Small Wars Journal

A Counterinsurgency Primer

A Counterinsurgency Primer - Max Boot, Wall Street Journal book review of The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen.

Almost everyone, even if otherwise ignorant of military affairs, has heard of Karl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Very few people, though, have heard of C.E. Callwell, David Galula or Robert Thompson. Yet they, too, wrote immortal works on military strategy -- but on unconventional, or guerrilla, conflicts.

For all their timeless wisdom, their books were also a product of their times -- Callwell of the imperial wars of the late 19th century, Galula and Thompson of the wars of "national liberation" in the mid-20th century. Because of the global jihadist insurgency, the early 21st century has produced a new epoch in the annals of low-intensity struggle. It is fitting, then, that to help us understand the current conflict another soldier-scholar has emerged in the tradition of Callwell, Galula and Thompson.

In "The Accidental Guerrilla," a combination of memoir and military analysis, David Kilcullen looks at the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, Indonesia and southern Thailand, all of which, excepting the last, he has seen first-hand. He then draws lessons from his experiences and those of other soldiers...

More at The Wall Street Journal.


Ken White

Mon, 03/16/2009 - 8:18pm

I agree that Bush laid the groundwork for a long term strategy and that some -- many, even -- of the things he did are immutable. However, some will be likely be changed in spirit or in word and some, as your two final examples, that will be changed because they were chips that can be cashed -- and thus will change the 'strategy' a bit.

Though I believe most of the policy stuff is a lock...

I'd also posit that many of the things that were done will not be realized by many for some years to be as smart as they actually were.

That 'W' guy strategerized well and was woefully misunderestimated...


Mon, 03/16/2009 - 8:00pm

I'm on page 200. Concur with the comments above, thus far.

<I>"I believe Bush was concerned that if he did not get reelected, his successor might not due what Bush thought needed doing."</I>

<I>"We can adopt long range policies but a Grand Strategy is beyond us..."</I>
I think that President Bush may have succeeded in that regard. See above. His plans were long term and carried out in a manner that ensures they extend far beyond his term of office. President Bush forced a continued intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and hard line stances against Iran and Russia upon President Obama and, in doing so, handed him some chips to play to ensure that those strategies are continued. For example, continuous UAV attacks into Pakistan, the Syrian border incursion, missile defense in Europe, expansion of NATO, sanctions against Iran, refusing to close down Gitmo - those are all relatively "hard line" stances that President Obama can do nothing with and let them continue or he can pull each off of the table in return for concessions. He already cashed (somewhat) one of those chips with Gitmo and is now using the missile defense chip.

Ken White

Mon, 03/16/2009 - 5:31pm

Just finished the book yesterday. Agree with Max Boot generally but I did see a few strange (in my opinion) things.

First, Dr. Kilcullen roundly criticizes the strategic 'blunder' of the Iraq invasion. While I agree with him from the standpoint of opening a second front, I was surprised that he did not comment on two mitigating factors.

The timing. That was due to domestic political considerations -- I believe Bush was concerned that if he did not get reelected, his successor might not due what Bush thought needed doing.

Tha'r and badal. The 'reasons' for Iraq are many, synergistic and were understood, rightly or wrongly, by many in Islam as revenge (tha'r in Arabic and badal in Pukhtun according to Dr.K.). Afghanistan was the eye for the eye of an attack on US soil; Iraq was an arm for the arm of numerous attacks on US interests worldwide over 23 years emanating from the Middle East. My belief is that the attack was also construed in that light in Asia though not generally in the European hearth nations who have different thought processes on such matters.

In the eyes of some, neither of those items may outweigh the second front problem but Politicians tend to view things differently than do Soldiers. A factor the Weinberger and Powell doctrines could not subvert.

He also points out that the lessons learned the last seven years were hard learned. True. His and our nation both learned those lessons over 40 years ago in Southeast Asia. That should have meant they need not be relearned; it is an indictment on the US Army that they had to be again absorbed.

I'm not surprised that he advocates a Grand Strategy for the US in the future -- many do but most do not seem to acknowledge the stated (for campaign reasons) if not real (few actual policy changes) intransigence of each new administration towards its predecessor or, more importantly, the political value change engendered every two, four six and eight years. We can adopt long range policies but a Grand Strategy is beyond us...

Dr. Kilcullen advocates an avoidance of future efforts of intervention in a FID or COIN effort. I totally agree. He also says that the nation must be prepared to do that in event the policy has to be altered temporarily for one nation or another. I also agree with that and suggest that if the policy is to avoid, it make little sense to have a large active element or organization dedicated to an effort that is going to be avoided. Better to have a decent and well planned standby ability.

He advocates some best practices and all are sensible, achievable and merit adoption. He particularly urges small unit dismounted patrols with less armor -- so do I. They work.

He urges remedying the imbalance in governmental efforts and abilities -- restoring DoS primacy in foreign affairs, a defect noted by many and one in need of rectification. A policy of avoidance cannot be sustained unless there is a concomitant effort to actively avoid by preemption of need.

All in all, it is a good effort, well written and practical. He rolled in Timor with Afghanistan and Iraq and on close reading, that rolling confirms three things we all know:

Every insurgency is different as are the populations engaged in them.

Our training can be improved.

METT-TC is still totally valid.