Warrior, scholar, blogger: Andrew Exum on America's longest war



As an army and special-forces commander in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, Andrew Exum learned what it meant to fight against insurgencies. But he didn't expect to one day become one of the country's foremost academic experts on the subject.

"I was debating leaving the army, but I had just invaded my second country without knowing much about the language, the people, the culture," Exum said in a recent interview with NUVO. But rather than heading home once his tours were completed, he decided he wanted to learn more.

"I initially decided to go to the American University of Beirut to do a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies and to learn Arabic," he said. "That kind of morphed back into security studies, because one of the things I discovered within the field of Middle Eastern studies is that very few people had the comfort to write about security issues."

Exum began earning his reputation as a sharp (and humorous) critical thinker rather surreptitiously – as the anonymous founder of Abu Muqawama (, a thoughtful, sometimes irreverent blog dealing with modern counterinsurgency issues. The blog quickly became a must-read for soldiers, academics and media. Today, Exum is a fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), an independent, non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C., which focuses on national security issues.

Exum has jokingly attributed his aptitude for understanding complex and violent places like Afghanistan to his roots in eastern Tennessee, where he grew up – a region that, like Afghanistan, is "mountainous, lawless and plagued by heavily armed religious fundamentalists." NUVO spoke with him ahead of his upcoming engagement in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Sept. 15, where he will speak about the complex and ever-evolving war in Afghanistan – part of the Indiana Council on World Affairs' (ICWA) Distinguished Speakers Program.

NUVO: What kind of work do you do for the Center for New American Security?

EXUM: Regionally, I focus on both the Arabic speaking world and Central Asia and South Asia. But as an Arabic speaker and not a Farsi or Urdu speaker, I mostly focus on the Arabic speaking world. My functional area of specialization is on irregular warfare, and that obviously has quite a bit of relevance in Afghanistan. So, I analyze U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan through the lens of prior experience and academic specialization in irregular warfare.

My primary research questions [concern] how non-state actors behave on the battlefield. My primary doctoral research looked at Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but I spent a lot of time fighting non-state fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan and devising strategies and tactics for neutralizing those actors.

NUVO: Did your love of the study of counterinsurgency inspire you to start the Abu Muqawama blog?

EXUM: My blog got started because of an interest in counterinsurgency. For me, counterinsurgency literature – the old French counterinsurgency authors of the 20th century, [like] David Galula – helped me, first off, to make sense of my own combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, second, it was enormously useful in thinking as an academic and a scholar [about] the conflict in southern Lebanon.

In the very beginning, I took a jokey, jovial approach to the field. [The blog] was anonymous for a long time. At some point I think most of the people who were reading the blog knew who I was, so I came out of the closet, so to speak. Then, when I moved to the Center for New American Security to do research on Afghanistan and non-state actors on the battlefield, CNAS asked me to keep the blog going and to blog as part of my duties.

NUVO: What was the inspiration behind the humorous approach to the blog?

EXUM: I wasn't expecting the popularity of the blog. It's been a pleasant surprise for the most part, and I try to keep things pretty light – my avatar is a Lego jihadi action figure. When I was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I always believed in keeping your sense of humor at all times, and there's a practical reason behind that. You have to be able to keep your sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh at the circumstances around you. When you start taking yourself too seriously, at that point you cease to have a degree of humility when you're in combat, especially when you're leading troops.

I tried to take that same ethos to my academic work and my policy work. To keep things light to a certain degree, but at the time being able to use [the blog] as a framework to think about things in the news and about contemporary conflict.

I've gone back and forth about how active I've been in the blog. I've certainly slowed down in the last year or so. But it is still pretty fun. As I've been no longer anonymous, you know, you get some ad hominem attacks. But it's still been a fun project.

NUVO: How would you rate U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan?

EXUM: It's extremely hard going. Afghanistan is, in a lot of ways, much more complex than Iraq. It's not nearly as violent as Iraq. But, at the same time, in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, there were a lot of reasons for drops in violence. It's difficult to establish causality, but U.S. military operations as part of the surge no doubt helped bring down the levels of violence in Iraq in 2007.

But so did a lot of other things. The [Mehdi] army mostly stayed on the sidelines for most of 2006 and 2007. We had a tribal awakening in Anbar Province. We had a brutal Sunni-Shiite civil war in 2006 that was being resolved by the time we began the surge in 2007. So a lot of things kind of broke our way in Iraq in 2007.

In Afghanistan, a lot of things broke against us. We're still dealing with a corrupt Afghan state. We're dealing with trying to build up Afghan national security forces. We're bumping our heads against the fact that it's tough to find enough literate Afghans to serve in the commissioned and non-commissioned officer corps in the Afghan Army. That's a real dilemma.

We have a state just across the border that had an uneven approach to confronting insurgent groups in Afghanistan – I'm talking about Pakistan, obviously – and in a lot of ways [Pakistan] has good reason not to confront those insurgent groups that are trying to undermine the government in Afghanista­n because [Pakistan] has its eye on what happens when the United States leaves. So I think the conflict in Afghanistan, from the perspective of the U.S. Army, is going poorly.

But, having said that, I think what we're trying to do in Afghanistan is not end conflict. What we're trying to do in Afghanistan is Afghanize the conflict, and eventually fight this campaign not as a heavily intensive counterinsurgency campaign, but as security force assistance and a limited counter-terror campaign.

I'd be one of those people that would argue we need to buy more time for the national training mission in Afghanistan, to build up the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, so that we can fight this conflict through them.

NUVO: Does the possibility of a 2011 withdrawal from Afghanistan still exist?

EXUM: We're not going to withdraw in 2011, but we can begin to withdraw. I think we can do that. I think part of the debate is the pace of the withdrawal.

We might need to [withdraw] in the respect that we might decide the Afghanistan conflict has become too resource intensive and we need to, to a certain degree, minimize our investment. So it's always possible. Whether or not it makes sense in terms of U.S. interest is always debatable.

Look, I've been fighting this war from the very beginning, so I have a lot of sympathy for Americans who are suffering conflict fatigue. That having been said, I think we're at a more sustainable path in Afghanistan because we've been able to draw down in Iraq. I don't think we're testing the military in the way we were in 2006 and 2007 and 2008, when we were really running the Army and Marine Corps in the red, so to speak.


Andrew Exum

Sept. 15, 7:15 p.m.

Marten House Conference Center

1801 W. 86th St.

Tickets are $3 for ICWA members, $4 for non-members; students get in free.


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