a broad scale. The US has learned painful lessons over a decade that began with a debilitating strike on its homeland but ends with a nation wiser in the ways of an ancient form of war.

John NaglJohn Nagl is President of the Center for a New American Security.

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