Accidental Guerrilla: Read Before Burning

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.

0
Your rating: None

Comments

Kilcullen was fairly disingenuous about this supposed personal criticism from Bacevich: "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,"

The review in National Interest is behind a paywall, but thankfully Abu Muqawama provided the context for this quote:

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.

Thus, the quote is meant as praise, not a personal attack. How Kilcullen could have taken it as such is beyond me. Also note that Exum published his note before Kilcullen's complaint and that Exum doesn't say anything about this being a personal attack. In fact he introduces the quote with "I think [Bacevich] surprised himself with how much he found in [Accidental Guerilla] with which he could agree"

Dr. Kilcullen:
I teach Anthropology for TRADOC's Human Terrain System and I worked with the 101st in Afghanistan in 2008. I constantly endorse your book while training HTS students preparing to go to to Afghanistan and Iraq...It is a fantastic teaching and learning tool for those doing "combat ethnography." Thank you and I hope another book is in the works!

Ron

Dear Dr. David Kilcullen,

I thought it might interest you to know that professor Mary Kaldor of LSE has chosen to discuss The Accidental Guerrilla on FiveBooks as one of the top five on her subject - War. 

The full interview can be accessed here: Mary Kaldor on War 

I recently bought a copy of The Accidental Terrorist from Audible books. I don't know if you have heard this read but it is read as if the listener is a sandwich short of a picnic. I know it is an important and well written book and can only suggest that it is rerecorded with a more appropriate read.

You agree with Bacevich that we (the US and the rest of the industrialized world) should contain radical Islam? Good luck with that idea.

You're a legend mate/sir.
The way you argue is a telling exercise in etiquette and politeness (which, I must add, in some ways usurps the Australian stereotype - maybe you should've thrown a "fair dinkum" in).
Minus the "At the risk of treating SWJ readers like poorly-read undergraduates" part (because I'm a choco/uni student), I agree that yours is a book you should read before burning.

Dr Kilcullen, i saw your recent comments on drone inefficiency and fully agree with your analysis.But i would like to point out that there is a technological solution.
would be very keen in having a contact andprovide you with more details.Thanks

Dr. Kilcullen: let me first say that I greatly admire your work and have for some time now (am familiar with your articles). I read The Accidental Guerrilla with excitement and interest and in general admire it and appreciate your insights. However, while I do understand your irritation with Bacevich's review (which was perhaps at moments ungenerous) I do have to admit that I too was left with the impression of a disconnect between the insightful analysis of the accidental guerrilla syndrome and the conclusions of the book. Despite my close attention to the parts you invoke in response to Bacevich, I too felt that you did not fully contend with the implications of your own insights.

So I have been asking myself why does the book partly give this impression. Here is one speculation: you open the book with four models to comprehend the threat environment (backlash against globalization, a globalized insurgency, a civil war within Islam and asymmetric warfare) but do not include U.S. foreign policy or what some would call "The New Imperialism" (David Harvey)- the series of sponsorships of repressive governments from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, the intricate lace of global military bases, the effort to establish hegemony through direct and indirect means and so on. The closest you come to considering this aspect is in the section on asymmetric warfare, where you discuss the security dilemma, and even there you read suspicions of U.S. global policy as simply "an inherent structural aspect of a unipolar global system." You do not, of course, have to be Noam Chomsky but the issue of U.S. foreign policy global interests seems to deserve a more prominent role. This oversight tends to exacerbate itself towards the end of the book when these "models" become "drivers of conflict." Since U.S. global policy is not a driver then, of course, the causes of the conflict become "predominantly" outside western government control and the conflict becomes a "protracted" one to which we have no causal relationship.

I hope if you read this you will not dismiss it as the flat footed claim that U.S. policy created AQ, but rather a good faith effort to shift the perceptual lens by placing the bigger picture of suspicion of American policy(by even moderates who are not remotely takfiris)as neither irrational nor made up.

Dr. Kilcullen,

I wanted to repost my previous comments with a few corrections and additions (proof that you shouldnt post a comment at 3 AM).

Please don't take Andrew Bacevichs review to heart. I believe your book is a must read for anyone trying to understand how we (the US and International Community) approach not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but the areas of instability and potential instability around the globe. As a military practioner, I still struggle with getting my military bretheren to see that you can't "kill your way to victory" -weve made progress, but it is still a struggle at times. Yes, there are those who must be elimentated (as you state in the book -a defensive act in reality), but we must simultaneoulsy build partner nation capacity and provide the populace with alternatives violence (the truly decisive operations!). I also struggle with getting some of my broader USG bretheren to understand that, in the aforementioned areas of instability and potential instability, Diplomacy and Development efforts cannot succeed soley on their own right. In these instances, we must apply at 3D approach where Defense works to build HN CT capacity, while working hand in hand with State and USAID to focus developmental dollars (DoD, USAID, IO, HN and NGO monies) towards vulnerable populaces.

Bottom line, we can only make progress when we (USG, International Community and Host Nation Partners) bring our diplomatic, develop, and defense resources to bear simultaneously, based on a true understanding of the situation obtained through constant interaction with the populace. As you state in the book, our "projects" (e.g. Kunar Road Project) are really the vehicle for community engagement, stregthening of civil society, HN government to populace trust building, and increasing HN security and government official capacity - ultimately the populace is connected to their Government, who understands their grievances and is actively working with them to resolves these grievances, protect them, and increase their access to basic services and hope. This is true in Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other nations around the globe.

I've already recommended The Accidental Guerrilla to at least ten people and will continue to recommend it to my military and broader USG colleages. We must change mindsets (a slow process) and The Accidental Guerilla is an excellent tool for doing so. I thank you for taking the time to write this book.

God Speed,

Jay Liddick

Dr. Kilcullen,
Please don't take Andrew Bacevichs review to heart. I believe your book is a must read for anyone trying to understand how we (the US and International Community) approach not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but the areas of instability and potential instability around the globe. As a military practioner, I still struggle with getting my military bretheren to see that you can't "kill your way to victory" ( Yes, there are those who must be elimentated, but we must simultaneoulsy build partner nation capacity and provide the populace with alternatives). I also struggle with getting some of my broader USG bretheren to understand that, in the aforemention areas of instability and potential instability, Diplomacy and Development efforts cannot succeed soley on there own right. This can only be done when we (USG, International Community and Host Nation Partners) bring our diplomatic, develop and defense resources to bear simultaneously, based on a true understanding of the situation obtained through constant interaction with the populace. This in true in Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other nations around the globe. I've already recommended The Accidental Guerrilla to at least ten people and will continue to recommend it to my military and broader USG colleages. We must change peoples mindsets (a difficult process) and the Accidental Guerilla is an excellent tool for doing so. I thank you for taking the time to write this book.

God Speed,

Jay Liddick

Congratulations on a great book. It well outlines the strategy of our extremist enemy, a task seemingly left untouched by the media and government since 9/11. Even if your opponents disagree with your proposed solutions, your articulation of the problem is a debate-changing starting point that deserves thorough consideration.
For example, that the enemy's over-arching goal is to exhaust and bankrupt the West, as opposed to killing the specific individual victims of a particular terror attack, is a deeply troubling realization that shakes the foundation of our traditional hawkish response to these persistent threats.

Dr. Kilcullen:

I enjoyed the presentation that you gave in Washington last week. I have two questions that I did not have a chance to ask:

1. You suggested that the ideological extreminism and stupid brutality of the takfiri have led to a great diminishment in their popular support and may eventually lead to their demise (or at least vastly reduced threat). If the takfiri continue on their current course that seems a very logical conclusion. However, is it not just as likely that they will adapt? Will not someone in their movement figure out that extremism and brutality are not working for them? What if they read your book? It seems possible and perhaps probable that a new movement, based on alleged takfiri grievances but smarter in the use of ideology and violence will emerge. What if a takfiri Mao emerges? A movement that can both exploit grievances and understand how to operate without alienating traditional culture could pose a much more potent threat to the current governments in the middle east

2. I am wondering what you thought about the clash of traditional cultures with global society. It seems to me that many in traditional cultures understand that, to paraphrase Lincoln, a global house divided cannot stand. It cannot exist half with Western values and half with traditional values. In my very limited field time in Afghanistan I was struck by how Afghans in even remote villages had relatives in Denmark, Chicago, Australia, etc. I think it is possible that they understood that if the Karzai government survives, their traditional way of life, especially with respect to the treatment of women, will not. To me this might explain why such communities are willing to tolerate the takfiri/taliban as long as they behave themselves. It might also lead to a hypothosis (I do not have the data to do more than make a suggestion) that our fight in Afghanistan may get very much worse. A smarter taliban that exploits real fears that traditional culture cannot survive in a global world order may prove a more tenacious enemy that the Iraqi takfiri.

The ultimate solution may be some sort of ideological struggle that creates an Islamic culture that is consistent with global (Western?) values. However, I am not sure that Afghan males will easily give up control over women. Attitudes toward women may be the center of gravity in the fight for Afghanistan.

Just some thoughts. Thank you for your great work and service.

Andy Pavord

Hi David,

This post is way off-topic. But the only way I could think of to get in touch with you.
I read in the NRC (a dutch newspaper) that you are an anthropologist with a position in the American Army. And that you where in the Netherlands this week. I would like to keep in touch with you. I am part of the Anthropological Student Association in Leiden and it would be interesting if you could give an interview (online) for our newspaper or (if you're in the Netherlands) could do a reading.
Please contact me and thanks in advance.
My e-mail adress is: metjaapisallesgoed@hotmail.com

I lived in Alquim for 4 yrs., 1981-84. We are wrong to separate the sects, shias and sunnis. The Kurds need an enclave in the mountains, not Mosul or Kirkuk and they need representatives in the Parliament and oil money but not President. That was an ignorant decision. The sunnis and shias should have equal voting. We do not separate catholics and protestents which is equal to what we are doing in Iraq. Without Saddam the sunnis and shias will work it out In general the Shias are poor and farmers in the south, the sunnis are more business people and ran the Ministries but providing the shias are able to practice their form of Islam they are fine. Is A. Sistani still alive?, I was a friend of his niece, she married a Sunni He is a very wise man. Josephine Fogg

Hi Dr Kicullen,

I just listened to your interview with Fareed Zakaria, and wanted to comment on that. So I hope that somehow you read this email.

I wanted to thank you for the clearest statements I have heard on:
1. the fact that we should not have invaded Iraq, and
2. the huge casualties the Iraqis experienced - equivalent to a 9/11 every week (more Americans should think about this), and
3. more particularly, the honest acceptance of moral responsibility that we, the invaders, have in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Personally I think the Bush Admin should be held up for war crimes. (To Americans its not acceptable for any other country to invade another country without warrant - why should it be ok for American?).

Thats it. Thanks again for your insights and straightforwardness.

A fellow Australian American.

Ann:

While you're advocating the Bush administration be charged with war crimes, I'm wondering who in the United Nations should be charged with crimes against humanity for the effects of prolonged sanctions on Iraq. I'm easy, three names should do.