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CHIPS Articles: Interview with Lt. Col. John A. Nagl; Commander, 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment

Interview with Lt. Col. John A. Nagl; Commander, 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment
By CHIPS Magazine - April-June 2007
Collaboration on Field Manual 3-24 - Counterinsurgency began in 2004. It had been 20 years since the Army published a formal field manual devoted to counterinsurgency operations, and 25 years since the Marine Corps published its last manual on the subject.

Because counterinsurgency is so complex encompassing a people's socio-economic makeup, culture and religious beliefs, the manual only establishes guidelines with historical lessons and insights.

Counterinsurgency is often described as a mix of offensive, defensive and stability operations. Thus, the demands on American and coalition troops are equally complicated. Now, they must be nation builders, facilitating the establishment of local governance and the rule of law. They must provide humanitarian assistance and build trust with the local population.

CHIPS asked Lt. Col. Nagl, who is a recognized authority on counterinsurgency and assisted in the development of the field manual, to talk about its importance to the global war on terror. Nagl was interviewed Feb. 2, 2007, after his luncheon remarks at West 2007, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute.

Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

CHIPS: Because the enemy can adapt easily to changes in the field, isn't it dangerous to have the manual so openly available?

Lt. Col. Nagl: The principles of counterinsurgency are largely timeless and counterinsurgency is very different from the insurgency. Even if the insurgent knows what we are trying to do — and he does have our playbook— it doesn't enable him to defeat us. The important thing now is that for the first time we all have a playbook.

The decision was made way above my pay grade, that is was important to have this document readily available to all of us — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, CIA, State Department, United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, and our nongovernmental partners — to get all of us working off the same sheet of music. It is worth the risk of tipping our hand to the enemy.

A lot of the agencies and partners that we need to work with don't have security clearances, but they are engaged in the fight, and we need their help to win the war!

CHIPS: So U.S. allies and partners should also be reading the manual? Would it help the average American to understand the war on terror to read it also? Where can we find it?

Lt. Col. Nagl: The average American would absolutely benefit from reading this field manual. It helps to explain an important component of America's national strategy for winning the global war on terror, which my friend, David Kilcullen, a former Australian infantry commander, has described as a Global Insurgency.

The more American citizens and our global partners know about the kind of war we're fighting, and our strategy to win it, the more support we'll have for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, diplomats, aid workers, and intelligence officers whose help we need to win it. The manual can be downloaded at

CHIPS: Who are the authors of the field manual?

Lt. Col. Nagl: Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus [the top U.S. commander in Iraq today] and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Mattis provided the leadership and the vision for the project, but the editor of the project was Dr. Conrad Crane. Crane is a retired Army lieutenant colonel with a Ph.D. from Stanford who was honored by Newsweek as a "Man to Watch" for his contribution to the intellectual development of the Army and Marine Corps.

'Con' pulled together a team of Army and Marine Corps veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a number of academics, most of whom were also combat veterans.

Although we did talk with people from all of the services, and we do have an 'Air Power in Counterinsurgency' annex, this is primarily a land forces document. The Department of Defense is working on a Joint Counterinsurgency Manual, while the State Department is taking the lead on a manual to help the rest of the government understand its critical role in counterinsurgency.

CHIPS: You talked about how we are not making enough use of information operations or IO. There are many different theories on how to proceed. One British analyst said it is important to engage the women in the population. He gave the example of how the women of Northern Ireland demanded a stop to the insurgency there. Are we engaging Iraqi women? Do we know what they are thinking?

Lt. Col. Nagl: It is an enormously difficult constituency to reach. The security situation in much of Iraq has made it even harder for women to express their opinions publicly. I don't know what opinions they are expressing privately. The power of that 50 percent of the population to effect change is immense. We need to mobilize the women for peace in Iraq.

We need different information strategies for the Kurdish Iraqis, for the Sunni Iraqis and the Shi'a Iraqis. We also need to further segment our message to have specific messages for the women and children in each of those segments of society. My sense is that we are not being as effective in information operations as we could be.

CHIPS: More and more Islamic women and children are being recruited into the insurgency.

Lt. Col. Nagl: The same is true in Afghanistan and throughout the globe. The key to success in the long war is empowering the majority of the Islamic people who want freedom and economic opportunity and human rights for all — both men and women. We have to think hard about how we achieve that objective as a nation, how we empower everyone to have that same sense of respect for human rights and opportunity for self-advancement and shared opportunity.

CHIPS: Because there is a need for nation building and humanitarian assistance, what kinds of organizations do you think need to be more involved in the war?

Lt. Col. Nagl: I think the State Department is absolutely essential in prosecuting the long war, but it does not have the same constituency that the armed forces do. The Department of Defense has done some neat things in terms of sharing money with the State Department to accomplish shared objectives. I would like to see many more Foreign Service Officers in Iraq to create true interagency teams at every level from districts through the national level.

The Provincial Reconstruction Teams that the State Department is standing up in Iraq and in Afghanistan are enormously powerful. We need more of those — and we need them to be more robust — but the State Department does not have the money. I would like to see more resources flow into the State Department to help prevent wars and also to enable us to better integrate all the elements of national power to win.

CHIPS: Is money the stumbling block or a matter of understanding what is needed?

Lt. Col. Nagl: It is fair to say that the State Department is not nearly as good at marketing themselves to the domestic audience as it needs to be. America loves its Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, as well it should, but what September 11 demonstrated to us is that State Department officers and USAID officers are just as important in this war as the military is.

If America better understood the critical role [that] Foreign Service Officers are playing in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would have more of them. As an Army guy and a battalion commander, there is nothing I would like more than to have in my battalion, as it is getting ready to go to war, than a State Department officer under one arm, my USAID officer under the other — and my Central Intelligence Agency guy sitting across the table from me.

All of them can have reachback to their home agencies so that when we are deployed in Al Anbar Province I have my experts with me, but they also have all the resources of their agencies to call on. That is the direction I think we need to move toward as we create a truly unified U.S. government effort to win these very difficult kinds of wars [that] we are fighting.

CHIPS: You talked about the need to evaluate the different dimensions of the war, for example, the population's reaction to various events. U.S. Joint Forces Command has a modeling and simulation exercise called Urban Resolve that measures public attitudes, in addition to other factors. (See

Lt. Col. Nagl: Having accurate measures of the depth of their anger would be enormously helpful in the operational design of the counterinsurgency campaign at every level from battalion through theater. If we could enable our commanders with that technology, with that resource, it would be enormously helpful.

CHIPS: And what to say to the population in case counterinsurgency efforts cause a disruption to vital community services?

Lt. Col. Nagl: The message that I decide to send in my sector may or may not be the right message to send to those people, but I don't have the polling expertise or the depth of cultural knowledge required to craft the message correctly. There are other agencies that could help me do that more effectively.

I would have liked to have their help in Al Anbar in 2004 — and it is going to be just as important in Al Anbar in 2007.

CHIPS: There is a great deal of pressure on our troops engaging with local children and teenagers. They could be having a great time — handing out toys and playing games — and then go around the corner and those same children are setting off a bomb. Does the field manual provide any guidance in helping troops deal with these situations?

Lt. Col. Nagl: There is a whole chapter in the field manual, called 'Leadership and Ethics in Counterinsurgency,' on just that problem. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have to understand the nature of the war we are fighting and also understand the drivers of behavior in the population. Unemployment in Al Anbar approaches 80 percent, and if I were forced to choose between my family starving to death, or setting an improvised explosive device for money to buy food, I would set an IED. I would take care of my family. That basic loyalty would come first.

We have to provide more economic opportunities for the insurgents, particularly for the Sunni insurgents. We also have to develop a political solution and information operations campaign — not to show them the error of their ways as much as to show them the brighter future — if they choose a different path — and if they come onboard with the economic development programs that we're working to develop in Iraq.

The Marines and the Soldiers see the horrible conditions Iraqi young people are living under. They understand intellectually the desperation that is driving their actions. That does not necessarily help them at the point of impact. At the point of impact, the key is leadership.

Our sergeants and our young officers are providing that leadership every day, 99.9999 percent of the time. It is a huge challenge.

CHIPS: What are some of the technologies that troops need at the ground level?

Lt. Col. Nagl: We are actually doing a remarkable job at the ground level. The body armor we wear, although it is heavy, is remarkably effective. I have Soldiers who absolutely 'ate' 7.62 mm sniper rounds in the chestplate and walked away. The individual Soldier gear is phenomenally effective. It can always be lighter. It can always be cooler. I know industry is working on those efforts.

Where I think we really need to work, and I am not a technologist, is on the unblinking eye, persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. There is more we can do there and with the integration of various databases to provide a comprehensive picture of who the enemy is. The hard part in this kind of war is not killing your enemy; it is finding your enemy. There is more that technology can do to help us.

CHIPS: Are you talking about being able to see through buildings?

Lt. Col. Nagl: Looking through buildings would be great and listening to communications of various forms, and patrolling the streets with remotely-piloted vehicles and satellites. The hard part is how to integrate all of those disparate pieces of information together, and coordinate and tie them in with the human intelligence reports I am getting from guys I have detained and from man-on-the-street interviews.

To pull all that together to create one picture of who my enemy is, in my eyes, is the biggest problem fighting insurgency at the tactical level. There is more industry could do to help us pull all those pieces together and create a comprehensive picture: This is the bad guy. This is where he lives, and these are his friends. By the way, they never sleep in the same place twice, but on Wednesday nights, this is where they are likely to be at a 70 percent probability rate. Here is the picture of the house — and here are the satellite coordinates — and we've got eyes on him.

You then have: This is where you need to go. This is the guy you need to get. Here are his pictures. Here are his fingerprints. Here's what his voice sounds like, and here's the legal packet that is going to put him away for 40 years for killing American Soldiers. That's what I need.

Right now I am doing all of that myself with my brain power. Anything that industry can do to take some of the load off the overtaxed brains of our ground force commanders would be enormously useful.

CHIPS: I know the operations tempo is incredible, and the stress on troops is enormous. I have read in the media that there are cases where our troops are malnourished.

Lt. Col. Nagl: Absolutely not true. The average Soldier in Iraq gains 22 pounds in a year. They come back chubby. The first year in Iraq, 2003-2004, when I was there, the average Soldier did lose 10 pounds. We have now established a mature theater, and the big question is: 'Which flavor of Baskin-Robbins do you want?'

My baby brother is a buck sergeant in the Army in a remote area so he doesn't get all 31 flavors. I think he only has 12. He is coming back chubby as well, so I am going to have to run him into the ground to get him slimmed down.

No Army and no Marine Corps in history has ever been as well supplied as our Soldiers are in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have never had the instantaneous communication with home that they do today. Industry and our government have done an extraordinary job of supporting our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, and anyone that you talk to will back that up. I will strenuously defend our logistics.

CHIPS: How is equipment holding up?

Lt. Col. Nagl: We are working it hard. Tanks programmed for 800 miles a year are running 4,000. We are putting a heavy burden on our equipment and fixing it is going to take years after this war is over. We'll need the support of the American people to pay those bills to bring us back up to tip-top fighting shape when the fighting is done.

CHIPS: Anything else you would like to say to our readers?

Lt. Col. Nagl: Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines — and our Foreign Service Officers, CIA agents and USAID workers — are doing phenomenal work in the effort to bring lasting peace and security to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve our continued support and our sincere respect.

Stability in Iraq and Afghanistan is essential to our safety here at home, and we owe our profound thanks to all of the Americans who are helping our Afghan and Iraqi allies confront horrible enemies who will stop at nothing to bring destruction and tyranny to those troubled lands.

For a copy of Field Manual 3-24 - Counterinsurgency, go to

Army Lt. Col. John Nagl in Iraq.
Army Lt. Col. John Nagl in Iraq.
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