Spencer Ackerman, in yesterday's Washington Independent, claims I told him the Iraq war was "f*cking stupid". He did not seek to clear that quote with me, and I would not have approved it if he had. If he HAD sought a formal comment, I would have told him what I have said publicly before: in my view, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was an extremely serious strategic error. But the task of the moment is not to cry over spilt milk, rather to help clean it up: a task in which the surge, the comprehensive counterinsurgency approach, and our troops on the ground are admirably succeeding.
Anyone who knows me has been well aware of my position on Iraq for years. When I went to Iraq in 2007 (and on both previous occasions) it was to end the war, by suppressing the violence and defeating the insurgency. (Note: I said END the war, not abandon it half-way through, leaving the Iraqis to be slaughtered. When we invaded Iraq, we took on a moral and legal responsibility for its people's wellbeing. Regardless of anyone's position on the decision to invade, those obligations still stand and cannot be wished away merely because they have proven inconvenient).
Like every other counterinsurgency professional, I warned against the war in 2002-3 on the grounds that it was likely to be extremely difficult, demand far more resources than our leaders seemed —to commit, inflame world Muslim opinion making our counterterrorism tasks harder, and entail a significant opportunity cost in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This was hardly an original or brilliant insight. Nor was it particularly newsworthy: it was a view shared with the rest of my community, and you would be hard-pressed to find any professional counterinsurgent who thought the 2003/4 strategy was sensible.
The question of whether we were right to invade Iraq is a fascinating debate for historians and politicians, and a valid issue for the American people to consider in an election year. As it happens, I think it was a mistake. But that is not my key concern. The issue for practitioners in the field is not to second-guess a decision from six years ago, but to get on with the job at hand which, I believe, is what both Americans and Iraqis expect of us. In that respect, the new strategy and tactics implemented in 2007, and which relied for their effectiveness on the extra troop numbers of the Surge, ARE succeeding and need to be supported. In 2006, a normal night in Baghdad involved 120 to 150 dead Iraqi civilians, and each month we lost dozens of Americans killed or maimed. This year, a bad night involves one or two dead civilians, U.S. losses are dramatically down, and security is restored. Therefore, even on the most conservative estimate, in the eighteen months of the surge to date we have saved 12 to 16 thousand Iraqis and hundreds of American lives. And we are now in a position to pursue a political strategy that will ultimately see Iraq stable, our forces withdrawn, and this whole sorry adventure tidied up to the maximum extent possible so that we can get on with the fight in other theaters -- most pressingly, Afghanistan.
On the ground, in both Iraq and Afghanistan over several years, I have fought and worked beside brave and dedicated military and civilian colleagues who are making an enormous difference in an incredibly tough environment. I salute their dedication -- Americans, Iraqis and Afghans alike -- and I hold all of them in the highest possible regard. These quiet professionals deserve our unstinting support. Besides having the courage to close with and finish the enemy, (an enemy capable of literally unbelievable depravity and cruelty towards its own people) they have proven capable of great compassion and kindness toward the people they protect. The new tactics and tools they are now applying -- protecting the people 24/7, building alliances of trust with local communities, putting political reconciliation and engagement first, connecting the people to the government, co-opting anyone —to be reconciled and simultaneously eliminating the irreconcilables with precision and discrimination -- these techniques are the best way out of a situation we should never have gotten ourselves into.
These are not the policy positions of any party -- I am not politically partisan, just a professional expressing my professional opinion. I was against the war on professional grounds but (also on professional grounds) I support the surge as the best means to end it favorably and humanely. I thought the initial plan was flawed, but my duty is to help fix it, not wash my hands of it. I thought the decision to invade was a mistake, but I put my life on the line to save the Iraqi people from the terrorists who tore their society apart after we failed in our obligation to stabilize it. And if you find those positions hard to understand, you probably haven't been to Iraq.
SWJ Editors' Notes:
Spencer Ackerman asks that we post a link to his reply - Sources Holler Back: Kilcullen Edition.
In the course of a piece I'm proud of about David Kilcullen's forthcoming strategy-level counterinsurgency handbook, I included a profanity-laden quote from him about the wisdom of the Iraq war. This was a mistake on my part and I take full responsibility for the fact that it overshadowed what I consider Kilcullen's valuable, serious, and hard-learned counterinsurgency insights.
In the course of our conversation about his handbook, Dave made these and other points about the war, which are included lower down in the piece. I included the profanity because I thought it underscored the depth of his commitment to try to dig American strategy out of the morass of Iraq, which I and many others view as uncomplicatedly admirable. What I should have realized is that the profanity overwhelms the broader points presented in the handbook and about Dave's personality and professional vision. For that, I apologize, not only to Dave, but to my readers, who I hope will pay attention to those broader points despite my error in judgment...
Grim at Blackfive.
... We can all be completely certain that his contribution to the efforts to stabilize Iraq and protect the Iraqi population have been tremendous. Dr. Kilcullen is a model of the honorable disgreement that best characterizes a free society. Good for him. Good for us, to have him as a companion.
And more by Erin Simpson (aka Charlie) at Abu Muqawama.
It is now, as Kiclullen wrote Charlie, "case closed, hatchet buried."