Meet the accidental guerrillas

Ex-Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen warns that if Western forces aren't willing to stick around in Iraq and Afghanistan, extremists will continue turning the locals into weapons.

Published March 11, 2009 10:36AM (EDT)

One night in 1996, in the Gurat Valley in Java, David Kilcullen, an advisor for the Australian Army doing fieldwork for his dissertation on insurgencies in traditional societies, was visited by four vaguely menacing young men. They'd come to quiz him about his reasons for being in the area and all the questions he'd been asking about an Islamic guerrilla movement that had emerged there 50 years earlier. Two of the men were from the valley, and talked enthusiastically on the subject of "local issues, personalities and events." The other two looked "bored and irritated" by these topics and at times seemed to have difficulty following the conversation. When they finally spoke, it was with foreign accents. They grilled Kilcullen on such global issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the depravity of American culture and the meddling of the West in Muslim countries. When they talked to each other, they spoke Arabic. They said they were exchange students from Yemen.

For Kilcullen, who would go on to become an influential theorist on counterinsurgency and the chief advisor to Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007 Iraq war surge, this minor (if unsettling) incident was the seed of a new understanding of how international Islamist terrorism works by exploiting local grievances that may or may not have much to do with religion. Kilcullen's ideas, as implemented by Petraeus, helped make the surge more successful than earlier American initiatives in the war, and they are likely to shape U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan for the immediate future. Kilcullen, who was profiled in the New Yorker in 2006 and currently works for a think tank called the Center for New American Security (CNAS), has laid out his views in a new book, "The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One." Filled with lists, diagrams and bullet points (never underestimate the effect of PowerPoint on contemporary official prose style), the book lays out what Kilcullen thinks America must do to redeem itself in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the wider Muslim world). Like many of his colleagues, however, he seems skeptical that we'll summon the will to pull it off.

Although Kilcullen has worked for the Bush administration (most notably as an advisor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) he has never disguised his belief that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was "an extremely serious strategic error" -- "fucking stupid" is how he reportedly characterized it in a less formal context. Furthermore, he regards the early conduct of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan as ineffective and often self-defeating. Nevertheless, he insists that America owes it to both nations not to abandon them to the sectarian bloodshed that would probably follow a hasty withdrawal: "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." He also adds his voice to the choir of experts warning that the resurgence of the Taliban and related militant outfits in Afghanistan and Pakistan will, if unchecked, allow international terrorists to flourish there once more.

The crux of Kilcullen's argument is that until recently we've approached both conflicts, and every other situation involving violent Islamist militants ("Takfiris," as he calls them), with the wrong attitudes and the wrong methods. These enemies practice a new form of "hybrid warfare," while our response is still framed by old-fashioned conventional warfare epitomized by World War II. Of all the conceptual resets we'll need to make to successfully fight this new kind of war, probably the most crucial is the shift from the notion of "enemy-centric" warfare to "population-centric" warfare.

In the past, the job of the military could be summed up bluntly enough: to find the enemy and kill him. The relatively new discipline of counterterrorism merely adapted this approach, aiming to sniff out terrorists and their networks and then destroy them. It has proceeded, Kilcullen writes, "from the assumption that removing the network removes the problem"; catch and eliminate bin Laden and his followers, and the conflict is won. Kilcullen regards this approach as sorely inadequate. To his mind, the new breed of hybrid war is better fought using the methods of counterinsurgency, which focus not on the enemy but on the population, "seeking to protect it from harm by, or interaction with the insurgent [and] competing with the insurgent for influence and control at the grassroots level. Its basic assumption is that insurgency is a mass social phenomenon, that the enemy rides a social wave comprising genuine popular grievances and an ability to manipulate them, and that dealing with this broader social and political dynamic, while gaining time for targeted reforms to work by applying a series of tailored, full-spectrum security measures, is the most promising path to ultimately resolve the problem."

This idea may not seem particularly original; it resembles all sorts of suggestions for dealing with militant Islam that surfaced after Sept. 11. From exhortations to "drain the swamp" to starry-eyed pacifist visions of "bombing" the Afghans with food and medical supplies, many commentators have suggested that if the Muslims in far-off lands weren't so miserable and downtrodden to begin with, they wouldn't be so angry at us. But where the average American tends to see Takfiri terrorists as lashing out at Western civilians in an overwhelming, nihilistic rage (which, depending on the American's politics, may or may not have understandable causes), Kilcullen sees coldblooded calculation.

This is how those Javanese insurgents he met in 1996 come into it. Half of the delegation that dropped in on Kilcullen consisted of the Yemeni "students" -- really Takfiri militants seeking to capitalize on the discontent of locals and their preexisting network of anti-government fighters by persuading them that their provincial struggle was part of a larger Islamist cause. The other two young men were what Kilcullen calls "accidental guerrillas," people whose motivations had less to do with any international religious ideology than with local grievances and the desire for self-determination. Members of the first category are hardcore, "implacable fanatics" who will pursue jihad across the globe to the bitter end. The second category, however, while they may object to Western cultural encroachments, "more often fight us primarily because we are intruding into their space." This second group, by far the majority in any given trouble zone, can be "co-opted," provided Western authorities can prove themselves better able to help the locals get the freedom, stability and other benefits they crave.

The fanatics, whether they call themselves al-Qaida or something else, need the accidental guerrillas to function. They rely on sympathetic locals to provide them with ground fighters, supplies, places to hide, new recruits and so on. According to Kilcullen, the Takfiris see the population as the real "prize" in the fight. Their goal is to win over as many of these disaffected Muslims as possible, with the fantasy of eventually leading popular insurgencies in overthrowing secular, moderate or Western-backed governments in the Middle East and Asia and replacing them with Islamist regimes and sharia law. Eventually, but only once the Caliphate is restored, they plan to set about converting (forcibly, if necessary) the entire planet.

Americans tend to think of terror attacks like those on Sept. 11 as expressive, motivated by a combination of political protest and sheer hatred, aimed simply at slaughtering infidel civilians and vengefully forcing the U.S. to partake of the pain suffered by oppressed Muslims everywhere. (Granted, this is also probably how the deluded hijackers themselves saw it.) Not so, counters Kilcullen; the leadership of al-Qaida is actually far more practical, seeking above all to provoke the West to respond in some overwhelming and intrusive way that will further alienate the world's Muslims. It's the response, the exorbitant cost in lives, money and political capital, that really hurts the target, not the initial attack. For every dollar al-Qaida spent on the Sept. 11 attacks, it has sapped millions out of the U.S. Treasury.

The Iraq war has been al-Qaida's greatest success, nurturing anti-Americanism around the globe and dragging Western soldiers into Muslim nations where their outdated tactics will inadvertently serve to recruit increasing numbers of local, accidental guerrillas. (A technologically intimidating invading army of Christians also makes the Takfiris seem less like the interloping, opportunistic foreigners they are.) This method works on fellow Muslims, too; in 2006, al-Qaida in Iraq bombed one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam in order to provoke the Shiite majority into lashing out against the Sunni minority, so that al-Qaida in Iraq could, in turn, offer itself to Iraq's Sunnis as the only force capable of protecting them. The carnage that prevailed in Iraq in 2006 was largely the result of a chain reaction of retaliations set off by that bombing.

Until recently, Western militaries have played right into this scheme, focusing on catching "bad guys" even when those bad guys have the capacity to go to ground, melting into the civilian population and setting them up as targets. Attempts to hunt the guerrillas down lead to civilian casualties and the destruction of civil society, catastrophes that are not "collateral damage," as the military has traditionally put it, but the point of the original attack; the Takfiris' purpose in blowing up a convey with an IED is not to kill Western troops but to further alienate them from the locals. The insurgents, Kilcullen maintains, understand that winning the sympathies of a region's people is their "main effort," and that shooting, bombing and fighting is really just "support for a sophisticated propaganda campaign."

Using a road-building project in Afghanistan and the much-touted 2007 tribal "Awakening" in Iraq as case studies, Kilcullen argues for a different approach. The road project, built by a Provincial Reconstruction Team with support from a Brigade Combat Team in the Kunar River Valley, employed Afghan workers supervised by local leaders, giving them a stake in the project and a goal shared with the Western troops charged to protect them. By concentrating on guarding the project and its workers -- rather than chasing after the Taliban fighters who tried to sabotage it -- the Westerners were able to cast themselves as the party with something constructive to offer the Afghans. In traditional military terms, this might seem like ceding the initiative by presenting themselves to be attacked, but, as Kilcullen explains, anything done to win over the population is really an offensive move. In the case of the road project, it also drew the extremists out of hiding by forcing them to come to the road. As a commander told Kilcullen, "Our people are in the valley, daily demonstrating that we don't eat babies and that we care for the people ... [while] the enemy's only response is threat, intimidation and physical attacks."

Humanitarian aid alone can't accomplish this. It remains a job for men with guns, even if the assigned task -- providing 24-hour protection for a civilian population -- sometimes looks more like policing than warfare. Security is the single overriding need of people living in weak states, and Kilcullen points out that rule of law doesn't fall too far behind that. (It's especially difficult for Westerners who have no cultural memory of living under chaotic conditions with no viable civil authority to grasp just how scary this can be. We tend to fixate on the menace posed by authoritarian tyrants like Saddam Hussein, forgetting that a person killed in a civil war is just as dead as someone killed by a dictator.) One service the Taliban has excelled in providing to Afghans in isolated regions, for example, is dispute resolution. When you're quarreling with your neighbor about who owns those goats, if there isn't some authority, however merciless, to appeal to, things can degenerate into a Hobbesian state pretty quickly. The Taliban first gained power in the 1990s by offering just this sort of adjudication, and they haven't forgotten how well it worked. Unless the West helps the Afghans set up better civil institutions, they'll use it again.

Kilcullen makes it clear that efforts to set up viable governance in places like Iraq and Afghanistan must involve established local power structures (like Iraq's tribes) and customs (like the elaborate Iraq blood-debt resolution ritual known as the "suhl"). The neoconservative pipe dream of making over Iraq and Afghanistan as Western-style democracies has to be set aside. Most difficult of all, homegrown police, politicians, judges and other officials who aren't either corrupt or pursuing a purely sectarian agenda have to be put in place. Kilcullen thinks this can be done, but it will be really difficult and really expensive. And it will take a while. And the result is unlikely to be the sort of government Americans admire. Yet if Western forces aren't willing to stick around until it's done, the Takfiris will be waiting to step in and fill the vacuum.

The likelihood that the American public, reeling from the meltdown of the economy, will get behind such a massive enterprise seems slim. I recently heard Kilcullen's colleague at the CNAS, Thomas Ricks, describe in shocked tones the response of a "liberal Mill Valley" audience when he explained that a too-quick withdrawal from Iraq could precipitate a genocide. "Well, genocides happen," they shrugged. It was old-fashioned American hubris that got us into this horrendous fix, the neocon delusion that our military superiority could accomplish anything and the weird conviction that if you scratch the surface of even the most bellicose tribal chieftain you'll find beneath it the equivalent of a Kansas City Elks Club officer eager to cast his vote and partake of the blessings of the free market. Unfortunately, the resounding lesson we've learned from the Iraq war -- Don't try that again! -- can't help us get out of the mess the Bush administration left behind.

Perhaps only one thing remains certain: The people responsible for whatever blowback ultimately results from the previous administration will never admit to their culpability in the disastrous determination to invade Iraq. "He kept us safe," will be their refrain when the subject is their former boss, and no fire-breathing Islamist radical ever peddled a bigger lie.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Afghanistan Books Iraq Iraq War Middle East Taliban Terrorism