I was a little nonplussed by Andrew Bacevich's review of my recent book, The Accidental Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, 2009). Mr Bacevich is a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man whose work I have admired over many years (in fact, I quote him at length in two places in the book). He also has an incandescent wit, which he applies like a blowtorch to my book and to my personal character. While I beg to differ on the assertion that I have been guilty of moral cowardice or benefited personally from the war, I actually agree with almost all the points he makes in his review -- indeed his argument, though framed as a critique of my book, is actually precisely the same argument I make in the book. I wonder, in fact, whether he has actually read the book, or whether some evil fairy or publishing-industry gremlin slipped another, completely different, book, like a changeling, into my book's dust-jacket before he read it.
To be fair, as normally happens, he probably reviewed a galley (or perhaps an early incomplete draft) of the book, and he therefore may not have had a chance to read it in full, read the later chapters or look at the theory chapter. Mr Bacevich's review focuses on the Iraq and Afghanistan chapters, but of course the book also analyses five other conflicts at some length (West Java, East Timor, Pakistan, Southern Thailand and radicalization in Europe), and there are three theory chapters also. I understand Mr Bacevich may have been pressed for time or short of space, and so I can completely understand a desire to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever the reason, the fact is that the book Mr Bacevich criticizes so harshly is simply not the book I wrote...
Some examples. Mr Bacevich writes "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, [Kilcullen] 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."
I agree completely. I said so in the book, actually, in chapter 5. At the top of page 268, I write "counterinsurgency in general is a game we need to avoid wherever possible. If we we are forced to intervene, we now (through much hard experience) have a reasonably sound idea of how to do so. But we should avoid such interventions wherever possible, simply because the costs are so high and the benefits so doubtful."
He also writes, in one of the best parts of his review: "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?"
Again, I couldn't agree more. That's what I said in the book -- on the middle of page 269: "we should avoid any future large-scale, unilateral military intervention in the Islamic world, for all the reasons already discussed." A few pages earlier, in the middle of page 264, I write: "Our too-—and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called "war on terrorism" to date have largely played into the hands of this AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions." I do, however, make the point (at the top of page 284) that "This will be a protracted conflict. Because the drivers of conflict in the current security environment...lie predominantly outside Western governments' control, our ability to terminate this conflict on our own terms or within our preferred timeline is extremely limited." In other words, I'm not saying we should seek to continue the Long War -- far from it, I'm saying this is likely to be a long-term conflict, whether we seek it or not. This may seem a very subtle distinction, but it's one that other reviewers have grasped easily.
For instance Jay Nordlinger, in his gracious and fair review in The New Criterion (fair largely, I suspect, because he has actually read the book in detail) criticizes me accurately for taking the opposite position from the one Mr Bacevich claims I hold. Mr Nordlinger describes me, correctly, as someone who dislikes whole concept of a Long War on Terrorism, writing "Kilcullen doesn't like this term, thinking it stupid. What would he like to say instead?" Mr Nordlinger also criticizes me (again fairly, I think, on reflection) for portraying myself as more culturally adept than others I worked with in the field, writing "the author likes to paint himself as the one native-knower—the Malinowski of the warrior class—amid oafish and insensitive palefaces. This, too, is unbecoming (even if occasionally—occasionally—true)." He has a point -- I was abashed to read this in his review, went back and looked at the book, and realized that he is quite correct. I do often seem to suggest that I knew better than the others around me. It was indeed unbecoming of me, and I apologize unreservedly for giving that impression. I have worked with, or read the writings of, dozens of people -- Mac McAllister, Harold Ingram, Derek Harvey, Chris Cavoli, and many many others -- whose knowledge of the environment and of local cultures leaves mine for dead. It's no excuse, but I suspect that in writing a first-person account I tended to unconsciously overstate the importance of my own insights. Well spotted, Mr Nordlinger -- this was accurate and constructive criticism that will help me do better next time, I hope -- exactly what a review should be. Mr Nordlinger's comments are thus valid, and they are of course based on a correct reading of the book.
Meanwhile Mr Bacevich writes: "When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy." Again, I find myself in violent agreement with Mr Bacevich and...um, myself.
Starting on page 280 there is an entire section entitled "understanding the limits of our influence" (which quotes Mr Bacevich at length, by the way, one of two lengthy and favorable mentions of him) and argues against a series of interventions in the Muslim world. The book considers the option of containment strategy (in Chapter 1, at the bottom of page 19), criticizes the policy of direct intervention, and shows how containment would have been a valid strategic response to 9/11, though it notes that containment would have been extremely difficult to achieve, given the effects of globalization. The book also quotes Senator John F. Kerry, in Chapter 5, page 277-78, and describes his proposal of a containment strategy as showing "evident good sense".
Besides these intellectual inaccuracies, I was rather surprised to find Mr Bacevich so critical of my personal character, since I have never met him. He wrote "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," suggesting that I showed moral cowardice by waiting until the Bush administration left office before airing my criticisms of policy.
At the risk of treating SWJ readers like poorly-read undergraduates, I would suggest that people Google "countering global insurgency", my first major published work on this topic, which heavily criticized the Bush administration's strategy back in 2004, or read George Packer's article "Knowing the Enemy" in the New Yorker of 18th December 2006, in which Mr Packer publicly described my position as a "thoroughgoing critique" of Bush administration policy. Or people may like to look at my post in this journal from July 2008, in which I publicly reiterated my strong and long-standing public disagreement on the decision to invade Iraq. Two points here, I guess -- first, my views have been on the public record for years, since well before I came to work for the government and since before I served in the field in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They hired me anyway. And secondly, surprising as it may be, the last administration -- just like the present administration -- was big enough, open enough and intellectually honest enough to tolerate and, indeed, welcome constructive criticism and genuine attempts to fix policy problems. I never found that it needed much moral courage to be honest about my opinions -- non-partisan honesty was exactly what Secretary Rice wanted from me, and she told me that more than once. The ability to tolerate and integrate different opinions, and thus to self-correct, is one of the foremost strengths of our form of government, and I suspect this is true of all administrations, though perhaps it is true of some more than others.
It would probably be improper to go on at (even greater) length about this. Suffice it to say, I'm honored that such a prominent, prolific and able commentator as Mr Bacevich took the time to notice and review my book. I guess I just wish he had read it in detail, as Mr Nordlinger and other reviewers seem to have done. And I hope that others who have the chance will read the book also, before making up their minds.