When a War Creates Unexpected Outcomes

Posted March 30, 2009 at 4:31pm

In his new book, David Kilcullen, a well-known Australian military strategist and adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, examines the troubled American planning during the early years of the Iraq War.

Kilcullen’s account of the mental stresses the insurgents inflicted on the military through the use of improvised explosive devises could not be timed better. In fact, this book will serve as a warning as the U.S. heads into further involvement in Afghanistan.

Recently, President Barack Obama announced that he plans to send thousands more troops to fight in Afghanistan.

Moreover, this week, Petraeus, U.S. Central Command commander, is scheduled to appear before the Senate and House Armed Services committees to explain U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy put together with Kilcullen’s scholarship in mind.

Added to that is the pressure from nearly every military expert, political pundit and Member of Congress, all cautioning the White House not to repeat the mistakes President George W. Bush’s team committed in Iraq.

These mistakes, especially the “you are either with us or against us— approach to diplomacy, are dissected with pinpoint precision in Kilcullen’s triumphant “The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.—

Kilcullen starts his book by describing a scene that took place shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, in which a U.S. general speaking in Australia explained that since the U.S. had become an unbeatable military superpower, ground wars like the ones from World War II would become obsolete in the 21st century. Wars would be fought another way: through cyber terrorism, political propaganda, aerial attacks and a variety of nontraditional methods, such as “urban guerrilla warfare.—

This is the heart of Kilcullen’s thesis: A byproduct of the “urban guerrilla warfare— is the local citizen afflicted with a severe case of not-in-my-backyard sentiment, turning him into the “accidental guerrilla— whose new purpose is to resist being occupied by a foreign power.

In Iraq, Kilcullen explained, many Iraqis just didn’t want to live in a city under military control. Simply put, they “don’t like we’re being in their face,— as Kilcullen said in one TV interview last week.

The book is structured as an autobiographical military study that aims to separate doctrine from strategy. From chapter to chapter, Kilcullen returns to the premise that new warfare entails “small wars and global confrontations; local social networks and worldwide movements,— a significant dichotomy that helps support his claim that not everybody in a country is a terrorist, but a terrorist cell inside a country could elevate a conflict to the international stage, such as in Afghanistan.

Worth nothing is Kilcullen’s “disrupted governance triad,— where he analyzes the “accidental guerrilla— phenomenon in Afghanistan. On one end of the triad, the Taliban intimidates and terrorizes the tribal government leadership of a village, which leads to residents who are neglected and disenfranchised by the government. Then finally, after the Taliban takes control of a village, residents are forced to take up arms to defend themselves against the Taliban because there is no longer a government to protect them. Therefore, when the U.S. military becomes a player, they may not be fighting the Taliban or insurgents. Instead, they are facing average citizens who have grown to distrust everybody.

Kilcullen’s remedies include simple diplomacy, rules and diversions, self-discipline, and a strict military code to treat residents and prisoners of war with equal respect.

His advice is that the U.S. military should not burden the local populace with details about terrorism, but instead assist communities with their economies, transportation systems and schools. That could explain why Obama is calling on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to introduce legislation that would provide $1.5 billion in aid annually to Pakistan for the next five years — most of which would benefit school and road construction.

Although Kilcullen is not a good storyteller in the classical sense, he excels in rising above partisan rhetoric to offer the reader fair explanations about America’s wars. About the “surge,— Kilcullen writes: “The surge’ worked: but in the final analysis, it was an effort to save ourselves from the more desperate consequences of a situation we should never have gotten ourselves into.—

Religion also plays a large role in his ideological plan. Especially in Europe, where Islam is the largest minority religion, “with greater poverty, unemployment, and welfare dependence than nonimmigrant communities,— Muslims form a distinct society. That is why Kilcullen urges European governments to practice politics of inclusivity to stop young Muslim groups from radicalizing.

The other big lesson is that after the U.S. defeats whatever suspected terrorists it is fighting in a place such as Afghanistan, the diplomatic arm of the federal government should be nonjudgmental. The last thing a stricken Middle Eastern country needs, Kilcullen argues, is to hear it is not doing enough to combat terrorism.

Finally, in the chapter “Beyond the War on Terrorism,— Kilcullen leaves us with an uncomfortable thought: The perfect strategy for dealing with suspected insurgent terrorists and the “accidental guerrilla— has not yet been found. “Finding new, breakthrough ideas to understand and defeat these threats may prove to be the most important challenge we face,— he writes.