Aussie with his mind on hostile matters

By Byron Sibree

It's no secret that David Kilcullen is one of the world's top counterinsurgency experts.

But the former Australian Army officer's fascination with countering what used to be called "irregular warfare" goes back a long way.

Kilcullen, a senior adviser to General David Petraeus during the successful 2007 surge in Iraq, was 10 when his father, a medieval scholar, gave him a copy of Robert Graves' 1929 autobiography Goodbye To All That.

It was, he says, meant to convey to him the harsh realities of World War I.

"But the person that jumped out of the book most for me was T.E. Lawrence," recalls Kilcullen, who became steeped in Lawrence of Arabia's respect for tribal culture at an early age.

He quotes Lawrence's words about the 1916 Arab revolt against the Turks early in his book Counterinsurgency.

"Suppose they (the enemy army) were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas?"

He also cites the myriad insurgencies and counterinsurgencies from Herodotus' fifth century BC Histories to the present day in the book's pages, he says, "to make the point that there is no one set of techniques for counterinsurgency.

It's a form of what the French call counter-warfare which kind of morphs in response to whatever we're dealing with."

The need for continual adaptation is a potent, recurring theme in Counterinsurgency which is a selection of his most influential writings on the subject, including his Twenty-Eight Articles - a concise practical guide for officers in the field that riffs on the 1917 title and form of Lawrence's fabled Twenty-Seven Articles.

Famously penned in a single night with the assistance of bottle of Laphroaig, it is now used by US, British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and other allied forces as a training document.

Kilcullen's work also includes his analysis of the problems in Afghanistan - how to both measure and not measure on-the-ground progress - aspects of his pioneering study in Indonesia, and his extended argument for a new strategic approach to the war on terror.

Kilcullen believes that counterinsurgency rather than traditional counterterrorism offers the best approach to defeating a global Islamic insurgency.

An argument he first brought to the attention of a wider public in his 2009 book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars In The Midst Of A Big One that was named one of the Economist's best books of 2009 and saw Kilcullen named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 100 global thinkers of 2009.

But in the wake of the recent dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal and the instalment of General Petraeus as commander of US and ISAF forces, Kilcullen's candid assessment of the Afghanistan campaign has taken centre stage.

Indeed he and Petraeus, who was a guest at Kilcullen's recent wedding, speak regularly and it now looks set that the 42-year-old political anthropologist will play an even bigger advisory role than he is currently.

"I'm already doing a huge amount as a consultant, and frankly, it will probably increase," says Kilcullen, who sees the much publicised Rolling Stone article and subsequent leadership changeover as "a very tragic series of events with respect to General McChrystal. But the only person I can imagine who could do as equally good or a better job than McChrystal is David Petraeus."

His relationship with Petraeus dates back to the days prior to 2005 when he, Petraeus and their fellow counterinsurgency specialists within US military and diplomatic circles were viewed as "an insurgency inside the US Government", as Kilcullen puts it, because their ideas ran so counter to mainstream thinking.

"[Petraeus] has all the right qualities to do a better job in terms of engaging with the civilian Afghan politicians, and with our civilian team in the field, so I think that's a net gain for the campaign. I'm still very worried about it," he says.

Kilcullen says he has felt for some time that "our priorities in Afghanistan are actually a little skewed. We've put our priority on fighting the Taleban militarily and we need to be putting our priority very firmly on reforming the Afghan Government. And I don't mean working with them, I mean putting them into receivership and saying 'you people are as corrupt as hell, unless you change, why should we support you?' I think Petraeus is more likely to focus on the stuff I think is important - trying to change the dynamics of the Afghan Government."

In his analysis of the Afghanistan campaign he describes a cycle of instability that's driven by criminality and corruption "which leads to bad behaviour by government officials which creates rage in the public, and that empowers the Taleban. You can defeat the Taleban militarily but if you don't deal with those first three things it's just going to start again".

His biggest criticism of both the Bush and the Obama administrations in handling Afghanistan, he says, "has been this kind of happy talk, just trying to accentuate the positive in everything without having the tough conversations. One of the things that aren't well understood about the Iraq surge is just how much pressure General Petraeus had to put on the Iraqi Government to get them to stop behaving in an abusive fashion. That was his whole focus when he was there: making the Iraqi Government do the right thing. There hasn't been that kind of pressure on the Afghan Government."

He goes so far as to say in the book that "we're losing in Afghanistan not because we're being outfought, but because the Afghan Government is being outgoverned".

He also sees the timeline for US withdrawal as a strategic problem, as well as the ongoing operational problem of the Taleban safe haven in Pakistan.

"We've deceived ourselves over decades into believing that the Pakistanis are on our side and there's just not a lot of evidence of that frankly, and the evidence we do have suggests to the contrary that they're actually fairly heavily engaged in backing and supporting the Taleban. I'm not talking about the Pakistani people, I'm talking about people in the Pakistani military, and I think we need to take a different attitude to Pakistan as well."

Kilcullen is renowned for his straight-talking, even-handed approach. It's easy to understand why it is that his fresh vision of an age-old military and statecraft is credited with dramatically influencing America to rethink its military strategy in Iraq.

He cautioned against the war in Iraq, calling it "a serious strategic error". He was so forthright in expressing his views in one instance that he raised eyebrows in Washington for calling the decision to invade, according to the Washington Independent, "f****** stupid".

"It was just a big strategic distraction," he now recalls.

"If we'd done it right it would still have been the wrong thing to do. We should have stayed in Afghanistan and finished the job, but in practice we did things exactly wrong in Iraq and that led us down a big rabbit hole, and we're still digging ourselves out of that.'

But what drove him to join Petraeus' team as senior adviser in 2006, he says, was the bloodshed. Hundreds of Iraqis were dying week after week, tearing the country apart.

"These people were being killed on our watch because we failed to stabilise the country and it was just unconscionable from my standpoint. We had to go in there and fix it, so I agreed to do it. I said I'm coming to end the war not to win it, and that was the deal that we made in coming over, that we were going to focus on ending the bloodshed as the first order of business."

Counterinsurgency
By David Kilcullen
(Scribe rrp $35.00)

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