The fall of the COINdinistas

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos writes: Lt. Col. John Nagl was at his peak.

It was 2007, the shimmery dawn of the group think experiment we now call the mass COIN (counterinsurgency) delusion. Nagl’s boss, Gen. David Petraeus, Washington’s newest demigod, had convinced everyone that his Surge Strategy could tame the wild disaster that had become the Iraq War. Nagl, who had positioned himself at Petraeus’s elbow to sell that formula, was now sitting in full dress uniform, his hair in regulation “high and tight,” whacking nimbly at the pathetic softballs lobbed by Jon Stewart who was being embarrassingly — and uncharacteristically — deferential to his decorated guest.

“It’s a very difficult kind of war, it’s a thinking person’s war, and it’s a kind of war we’re learning and adapting and getting better at fighting in the course of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Nagl pronounced in response to a question about FM-24, otherwise known as the “Counterinsurgency Manual,” which was written by committee led by Petreaus, “a remarkable man,” according to Nagl. FM-24 became the bible of COIN and the vehicle by which several of its authors, Nagl included, advanced their careers amid some very heady times — from 2007 through 2010 — in the Washington security world (I began sensing the decline as early as January 2010).

Iraq veteran and writer Carl Prine takes credit for calling them the COINdinistas first. They are the post-Bush civilian and military “crusaders” (as pegged by arch-COIN critic and TAC contributor Andrew Bacevich) dominating the Washington security establishment. Having gobbled down the fairy dust about the Iraq Surge signifying a new “graduate level,” “population-centric” counterinsurgency strategy (and ignoring our overwhelming firepower over Baghdad and Sunni strongholds and the complicated ethnic dynamics on the ground), they attempted to apply the same hocus-pocus to our war in Afghanistan under President Obama. FM-24 became more than a bible, but code for who was in and who was clearly out of the loop, infecting not only the think tank and beltway banditry, but the military agenda, too.

Then Tom Ricks, Washington Post correspondent-court scribe, conducted a full-blown high school popularity contest, literally ranking the “brains behind counterinsurgency’s rise from forgotten doctrine to the centerpiece of the world’s most powerful military.” In this cringe-worthy “top ten” published in Foreign Policy in December 2009, Ricks places “King David” Petraeus at Number 1, and then Nagl, whose Oxford dissertation-turned-Barnes-and-Noble-bestseller Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife made him a counterinsurgency “scholar,” among other bright lights of the time. Nagl, Ricks predicted, would be “in a top Pentagon slot within a year or two.”

That was just three years ago. Today, 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 this week’s news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

That’s right — Nagl, once called the Johnny Appleseed of COIN, who reveled in his role as face man, tutoring reporters with practiced bookish charm on the “the new way of war,” and burnishing his personal story to convince everyone that he was a counter-insurgent before his time — a modern T.E. Lawrence — is packing up for good. [Continue reading…]

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