Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Learning Counterinsurgency at University

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Dr. John A. Nagl, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army (Retired) is speaking on "Learning to eat soup with a knife - counterinsurgency Iraq and Afghanistan". He is the author of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam" (University Of Chicago Press, 2005).

Dr. Nagl explained the title of his book (and thesis) came from  T. E. Lawrence's ("Lawrence of Arabia") book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (on page 136 of the Wilder Publications 2011 Edition). His thesis is that the US Army was not prepared for counterinsurgency in Vietnam and after learning the lessons in that war decided not to do so again. As a result the US Army had to relearn counterinsurgency in Iraq.

Dr. Nagl explained how counterinsurgency depends on intelligence information rather than firepower. He detailed the importance of providing infrastructure (roads, water sewage) to the civilian population, which required liaison with the civilian aid agencies. He likened the current conflicts as being similar to the Cold War, being dependent on economic development, rather than military force.

Dr. Nagl suggested that the Afghanistan government will survive, provided 15,000 US and European military personnel are kept in country indefinitely, along with funding.

Dr. Nagl  asked why great power conflict had reduced. He suggested this was due to nuclear weapons deterring large wars and general improvements in economic conditions reducing the impetus for war. He suggested the photocopier brought down the Soviet Union and the smart phone would bring down the Communist Party of China. This seemed an overly simplistic view to me. Professor Christian Goebel, Vienna University, will provide a more useful analysis in "E-monitoring and regime improvement in China: technical capabilities and systemic limitations", at ANU 4:00pm 10 September 2013.

I asked Dr. Nagl if the US Army should be able to conduct counterinsurgency, as this is more a role for the US Marines and special forces. Most medium to large countries have their military structured with a large conventional force and smaller more flexible forces for counterinsurgency. He responded that Iraq required more personnel than the special forces had. He suggested that as the US reduces its armed forces, the more experienced NCOs and Colonel should be retained to retain corporate knowledge.

It would be interesting to hear Dr. Nagl  views on the Australian Army. The ADF appears to be planning to re-fight US Navy's war in the Pacific in World War Two, building up a long range submarine force and carrier battle groups with amphibious assault capabilities. It is unlikely that the Australian government will provide sufficient resources to purchase all of the hardware required, or the even more expensive personnel and if they did it is not clear how such a force would be used. It is more likely that the ADF will be involved in counterinsurgency operations where sophisticated equipment is, at best ineffective and may actually make the situation worse by isolating the personnel from the local population.

In my view the ADF and the Australian Government are failing to invest sufficient resources in cyber-warfare. For this I proposed a "Australian CyberWarfare Battalion".

This was one of a series of talks at the ANU Strategic & Defence Studies Centre. The center teaches senior military officers the Australian Defence College, as well as public servants and others. 

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