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.Essay Types: Book Review