John Nagl on the Media and COIN
John Nagl needs no introduction to most of our readers, especially those at Small Wars Journal. A retired lieutenant colonel who commanded troops in Iraq and a student of counterinsurgency, Nagl is now the president of the Center for a New American Security, the influential think-tank from which Obama has drawn considerable talent. He joins us today to share his thoughts on the future of counterinsurgency (COIN) in a media-driven age. We have emboldened some of the highlights.
1. Given the current media environment (Google Earth, worldwide media that is willing to publish “secrets” without solid sourcing, etc.) are covert operations still a viable option?
As war enters what my friend TX Hammes calls “the fourth generation,” one of the key drivers of change is the diffusion of technology to non-state groups and individuals that was formerly the exclusive property of states. [Bellum: Click here for Antulio Echevarria's critique of 4GW.] This key aspect of a globalized world imposes many constraints on the actions of states and levels the playing field between great powers and non-state actors to a certain extent. Covert operations are just one of the areas in which immediate, searchable access to an extraordinary amount of near-real-time data has made it harder for states to maintain plausible deniability. In general, sunlight is antiseptic, but there are pieces of information that government would prefer to keep concealed, sometimes with good cause in my opinion; this globalization of information will only make government action harder in years to come.
2. By 2004, much of the US public had grown weary of Afghanistan and, by 2007, much of the US public had grown tired of Iraq. What does this say about the limits of US interventions?
There is substantial research, much of the best of it by Peter Feaver, to support the contention that what the American people grow weary of is not long wars, but poorly executed wars. It is essential that a democratic government speak openly to its people about the causes for war, the strategy to succeed, the progress (and, sometimes, the lack thereof) in a war, and the benefits to be gained from proceeding against the costs of failure. I do not believe that we have accomplished any of those tasks with great distinction in either Iraq or Afghanistan; indeed, Nate Fick, Dave Kilcullen, Vikram Singh and I recently published a CNAS paper explaining what we thought US objectives in Afghanistan should be. The fact that a think-tank had to publish a statement on war aims seven years into a war is not a ringing endorsement of strategic communications policy to date, but it does not prove that the American people are unwilling to bear the burdens of counterinsurgency campaigns if they are explained as honestly and completely as possible.
3. Within a couple weeks of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, elements in the mainstream media were declaring the conflicts to be “quagmires” and “the next Vietnam” (see here for a decent summary). Further, bad news (Abu Ghraib, etc.) sells more copy than good news (new Iraqi schools built, etc.) Given these media realities, how do you prepare the US public for messy COIN engagements that may last decades?
Headlines sell newspapers, but the analysis under the headline tends to be more nuanced; the “Obama’s Vietnam” Newsweek cover story was actually very balanced. Democratic leaders must be aware of the environment in which they operate, talk honestly with their supporters and detractors, and work diligently to build public support behind their foreign policies. The most crucial task of a President is to mobilize the nation behind a war; when America’s sons and daughters are giving everything on our behalf, they deserve to have the country behind them–and to have well thought-out, cogently explained policies in front of them. I am confident that under such leadership, America will continue to work to preserve the significant but still fragile security gains Iraq has seen over the past year and will redouble its efforts to build security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan; our own safety depends on it.