by Andrew J. Bacevich | March 2, 2009
[review of 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).