Small Wars Journal

My Views on Iraq

Tue, 07/29/2008 - 11:03am
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."


KingsleyS (not verified)

Sun, 08/03/2008 - 5:17am

Dear LTC Kilcullen - I would be interested to hear you explore why you felt the invasion was an error. In particular are you troubled by the invasion full stop or how it was conducted?

I think that is a pretty important distinction

Peter McGuirk (not verified)

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 4:44am

I should be interested to know what Dr Kilcullen thinks should now be happening in Afghanistan? I am very aware of the lack of service manpower and resources applied, particularly by the current British government. This amounts to a monstrous political failure and a gross betrayal of all the fine men and women in serving in uniform, from all the contributing countries.
The failure of other major Western allies to support the Afghan effort adequately fortells of an impending political and military disaster even greater than that of the Iraq conflict. I have great difficulty containing the expletives myself! I would be very happy if Dr Kilcullen and others can prescribe the remedy, before the politicians provide the fudge?

MSG Proctor

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 3:20am

I find it sad and disappointing that combatants like Dr. Kilcullen express their views about "why" instead of "how" we fight to liberate Iraqis enslaved by a terrorist dictator. Its been argued ad infinitum and those who sqeal the loudest about why we should not have invaded usually leave the issue dangling there, never offering an alternative solution to problem of UN resolution 1441, the 90,000 forces containing Iraq in the region, the 500+ attacks against the UN forces in the two No Fly Zones in 2002, the plight of Iraqi children, the government(s) of Iraq in exile, the Oil-for-Food $20 billion bilk off, not to mention Saddam's bankrolling of terrorists and Ansar al Islam operating in Fallujah.
Dr. Kilcullen's rationale seems to be that we should not have deposed Saddam 'because it was just too hard'.
To be fair (I was part of the invasion force), the biggest mistake we did make was not accounting for the religious factors in a post-Saddam Iraq and the impact Islam would have on stability operations. Dr. Kilcullen seems to share the same western mypoia that relegates religion to a sub-category of culture, a view that ignores Islam as a civilization and not merely a religion (as westerner's understand religion).
We should have learned from Bosnia - it was a textbook case of the collapse of a dictatorial regime (Tito's Yugoslavia) and the emergence of ethno-sectarian factions fractured along religious fault lines. In those operations we implemented effects-based mission planning (no, Iraq/Afghanistan was not the first time tactical units practiced EBO) and vigourous population engagement. Coulda, shoulda, woulda, but here we are, and does it really matter who would have and who would not have invaded Iraq?
I was in Baghdad in February 2008 and things are very similar to the way we left them in February 2004 with the added advantages of a more mature Iraqi government and infrastructure an the ISF being light years ahead of the old ICDC.
Hindsight being 20/20, if we had stayed on the same glidepath we were on in the summer of 2003 and not retreated into the super FOBs, this all might have never gotten out of hand. There were units executing COIN operations in 2003, some with profound results.
I am personally thankful for Dr. Kilcullen's substantial contributions to OIF. I am personally not interested in his recommendations for the President of the United States.

Ken White

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 12:33am

I think the points made by <b>JoshNarins</b> could not possibly be the final answers...

To wit:
1. Certainly true, what cannot be proven is how much the totality of effort involved in the mis-named 'surge' contributed to that and how much was due to the Iraqis just getting tired of all the violence -- or other factors (and there are many).
2. It's the ME; there are <u>always</u> games being played.
3. Been there, trust me, Iraniha strategy is not a matter to worry about.
4. True -- or of approaches (not the same thing).
5. Do you know that end result or are you just hopefully anticipating it?
6. Not for the first or last time either way. see item 2. above.
7. Actually, the skills improved by early 2005. You may have missed that.

No one with much sense said it was "excess US Troops," people just use the 'surge' word as shorthand for all the things you cite and more.

I think <a href="">these graphs show the surge in troop levels</a> could not have possibly been behind the change in the security situation in Iraq.

1. There could be a change in the will for resistance.
2. There could be a wait-for-the-elections game being played.
3. Iran could be changing strategies
4. There is a difference in capabilities between Casey and Petraeus.
5. We are effectively bribing 100s of thousands of people who previously were attacking us, a strategy sure to backfire the day the checks stop pouring in.
6. al-Sadr has declared, and re-issued, a ceasefire which should have controlled, but doesn't always, his Mehdi Army
7. After all these years, skills are improving.

But it definitely wasn't the excess U.S. troops.