Mother Jones: Should the U.S. move to a soft partition plan and try to reduce the human suffering and bloodshed that accompanies that?
Lt. Colonel John Nagl: The Maliki government has to demonstrate that it is a government of all Iraq. We are making great sacrifices to provide his government with the environment where they can make those difficult political choices. We can continue to provide him with that breathing space, but it is coming at a great cost in dollars for the American taxpayer, great cost in lives in injured and killed American soldiers.
MJ: You’ve been influential in developing an increased training advisory role.
JN: The Army has made great strides in how it selects and trains what they call transition teams, teams of combat advisers. I have argued, and continue to argue, that this requirement for combat advisers is a lasting need. This is not just our exit strategy both in Iraq and Afghanistan but is likely to remain an enduring requirement for the wars of the 21st century, and therefore the Army should develop a permanent advisory capacity. My initial recommendation was for 20,000 soldiers configured in three divisions commanded by two-star generals with the overall effort led by a three-star lieutenant general, and I’d call this the Army advisory corps. I believe that if we had that capability today, we would use it; we’d employ it. General Pace is on the record saying that we need more advisers in Afghanistan. A number of studies have suggested that we need more American military advisers in Iraq, including the CNAS reports and the Iraq Study Group. The Army currently doesn’t have the capacity to provide all those advisers quickly or easily. I believe that it should build that capacity in order to provide the United States with that capability, which would be an important capability for at least the next generation, or as long as the long war lasts.
MJ: What does the investment yield over time?
JN: The most important contribution the United States would make to the long war will not be the fighting we do ourselves but the fighting our allies do. It is almost impossible for an outside power to defeat an insurgency. What an outside power can do is enable local forces to defeat a locally developed insurgency. What adviser capability does is dramatically increase the effectiveness and responsiveness and also the respect for law and respect for human rights of those host nation security forces.
The counterinsurgency people get this. But it has not won enthusiastic support from the leadership of the Army. They believe that we should build additional brigade combat teams, conventional Army brigades with which we fight and win wars ourselves. Increasingly in the 21st century, we’ll be far more effective if we focus our resources on enabling our friends to win their wars themselves.
MJ: What do you do about our friends in Iraq when there is not emerging confidence that there is going to be a central Iraqi government security force?
JN: In many of the countries challenged by insurgency, the most enduring and the most respected national institution is the army. For that matter, the most respected institution in the United States is the army. In many countries, the bedrock of the nation is an army and in many cases a multinational army. I’d be surprised if the most respected institution in Iraq were not the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi people, like the American people, have great pride and increasingly great respect for and trust for the army. That is especially true if army units are strengthened by the addition of American advisers. So I’d build the nation around the army in the same way we arguably built our nation around the Continental Army. But the Iraqi Army needs a government that is worthy of the sacrifices it is making.
MJ: Do you worry about how hard it would be for the U.S. to get out given that under this administration it seems that we are probably going to stay big for a long time?
JN: I believe it will be in the interests of the United States to ensure security and stability in Iraq for a very long time. I personally believe that an expanded advisory effort would enable a drawdown of American combat troops, because an expanded advisory effort makes the Iraqi Army more capable, more responsive, more responsible.
MJ: There have been successes in the past few months with the Sunni sheikhs and tribes moving against Al Qaeda in Iraq and working more closely with Marines. Are those Sunni militias ever something that you see joining the Iraqi National Army?
JN: That depends entirely on political choices that still have to be made by the Iraqi government. I’m hopeful that the Maliki government will demonstrate that it wants to be a government of all Iraqi people, and one of the ways to do that is by incorporating these Sunni militias into one national Iraqi Army. How the Maliki government chooses to do that and how the Sunni forces choose to respond will be important indicators of the extent to which the Maliki government is in fact perceived by the Iraqi people to be a government of all Iraq.
MJ: Are Maliki’s shortcomings due to a just lack of political will on his part, or is some of that the great structural issues in Iraq that he’s not controlling?
JN: I think he is a politician and he’s responsive to the political demands of his constituency just as any politician, and it is going to take real leadership to reach out to the Sunnis.
MJ: What would the expanded advisory effort teach Iraqi troops to do?
JN: Everything from fire their rifles more accurately to plan and execute logistics to develop intelligence on insurgent forces and act on that intelligence to respect human rights to guard infrastructure and all the things we talk about in the counterinsurgency field manual that are things that American forces have to do. But our counterinsurgent friends have to do them, too, the allies that we are enabling and advising. And in support of that we’ve translated the counterinsurgency field manual into Arabic.
It is the graduate level of war. It is hard. You have to call in air strikes, fire rifles, machine guns, and assist in economic reconstruction. The opening quote of the field manual is “Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare; it is the graduate level of war.”
MJ: Is the situation less problematic in Afghanistan because Afghanistan is more cohesive or is thought to have a more responsible central government?
JN: I think the insurgency in Afghanistan is a less capable force than the insurgents in Iraq have proven to be. It is a larger country, less densely populated. The insurgency in Iraq has largely been an urban insurgency with attacks in the capital area, and hence widely publicized. The insurgency in Afghanistan is a largely rural insurgency with its strengths in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. But the same principles apply, and so we are mounting a very substantial effort to train and advise the Afghan military. In the same way, we are training a higher quality soldier to be an adviser. We’ve established a pretty good training program. I think that there is more we can do.
MJ: And that has to do with the U.S. Army’s structural incentive system?
JN: We have to decide what the future of warfare is going to be. If it is going to continue to be these kinds of insurgencies where arguably our most effective contribution is in assisting local forces to fight the insurgency, then the Army should probably consider developing a permanent advisory structure.
MJ: How visible or invisible should the U.S. presence in such an advisory capacity be? In the case of Pakistan, where it can be an irritant to the population, should it be more invisible?
JN: Remember the great Lawrence of Arabia quotation, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.” The less visible the American presence is, the better. The more credit that is given to the host nation government, the host nation security forces, the better. The more capable those forces are, the more capable the government is, the sooner we can go home.