Learning to eat soup with a silver spoon

John Nagl,  one of the principal architects of the revised US counterinsurgency strategy – and the author of Learning to eat soup with a knife: counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (the title is a riff on T.E. Lawrence) – retired from the US Army in 2008 and became a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and its President in 2009.  In January 2012 he was elected to the Minerva Chair at the US Naval Academy.  There are more than a dozen of these Minerva Chairs: Montgomery “Mitzie” (sic) McFate, another advocate-publicist of the ‘cultural turn’ in counterinsurgency, holds one at the Naval War College.   But it’s now been announced that from July 2013 Nagl will be stepping down (or up) to become the ninth headmaster of Haverford, an exclusive prep school in Philadelphia that “prepares boys for life”.

None of this would matter very much, except that some commentators see in this the final nail in the coffin of counterinsurgency (COIN).  Over at the American Conservative, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos claims that ‘there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan’ than Nagl’s move to Haverford.

Vlahos contributes to Fox ‘News’ and to antiwar.com, and her ability to walk on both sides of the street gives her an interesting perspective on counterinsurgency and the Center for a New American Security.  Three years ago she quoted – with evident approval – one retired colonel: “You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What’s the difference?”  And she concluded:

‘COIN has yet to be fully tested or even legitimated by any success outside of the [Iraq] surge narrative. So while one well-connected think tank gets top billing in Washington, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as the American men and women serving dutifully there — remain “long-term” guinea pigs. If it doesn’t work, an office on Pennsylvania Avenue might shut, but the implications for the world could be catastrophic.’

Certainly Obama has little appetite for future counterinsurgency campaigns.  He’s made his preference for a mix of covert-ish drone strikes, special forces operations and cyberwar perfectly clear: war by any other name.

But the revision of Army FM 3.24 – the new COIN Bible issued in 2006 (Nagl wrote an extended foreword for the University of Chicago Press edition) – has been under way since the end of last year.  And the US Army Combined Arms Center is no less clear on its aspirations:  ‘Simply put, the revised FM 3-24, informed by the many lessons learned after a decade of sustained land combat operations, will allow US ground forces to continue to address irregular threats in an uncertain future.’  You can download some of the preliminary briefing papers here – including notes on “Clear-Hold-Build” – and, if you’re so inclined, submit your own reflections through a questionnaire.  The process is to be completed by August 2013, and there have already been two conferences at Fort Leavenworth to discuss the revisions.

So the game is far from over, and while Ms Vlahos may be right,  I’m not convinced that the Pentagon is ready to put away these particular knives.  Or that the soup will be any easier to eat.

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