Best Defense

‘Knife Fights’: 9 lessons John Nagl has learned from waging modern war

By John Nagl Best Defense guest columnist 1.    Invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. Leaving Iraq in 2011 was a mistake. Not arming the Syrian rebels in 2012 was a mistake. The combination of the three mistakes has gotten us to the mess we’re in today. 2.    Because of mistakes made by the last ...

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By John Nagl

Best Defense guest columnist

1.    Invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. Leaving Iraq in 2011 was a mistake. Not arming the Syrian rebels in 2012 was a mistake. The combination of the three mistakes has gotten us to the mess we’re in today.

2.    Because of mistakes made by the last two administrations and the trends identified below, the Middle East will remain at war for at least a generation.

3.    Containing ISIS will require thousands of American boots on the ground for at least a generation.

4.    Air strikes can halt ISIS’s forward progress but not root them out of territory they already possess.

5.    American conventional military superiority will drive our opponents to irregular warfare: insurgency and terrorism.

6.    In conventional war, identifying your enemy is comparatively easy, but killing him is hard. In irregular warfare, the converse is true: finding is hard, but killing or capturing is easy.

7.    In conventional war, politics stops until the war is over. In irregular warfare, politics and economics continue throughout the war, and are in fact key weapons of war. This combined political/economic/military challenge is what makes irregular warfare “the graduate level of war.”

8.    In conventional war, the civilian population is essentially an obstacle to progress. In irregular war, winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the civilian population is key to winning the war; their safety and long-term support are essential to the success of whichever side wins.

9.    For a number of reasons including American conventional military superiority and the existence of nuclear weapons, conventional war has been on the decline since the 20th century. That’s the good news. The bad news is that irregular warfare has been a growing challenge over the past two centuries, and the information revolution, demographics, and resource scarcity make it likely to be the kind of war the United States is most likely to face for the rest of this century. It’s hard, and it’s not going to go away, so we’d better get better at it if we want to win.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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