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A Counterinsurgency Primer

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 14, 2009
Wall Street Journal

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Almost everyone, even if otherwise ignorant of military affairs, has heard of Karl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Very few people, though, have heard of C.E. Callwell, David Galula or Robert Thompson. Yet they, too, wrote immortal works on military strategy -- but on unconventional, or guerrilla, conflicts.

For all their timeless wisdom, their books were also a product of their times -- Callwell of the imperial wars of the late 19th century, Galula and Thompson of the wars of "national liberation" in the mid-20th century. Because of the global jihadist insurgency, the early 21st century has produced a new epoch in the annals of low-intensity struggle. It is fitting, then, that to help us understand the current conflict another soldier-scholar has emerged in the tradition of Callwell, Galula and Thompson.

In "The Accidental Guerrilla," a combination of memoir and military analysis, David Kilcullen looks at the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, Indonesia and southern Thailand, all of which, excepting the last, he has seen first-hand. He then draws lessons from his experiences and those of other soldiers.

As a former Australian army officer, Mr. Kilcullen may seem to have an odd background for this task, since Australia is hardly a central player in the global war on terrorism. Yet the Aussies have a long, distinguished history of involvement in guerrilla wars, from Vietnam to Indonesia. Mr. Kilcullen, having studied the Indonesian suppression of Muslim separatists in the 1950s and 1960s (he has a doctorate in political anthropology), went on to command an Australian infantry company in East Timor during its independence struggle from Indonesia in 1999. In 2007-08, he served as a counterinsurgency adviser for Gen. David Petraeus and for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In those jobs he spent considerable time with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq observing what works and what doesn't.

The result is "The Accidental Guerrilla." The title is a reference to the distinction between hard-core jihadists and their less ideological fellow travelers. The former, Mr. Kilcullen writes, are "implacable fanatics" animated by Islamist ideology. The latter, by contrast, "fight us primarily because we are intruding into their space." Ironically, we intrude into their space -- tribal territories from the southern Philippines to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier -- primarily because it has become a hideout for al Qaeda and its ilk. By trying to fight these globe-trotting terrorists, Mr. Kilcullen worries, we may be making needless enemies among their tribal hosts.

"Accidental" may not be quite the right word to apply to these local fighters, since it is no accident that they have been fighting against local authorities and no accident, either, that groups like al Qaeda have drawn them into their net. But Mr. Kilcullen is right to point to an important distinction -- one that he helped commanders in Iraq to recognize -- between "reconcilable" foes who can be brought into the political process and "irreconcilables" who have to be eliminated by force.

This is only one of many valuable lessons that Mr. Kilcullen passes along. Another concerns the need for "population-centric" rather than "enemy-centric" operations. Enemy-centric operations involve trying to kill as many terrorists as possible. As U.S. commanders discovered in Iraq, this strategy tends to alienate the population and thereby produce more enemies than it eliminates. Population-centric operations, adopted in 2007, have been more successful. They put U.S. troops into smaller outposts in urban centers, where they can work on safeguarding the population. Now that Iraqis feel protected, they are willing to rat out insurgents.

Notwithstanding the lessons of Iraq, operations in Afghanistan have not followed a population-centric model because there have been too few troops to do the job. (That difficulty should ease with the arrival over the next few months of 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers.) Thus, even as Iraq was stabilizing, Afghanistan was becoming more dangerous. Given recent woes, Mr. Kilcullen writes, "a concerted long-term effort is needed -- over ten years at least -- if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and civil society that can defeat the threat from a resurgent Taliban." The cornerstone of this effort must be "providing human security to the Afghan population, where they live, twenty-four hours a day."

While preaching "best practices" for counterinsurgency, Mr. Kilcullen stresses that there is no "one size fits all" formula. He throws cold water on the myth that there is some magic troops-to-civilians ratio that is necessary for success. But while he writes that "there is no such thing as a 'standard' counterinsurgency," there are some standard texts on the subject. "The Accidental Guerrilla" is sure to become one.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is writing a history of guerrilla warfare.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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