May 2009

Arts & Letters

Turning a mouse into an elephant

By Hugh White
‘The Accidental Guerrilla’ by David Kilcullen

Soldiers who are also scholars have always had a certain cachet, but since 1914, when major warfare became unrelentingly industrial, soldier-scholars have flourished best at the margins, in the small wars of imperial decline. It was only in these wars that brute firepower might count for less than insight, imagination and learning, and a strong-willed savant like Lawrence of Arabia could still, it seemed, make a difference.

The War on Terror, as it has been fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, has something in common with those small wars of the last colonial age, and like them may yet come to be seen as a symptom, or a cause, of imperial decline. But meanwhile, it has grown its own crop of soldier-scholars, of which David Kilcullen is among the best known. He has had a varied and unusual career: Australian Army officer; a doctorate on Indonesia's internal conflicts; service in East Timor; a stint as an Office of National Assessments intelligence analyst; secondment to the Pentagon after September 11; and, since then, a number of significant roles in the development of American thinking about the War on Terror, culminating in service as an advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq. Along the way he has written a couple of much-quoted articles on the nature of the War on Terror and how to win it, and achieved some celebrity in the United States, being mentioned in the same breath as TE Lawrence in the pages of the New Yorker.

There is much in all this to admire. Back in 2005, Kilcullen was one of the first to argue that the protracted wars which the US and its allies found themselves fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were best seen as counter-insurgencies rather than conventional conflicts. This insight is now conventional wisdom - and it was hardly news to many at the time - but it came as a breath of fresh air to most coalition leaders when Kilcullen and others began articulating it.

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Scribe, 376pp; $35) takes this proposition as the basis for a general account of the War on Terror and how it should be fought. Volumes on the War on Terror crowd the bookshops, but Kilcullen's has the advantage of its author having been there - in Washington committee rooms and in the field - to see close-up something of what he discusses. His book leverages this advantage, mixing anecdote and analysis to create what he admits is a hybrid work: part memoir, part treatise, part policy advocacy.

As memoir, the result is quite appealing. Many of the anecdotes are engaging and well told, especially his account of Iraq during the Surge, the best part of the book. However, The Accidental Guerrilla is less successful in meeting its broader aims of providing robust scholarly analysis and workable policy proposals.

Beyond telling his stories, Kilcullen sets out to establish two propositions: that Al Qaeda's brand of Islamist (what he calls "takfiri") terrorism constitutes a "global insurgency", and that a global counter-insurgency campaign led by the US can defeat it. He has therefore to do much more than argue that there are insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan: he has to explain how those insurgencies affect the risk of terrorism and the broader security of Western countries, and how practicable it is for the West to defeat them through large-scale counter-insurgency operations.

These are the right questions to be asking, because they are central to today's choices about the War on Terror, especially in Afghanistan. Those who support a bigger effort there - including the current American and Australian governments - argue that defeating the Taliban insurgency is essential to keeping us safe from Al Qaeda, and that an enlarged military and civil campaign on counter-insurgency lines has a fair chance of success. Sceptics take the opposite view on one or both of these assertions.

But on both issues, Kilcullen's book is strangely elusive. In different places he argues positions on either side of each of them. As a result The Accidental Guerrilla ends up exemplifying the confusions and equivocations that bedevil the War on Terror, rather than illuminating and resolving them.

 This pattern begins with Kilcullen's Big Idea: that the terrorist assault on the West is really a global insurgency, inspired and directed by Al Qaeda, that sets the Muslim world against both its own governments and the Western-dominated global order. Local insurrections - from the Philippines to Morocco - are part of this global insurgency. From this he infers that the West should mount a single, integrated global counter-insurgency campaign, "protecting the world's Muslim population from Al Qaeda intimidation ... and meeting the Muslim world's legitimate grievances".

But elsewhere in the book Kilcullen argues the opposite: that local security problems only become anti-Western when the West intrudes in pursuit of Al Qaeda. This, he claims, is how the accidental guerrillas of his title are created. In other words, it is the West that makes the insurgency global, not Al Qaeda. This leads him to argue that the correct strategy is to disaggregate the threat and treat each local insurgency as a separate phenomenon. Why then consider these insurgencies to be related to the Al Qaeda threat at all? And why intervene in them as a way of responding to Al Qaeda? Kilcullen himself acknowledges that doing so only exacerbates the West's problem in the Muslim world, thereby serving Al Qaeda's objectives.

This muddle is at the heart of the War on Terror. Since September 11 it has been generally assumed that Al Qaeda and similar groups threaten much more than the perpetration of further terrorist attacks - that they pose an existential threat to the global order and ‘our way of life'. This has some credibility if bin Laden and his colleagues stand at the head of a worldwide insurgency threatening governments from Africa to south-east Asia. But if not, how is it credible that terrorist attacks alone, no matter how dreadful, could topple the global order?

Kilcullen does not seem to have made up his mind on this point, so he finds it hard to decide just how serious a threat Al Qaeda poses. Sometimes he writes of the threat the way the Bush administration did, as the defining strategic challenge of the age. He reminds us that he helped write Rumsfeld's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which enshrined precisely this apocalyptic view and proclaimed the "long war" in response. But elsewhere he suggests that we have exaggerated the threat, "turning a mouse into an elephant". And he argues that terrorism is indeed an existential threat - but only because "we" (the West) make it so, through our disproportionate and self-defeating interventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That is, we are threatened not by terrorism itself, but by the consequences of precisely the global counter-insurgency he appears to propound.

 This, in turn, makes it difficult for Kilcullen to decide what exactly we are trying to achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes he argues that success is critical to defeating the global insurgency, and hence to protecting ourselves and the global order from the existential threat posed by Al Qaeda. At other times he argues that we are fighting only to fulfil legal and moral obligations, to fix up the messes we ourselves created through ill-advised and counter-productive invasions. So which is it: are we there to help them, or to protect ourselves?

Finally, and most tellingly for his argument, Kilcullen does not seem to have made up his mind whether the counter-insurgency campaign he proposes is a viable option for the West - even in one country, let alone worldwide. This question is of more than academic interest, because Kilcullen's ideas closely resemble the new strategy that Barack Obama has announced for Afghanistan. Yet Kilcullen is unsure of the likely success of his own proposed campaign there. He acknowledges that the West is incapable of fielding the 600,000 troops which the classic counter-insurgency doctrine suggests would be required. Instead, like many others, he proposes building up Afghanistan's own forces. But, with a weak and corrupt central government, who will these forces answer to, and who will they work for? You cannot build a stable and just state by first building an army, for no army or police force was ever better than the government it served.

Kilcullen also acknowledges that the military campaign is only a small part of any successful counter-insurgency; the real work is economic and political. The Accidental Guerrilla, though, says nothing of substance about who is to do this work, or how they will be protected. And if we cannot succeed in Afghanistan, what hope in Pakistan, a country with nearly six times the population?

David Kilcullen seems to find something a little intoxicating about the image of the soldier-scholar out among the world's wild peoples, leading them to serve his own country's interests in a wider global struggle: to write "my will across the sky in stars", as Lawrence said. Discredited after Vietnam, this romantic vision has been resurrected in the War on Terror. But we are likely to discover, as Lawrence did, that outsiders have almost no capacity to shape other societies' political systems and social structures, and often do more harm than good when they try.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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