Mener une guerre claire contre des ennemis est dangereux. Ne pas mener clairement une guerre contre des ennemis pourrait être plus dangereux. Mais mener un peu une guerre tout en faisant un peu comme si on ne la menait pas pourrait être la chose la plus dangereuse de toutes. Victor Davis Hanson
L’Anbar n’a basculé que lorsque les insurgés sunnites ont été convaincus que les Américains étaient là pour rester et que l’alternative à l’arrangement avec les Américains et le gouvernement de Bagdad était une défaite sunnite garantie et générale. Les Talibans en sont très très loin. Et encore, les hésitations actuelles de Washington ne peuvent que les encourager à attendre, avec l’espoir que les Américains se lassent. Fouad Ajami
La différence entre le Vietnam et les jihadistes, c’est que les Viet Congs ne nous ont pas suivis jusque chez nous. Cité par Herschel Smith
Seul un naïf interpréterait la révolte des tribus sunnites comme le signe de leur soutien au gouvernement irakien ou aux forces de la Coalition. David Kilcullen
Les choses ne sont pas désespérées mais elles sont extrêmement graves. Dave Kilcullen (février 2009)
On peut forer un puits en un jour et construire une école en un mois, mais ça prend très longtemps pour construire une route. Quand on lance le chantier d’une route, on envoie le message que ce n’est pas une association pour un mois mais pour le très long terme. Colonel américain en Afghanistan
Si les Américains utilisaient nos méthodes, personne ne tirerait sur eux, mais ils sont trop cool avec eux et ils facilitent ainsi la tâche des terroristes. Capitaine Hassan (forces irakiennes, défendant les méthodes d’interrogation musclées)
Si nous avons des informations exploitables sur des cibles terroristes importantes et que le président Musharraf n’agit pas, nous le ferons. Obama (août 2008)
Quand le « bourbier choisi » se transforme en « bourbier nécessaire »…
173 million d’habitants, 100 têtes nucléaires, armée plus nombreuse que l’Armée américaine, quartier-général d’al-Qaeda situé dans les deux tiers du pays que ne contrôle plus son gouvernement, double jeu des forces de sécurité et de renseignement, réconciliation des chefs talibans afghans et pakistanais (à qui l’on devait déjà probablement l’assassinat de Benazir Bhutto), possibilité de la chute dans les six mois du pays aux mains des jihadistes …
A l’heure où, à la veille d’une nouvelle saison des combats et à un mois d’élections présidentielles afghanes plus que compromises, la nouvelle guerre de choix d’un président Obama toujours plus obsédé de se démarquer de son prédécesseur est en train d’accoucher d’une méga-guerre à l’échelle du Pakistan tout entier …
Retour sur les récentes déclarations d’un des principaux conseillers du Général Petraeus pour sa victorieuse stratégie irakienne (qui, redécouvrant les méthodes de David Galula, a eu la chance de coïncider avec la volte-face des Sunnites irakiens face aux exactions d’Al Qaeda), l’ancien officier australien et auteur d’un récent livre sur la contre-insurrection David Kilcullen (« The Accidental Guerrilla ») qui vient d’appeler à l’arrêt des attaques de drones sur le Pakistan…
Où l’on découvre, de la part de quelqu’un qui était opposé à l’intervention en Irak (sans jamais nous dire comment il aurait réglé la question des ADM de Saddam), que la capture ou l’élimination de Ben Laden dont l’ancien sénateur de l’Illinois et actuel locataire de la maison Blanche n’avait pas arrêté de nous rabattre les oreilles, ne servirait en fait qu’à en faire un martyr …
Que la fameuse distinction obamienne entre les troupes combattantes et non-combattantes sur laquelle est basée la fameuse promesse de campagne d’évacuer toute troupe américiane d’Irak avant 18 mois est parfaitement « théorique » et qu’il faudra au moins encore 3 à 5 ans avant quue les Irakiens puissent se défendre eux-mêmes …
Que, sans le général Petraeus et les deux rares sénateurs McCain et Lieberman, la fameuse et victorieuse stratégie du « surge » , aurait probablement été tuée dans l’œuf par l’hostilité d’un Congrès dont l’actuel Pleurnicheur en chef était l’un des plus énergiques membres …
Et enfin que non seulement l’idée évoquée par l’actuelle Administration de négocier avec les Talibans « modérés » ne peut que renforcer leur engagement mais que la nouvelle stratégie afghano-pakistanaise d’éliminations ciblées des chefs talibans et d’Al Qaeda est le meilleur agent recruteur de nos ennemis …
A Conversation With David Kilcullen
Interview by Carlos Lozada
March 22, 2009
Why is an Aussie anthropologist coaching American generals on how to win wars? David Kilcullen, an Australian army reservist and top adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus during the troop surge in Iraq, has spent years studying insurgencies in countries from Indonesia to Afghanistan, distinguishing hard-core terrorists from « accidental guerrillas » — and his theories are revolutionizing military thinking throughout the West. Kilcullen spoke with Outlook’s Carlos Lozada on why Pakistan is poised for collapse, whether catching Osama bin Laden is really a good idea and how the Enlightenment and Lawrence of Arabia helped Washington shift course in Iraq. Excerpts:
What is the real central front in the war on terror?
Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt.
Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn’t control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don’t follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We’re now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems. . . . The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover — that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.
How important is it to kill or capture Osama bin laden?
Not very. It depends on who does it. Let me give you two possible scenarios. Scenario one is, American commandos shoot their way into some valley in Pakistan and kill bin Laden. That doesn’t end the war on terror; it makes bin Laden a martyr. But here’s scenario two: Imagine that a tribal raiding party captures bin Laden, puts him on television and says, « You are a traitor to Islam and you have killed more Muslims than you have killed infidels, and we’re now going to deal with you. » They could either then try and execute the guy in accordance with their own laws or hand him over to the International Criminal Court. If that happened, that would be the end of the al-Qaeda myth.
President Obama has said that he will be « as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. » Is his decision to remove combat forces by August 2010 and leave 50,000 non-combat troops careful or careless?
I think it is politically careful. The distinction between combat and non-combat forces in a counterinsurgency environment is largely theoretical. Anyone who is still in Iraq will actually or potentially be engaged in combat.
How much longer will the war last?
The intervention ends when the locals can handle it. Right now they can’t. I think that within three to five years, we can say that the chance that the Iraqis will be able to hold their own against their internal threats is pretty high. So I’d say we have another three to five years of substantial engagement in Iraq. But one other factor here is external interference. What are the Iranians doing, what are the Saudis doing, what are the Jordanians and the Syrians doing? The Iraq part is not the problem, it’s the regional security part that is the problem.
When history has its say, who will be the real father of the surge? Is it Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno, Fred Kagan? Someone else?
It’s Petraeus. If this thing had [expletive] up, everyone would be blaming Petraeus. You wouldn’t find Keane and Odierno and Kagan and President Bush and everyone else stepping forward. So I think the true father of the thing was and is Petraeus.
You argue in your book, « The Accidental Guerrilla, » that if Petraeus had been killed in Iraq, the impact on morale alone could have lost the war. Do you fault President Bush for feeding the cult of Petraeus?
Our biggest problem during the surge was a hostile American Congress. They could have killed the thing. There was really nobody except [Senators] McCain and Lieberman arguing for a continued commitment. So I don’t fault President Bush for pushing General Petraeus forward. I think what he was trying to do was to find a figure with sufficient credibility to restore hope within Congress and to gain a measure of support for the effort from the U.S. domestic population.
What are the lessons of Iraq that most apply to Afghanistan?
I would say there are three. The first one is you’ve got to protect the population. Unless you make people feel safe, they won’t be willing to engage in unarmed politics. The second lesson is, once you’ve made people safe, you’ve got to focus on getting the population on your side and making them self-defending. And then a third lesson is, you’ve got to make a long-term commitment.
Obama has suggested that it might be possible to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, along the lines of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. Would that work?
If the Taliban sees that we’re negotiating for a stay of execution or to stave off defeat, that’s going to harden their resolve. . . . I’m all for negotiating, but I think the chances of achieving a mass wave of people turning against the Taliban are somewhat lower in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq.
Did the U.S. military take too long to change course in Iraq?
I think it took them a historically standard period of time. In Vietnam it took three to four years to reorient. In Malaya the British took about the same amount of time. In Northern Ireland they took longer. The British in Iraq took longer than the Americans in Iraq. And again, it was Petraeus. . . . He put forward this whole change movement within the military. We were almost like insurgents within the U.S. government. My marker of success is that when I first arrived, we had to talk in whispers about stuff that is now considered commonplace. The conventional wisdom now was totally unorthodox in ’04, ’05.
Does having a medieval scholar as a father affect how you see war?
My father is a true believer in the Enlightenment. He always encouraged me to develop an evidence-based approach to whatever you do. But the other thing is, when I was 10 years old, my dad gave me a copy of a book by Robert Graves called « Good-Bye to All That, » which is about the first World War. That was where I first encountered T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. And as a child I was steeped in Lawrence’s way of thinking about tribes. In tribal warfare you don’t go directly to your objectives, you work through a ladder of tribes. You go from one tribe to the next tribe to the next tribe to get to your objective. That’s what we tried to do in Iraq.
In 2006 you wrote an essay on counterinsurgency called « 28 Articles, » one-upping Lawrence’s « 27 Articles. » Do you consider yourself a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia?
No. I don’t think there is a modern equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia. But we can all learn from his thinking about insurgency. The other thing about Lawrence is he understood and worked with the cultures that he dealt with, and he spent the rest of his life advocating policies to support the welfare of those people. He was one the biggest advocates of Arab independence, even when his own nation’s policies were against that.
Guerrillas in the midst
The New Criterion
A review of The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, by David Kilcullen.
Last fall, an army of brass in Iraq briefed a few journalists in a windowless room. These were Coalition brass—men from a variety of Western countries. And around the table were about ten generals; behind them were about fifteen officers supporting them. For two hours they held forth: on how they were bolstering the Iraqi government, and how they were combating the enemy. Our men were impressively bright, experienced, shrewd, well organized, and well funded. Their briefing was something like a shock-and-awe performance.
After they were done, I posed a peculiar question: “How does the enemy stand a chance? I mean, how can they possibly hope to prevail against you? Al Qaeda doesn’t have a room like this. I assume the Shiite militias do not. Why are these people so hard to put down?” And the commanding general said, “Don’t underestimate them: They are sophisticated, resilient, and absolutely ruthless.”
So they are. And one man who knows this very well is David Kilcullen, an Aus- tralian officer and military intellectual. A few years ago, he was seconded to the United States: as a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency adviser to the State Department, and then to General Petraeus. This reminds us of the unusually—almost uniquely—close relationship between Australia and the United States, for many generations. You may have noticed that one of the last things George W. Bush did as president was hang the Medal of Freedom around the neck of John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia. (At the same time, with the same medal, he honored Britain’s Tony Blair and Colombia’s µlvaro Uribe.)
Kilcullen has written a book called The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. And, as you remember, the Cold War featured many small wars—and less-small wars—in the midst of that big, overarching one. What of “the accidental guerrilla”?
That is Kilcullen’s term for the fighter who does not really wish to harm the West or subjugate other people, but who gets caught up in the current global conflict anyway—and on the wrong side. What happens is this: Al Qaeda moves into his environs and establishes its hideous presence. Then it provokes some kind of intervention by the West. This, our man resents, and he winds up fighting alongside al Qaeda—“accidentally.” Our task is to wean him away or prevent him from joining up in the first place.
Kilcullen’s book is about more than the accidental guerrilla—it is about a global insurgency and how to deal with it—but the term makes a handy title. Kilcullen says, “This book … is the result of my wanderings, physical and intellectual, over the past several years.” It is part memoir, part treatise, part anthropology textbook. And it is highly interesting. There are brilliant things and questionable things, and they all make you think.
Much of the book is devoted to two “small wars” within the “big one”: Afghanistan and Iraq. Kilcullen points out that people have seen Afghanistan as “the good war,” a war truly of necessity. They also take for granted that we will win there. The media have given the impression that Afghanistan is going well while Iraq is going badly. In fact, the opposite may be true. Kilcullen says that the Afghan war is “winnable,” but requires a “concerted long-term effort,” lasting “five to ten years at least.”
And he emphasizes that many of the enemy fighters—the great majority of them—are co-optable and reformable. They can be persuaded to put down their arms and live normal, nonviolent lives. I have heard two presidents, Karzai and Musharraf, say this on many occasions. The problem is that the extremists—the to-the-death jihadists—are absolutely diabolical in their tactics. For example, they terrorize farmers into growing poppy: not because the extremists want more opium, but because the growing of poppy separates the farmers from legitimate society. When this happens, al Qaeda or the Taliban can own them.
What can the Coalition do (besides kill the extremists, which, although insufficient, is not unimportant)? Kilcullen gives the example of building a road. And what matters most is, not the road, but the process by which it is built. Anything that separates the insurgents from the people—that clutches the people to society—is helpful. Kilcullen speaks of a “political maneuver,” with “the road as a means to a political end.”
He further counsels a “population-centric approach to security”: “We must focus on providing human security to the Afghan population, where they live, twenty-four hours a day.” Is that all? “This, rather than destroying the enemy, is the central task in counterinsurgency.” I was amazed, in Iraq, to discover all that our militaries are doing there. One general told our group how hard he had worked to get Baghdadis to reopen a particular amusement park: “It was a return-to-normalcy issue.” I said, “Is that what you went to West Point for?” He grinned and replied, “We’re a full-service military.”
Kilcullen was opposed to the Iraq War, resolutely. He regards it as “an extremely severe strategic error.” What he does not address, in this book, is the issue of weapons of mass destruction: the main purpose of our going in. The civilized world was blind to what Saddam Hussein was doing; when we went in, we saw. In any case, Kilcullen believes that, once in, you must win. And he provides an explanation of the “surge” of 2007.
Later in the book, he turns to Europe, a special theater in the War on Terror. Muslims on the continent, and in the United Kingdom, are ripe for exploitation by al Qaeda. And Kilcullen says that a new radicalization among Muslims “has brought a backlash from nonimmigrant populations.” Some might argue that there has not been backlash enough. If I have read him correctly, Kilcullen favors a more gingerly approach to Muslim radicalism in Europe. I myself am not sure how the authorities, and society at large, could be more gingerly. Not long ago, London police ran—literal- ly ran—from Islamist demonstrators who were throwing things at them.
In a final chapter, Kilcullen gives us his bedrock views. He is of the school that says we have turned a mouse into an elephant: The mouse is terrorism, and the elephant is what we have caused it to become. We have overreacted, says Kilcullen, making the terrorists bigger and therefore more dangerous than they should be. We have played a “zero tolerance” game—insisting on no terrorism—rather than practicing a more grownup “risk management.” Kilcullen quotes John Kerry with approval on this score. And it seems to me he pooh-poohs the threats against us, sometimes sarcastically—for example, “[T]he 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States killed a grand total of five.”
Reading Kilcullen, I was reminded of a clear lesson from the Cold War: Finland was “Finlandized” instead of Sovietized only because it fought like hell against being Sovietized. Finland did not set Finlandization as a goal; it resisted Sovietization with all its might—and wound up, best-case scenario, being Finlandized (that is, retaining national sovereignty while having to toe the Soviet line in foreign policy and some other respects). Perhaps only by trying for no terrorism can we achieve an “acceptable level” (shudder-making phrase) of terrorism.
To me, there are many annoying and objectionable things in this book: I will cite just a few of them. Throughout, Kilcullen puts the term “war on terrorism” in quotes, and those quotes are sneering. Sometimes he says “so-called war on terrorism.” Okay, he doesn’t like this term, thinking it stupid. What would he like to say instead? He comes up with no substitute—he just keeps sneering. He is also capable of writing such sentences as “[I]n invading Iraq, we set out to re-make the Middle East in our own image …” I doubt a single human being had this intent; the sentence is unworthy of Kilcullen.
Sometimes there is a mood of “I told you so,” which is always unbecoming (even if true). And the author likes to paint himself as the one native-knower—the Malinowski of the warrior class—amid oafish and insensitive palefaces. This, too, is unbecoming (even if occasionally—occasionally—true).
Yet this is a fine book, and, what’s more, a contribution to what Kilcullen hates to call the War on Terror. He is a smart, smart guy. There are other smart guys—and they should all be taken into account, as we proceed in a vexingly difficult war.
Jay Nordlinger is a Senior Editor at National Review, writing on a variety of subjects.
Andrew J. Bacevich
The National Interest
David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 384 pp., $27.95.
IN WASHINGTON, protracted crisis creates opportunities. The cold war gave rise to a national-security elite whose members flourished for decades while rotating in and out of government. To this very day, the Arab-Israeli “peace process” performs a similar function, supporting the existence of various research institutes and advocacy groups while providing fodder for endless conferencing and endlessly repetitive studies, essays and op-eds.
The Long War—the Pentagon’s preferred name for the global war on terror—promises to do much the same. Whatever else one may say of this conflict, it has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to generate jobs. Established federal agencies have expanded. New ones have come into existence. Think tanks have proliferated. Contractors and lobbyists have prospered. Given the assumption—shared by mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike—that the Long War will continue for decades if not generations, its potential as an engine for career opportunities appears vast indeed.
Protracted crisis also produces its own cult of celebrity, exalting the status of figures perceived to possess inside knowledge or to exercise particular clout. During the early days of the cold war, functionaries like George Kennan and Paul Nitze suddenly became boldfaced names. As the great struggle with the Soviet Union dragged on, the list of notable cold warriors lengthened. Some of these Washington celebrities—presidential assistants, politically savvy generals, agency heads, and “whiz kids” with sharp elbows and a knack for self-promotion—quickly flamed out, left town and were soon forgotten. Others fell from grace and yet continued to haunt the city where they once exercised power. (A few years ago I came across Robert McNamara lunching alone at the Old Ebbitt Grill; it was like suddenly encountering a spirit from the netherworld—and about as welcome.) A few celebs manage to retain enduring influence. The peace process may be a niche market, but even today on just about anything related to Arabs and Israelis, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross head the short list of go-to guys. Like Cher and Madonna—or like Zbig and Henry—they’ve been at it so long that surnames are no longer required: Martin and Dennis will do just fine.
So too with the Long War. It is producing its own constellation of celebrities, of whom General David Petraeus is far and away the brightest, but that also includes the likes of Colonel H. R. McMaster, the hero of Tal Afar; retired–Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, author of the influential book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the best of the think tanks spawned by the Long War; and Dr. David Kilcullen, who is perhaps the most interesting of this select group.
Kilcullen was once a soldier and now classifies himself as a “counterinsurgency professional.” A former officer in the Australian army with a PhD from the University of New South Wales (his dissertation dealt with Indonesian terrorists and guerrilla movements), Kilcullen has served as an adviser to General Petraeus in Baghdad and to former–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. As the Bush administration left office, he signed on with CNAS and also became a partner with the Crumpton Group, a Washington-based consulting firm founded by former–CIA official and terrorism specialist Henry “Hank” Crumpton. The Long War has been good to Dr. Kilcullen.
For perhaps just that reason, when it comes to taking stock of that conflict, Kilcullen is someone to reckon with. In his new book The Accidental Guerrilla, we actually encounter three Kilcullens. First there is Kilcullen the practitioner, who draws on considerable firsthand experience to offer his own take on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this regard, Accidental Guerrilla resembles dozens of other Washington books, blending memoir with policy analysis, generously laced with spin. Then there is Kilcullen the scholar, presenting his own grand theory of insurgency and prescribing a set of “best practices” to which counterinsurgents should adhere. In this regard, the book falls somewhere between academic treatise and military field manual: it is dry, repetitive and laced with statements of the obvious. Last, however, there is Kilcullen the apostate. With the administration whose policies he sought to implement now gone from office, Kilcullen uses Accidental Guerrilla to skewer those he served for gross strategic ineptitude. His chief finding—that through its actions the Bush administration has managed to exacerbate the Islamist threat while wasting resources on a prodigious scale—is not exactly novel. Yet given Kilcullen’s status as both witness and participant, his indictment carries considerable weight. Here lies the real value of his book.
ON IRAQ, Kilcullen the practitioner is generally bullish. As a member of Petraeus’s inner circle during the period of the so-called surge, he makes two points. First, the surge is working. Second, credit for this success belongs to those who served in Baghdad, above all General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, rather than to paper pushers back in the White House or kibitzers congregating over lunch at the American Enterprise Institute.
The surge, Kilcullen contends, pulled Iraqi “society back from the brink of total collapse.” In terms of security, he describes the progress achieved as “substantive and significant.” U.S. efforts prior to February 2007, when Petraeus took command in Baghdad, had been almost entirely counterproductive. An excessive reliance on force had accomplished little apart from “progressively alienating village after village” while “creating a pool of people who hate the U.S.” Sectarian violence was driving the minority Sunni community into the arms of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other extremist groups. As a result, by 2006 Iraq was drowning in “an immense tide of blood.”
The Joint Campaign Plan for 2007 and 2008, devised under Petraeus’s direction, reversed that tide. The new approach, according to Kilcullen, began with a detailed political strategy aimed at reconciling Iraq’s various sectarian and ethnic factions. Improved security would create conditions making reconciliation possible. The key to improving security was to pay less attention to killing the enemy and more attention to protecting the Iraqi people. This in turn required a wholesale shift in the way that U.S. and other coalition forces were doing business. President Bush’s decision to deploy a half-dozen additional brigades combined with Petraeus’s implementation of a newly revised (or freshly rediscovered) counterinsurgency doctrine made all the difference.
Here the triumphal narrative constructed by the Bush White House (and enshrined in neoconservative circles) ends. Kilcullen makes it clear that the actual story is more complicated and by implication more problematic.
Napoleon once remarked that the best generals were the ones favored by good luck. Petraeus is clearly a capable general; in Iraq circa 2007 he may well have been an especially lucky one as well.
Some months prior to his arrival in Baghdad, the character of the Iraq War had begun to change. Beginning in western Anbar Province, Sunni tribal leaders, whose followers provided the insurgent rank and file, began to turn on AQI. The Americans misleadingly dubbed this the Sunni Awakening, as if our adversaries had begun to see the light. As Kilcullen makes clear, Sunni behavior was utterly pragmatic. “Only a naif,” he writes, would interpret the Sunni tribal revolt as “indicating support for the Iraqi government or for Coalition forces.” Still, in exchange for guns and money, Sunni sheikhs promised to desist from attacking U.S. troops and to collaborate in efforts to target AQI. They proved as good as their word. In terms of reducing the overall level of violence, this development—which U.S. officials stumbled on belatedly and then scrambled to harness—proved crucial.
How long will this marriage of convenience endure and what sort of offspring will it produce? The truth is that it’s probably too soon to tell. When it comes to anything touching on Iraq’s future, Kilcullen, whose usual mode of expression does not suggest a want of self-confidence, becomes notably circumspect. He concedes that expectations of improved security producing a top-down political settlement have not panned out: the Iraqi government in Baghdad remains divided and dysfunctional. Yet as a stalwart defender of the surge, he nurtures hopes that deals being cut with local tribal leaders might foster an “Iraqi-led, bottom-up” process of reconciliation.
Kilcullen makes no promises on that score, instead acknowledging the self-evident: despite six years of prodigious effort, the Americans are along for the ride. The Iraqis are in charge. The Sunni Awakening, he writes, “was their idea, they started it, they are leading it, it is happening on their terms and their timeline.” By extension, the Iraqis will decide where things go from here, with Kilcullen venturing only that events “will play out in ways that may be good or bad, but are fundamentally unpredictable.” In short, the second-order benefits of a success that Kilcullen hails as undeniable, substantive and significant turn out to be partial, precarious and shrouded in ambiguity—a pretty meager return on a very substantial American investment.
In 2008, Kilcullen left Baghdad and turned his attention to Afghanistan, surveying the situation there at the behest of then-Secretary Rice. More than seven years after U.S. forces first arrived, the news coming out of Kabul is almost uniformly bad. Kilcullen knows this but insists that the war “remains winnable.” In this case, winning will require the United States and its allies to commit themselves to an intensive effort, lasting “five to ten years at least,” aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” capable of fending off the Taliban. The key to success, in his view, is to extend “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” Such a presence, he concedes, is something that has never existed.
Stripped to its essentials, this is a call for Western-engineered nation building on a stupendous scale—in Kilcullen’s own words, “building an effective state structure, for the first time in modern Afghan history.” Yet even that will not suffice. Given the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, unless the United States and its partners also fix Pakistan, “a military victory in Afghanistan will simply shift the problem a few miles to the east.” With this is mind, Kilcullen calls for a “full-spectrum strategy” designed to “improve governance, security, and economic conditions” throughout the region. Although he illustrates this approach anecdotally, he offers no estimates of costs or who will pay them. Nor does Kilcullen explain why the results to be achieved in Afghanistan-Pakistan, even in the very best case, would produce an outcome any more definitive than the one he foresees in Iraq.
KILCULLEN THE practitioner, intent on transforming Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not entirely on the same page with Kilcullen the scholar, whose grand theory of insurgency emphasizes the unintended consequences of mucking around in traditional societies.
Mucking around by outsiders converts small problems into big ones. An appreciation of this phenomenon lies at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy, which Kilcullen describes as “fundamentally one of bleeding the United States to exhaustion, while simultaneously using U.S. reaction to incite a mass uprising within the Islamic world.” With that end in mind, al-Qaeda conspires to lure the West into launching ill-advised military actions, confident that one result will be to antagonize the local population, which will then respond to al-Qaeda’s calls to expel the intruders. In essence, Western intervention serves as al-Qaeda’s best recruiting tool. This is Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla Syndrome.
Kilcullen emphasizes that accidental guerrillas fight not to reinstitute the caliphate or to convert nonbelievers, but “principally to be left alone.” What they want above all is to preserve their way of life. The vast majority of those who take up arms against the United States and its allies do so “not because they hate the West and seek our overthrow, but because we have invaded their space to deal with a small extremist element.”
Of course, rather than depicting the threat posed by al-Qaeda as small, the Bush administration chose to cast it as equivalent to Nazi Germany. The premise underlying the administration’s Long War was that the Islamic world could not be “left alone.” Instead, it had to be coerced into changing. The administration invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq to jump-start that process of change. In doing so, however, the United States was playing directly into enemy hands. The decision to go after Saddam Hussein in particular, Kilcullen writes, was “a deeply misguided and counterproductive undertaking, an extremely severe strategic error.” The ostensible success of the surge notwithstanding, the Iraq War remains a “sorry adventure.”
The improved counterinsurgency techniques now being implemented by the United States military do not redeem that error. They merely offer, in the judgment of Kilcullen the apostate, “the best way out of a bad situation that we should never have gotten ourselves into.”
Here we arrive at the nub of the matter. According to a currently fashionable view, the chief operative lesson of the Iraq War is that counterinsurgency works, with U.S. forces having now mastered the best practices required to prevail in conflicts of this nature. Those who adhere to this view expect the Long War to bring more such challenges, with the neglected Afghan conflict even now presenting itself as next in line. Given this prospect, they want the Pentagon to gear itself up for a succession of such trials, enshrining counterinsurgency as the preferred American way of war in place of discredited concepts like “shock and awe.” Doing so will have large implications for how defense dollars are distributed among the various armed services and for how U.S. forces are trained, equipped and configured. Ask yourself how many fighter-bombers or nuclear submarines it takes to establish an effective government presence in each of Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages and you get the gist of what this might imply.
Yet given the costs of Iraq—now second only to World War II as the most expensive war in all U.S. history—and given the way previous efforts to pacify the Afghan countryside have fared, how much should we expect to spend in redeeming Afghanistan’s forty thousand villages? Having completed that task five or ten years hence, how many other villages in Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt will require similar ministrations? And how many more accidental guerrillas will we inadvertently create along the way?
Kilcullen the apostate knows full well that an approach that hinges on wholesale societal transformation makes no sense. The consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.
If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?
When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).