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Book Review XXXVI: The Accidental Guerrilla

February 10, 2009 - Harry Eagar
THE ACCIDENTAL GUERRILLA: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, by David Kilcullen. 301 pages. Oxford, $27.95

Although it is dressed up with the occasional tough phrase (which we are clearly not expected to take seriously), counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen’s book is really about losing, not winning.

It adopts, out of despair rather than calculation, the approach of the Scottish otter warden to his enemy, the otter. Otter wardens were hired by salmon owners to protect their fish from terrorist otters. The otters could easily have been exterminated, but the job was hereditary. Thus, wardens were careful to nurture a thriving, but acceptable (to their employers), otter population.

The salmon had to endure a certain unfortunate attrition. And that's what Kilcullen has to offer to the citizens of America. Endless murders, but, with luck, just a few at a time.

What’s scary is that Kilcullen, a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army with extensive field experience against insurgents/terrorists, was the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus during the (misnamed) surge of 2007-8 in Iraq. His goal, nicely dressed in anthropological duds, is to persuade Americans not to eliminate Islamic aggression but to learn to put up with it. It may be significant that Kilcullen is Australian; putting up with it was always the British policy, when Britain was the nominal ruler of more Muslims than any caliphate.

Kilcullen fancies himself a strategist, although he is only a tactician. Perhaps a good one, but he has not read his Clauswitz. The first step is to identify your enemy. He thinks it is a small coterie of takfiri (which he prefers to salafist, jihadi etc.) Muslims, but not Muslims generally and not Islam as a political ideology. He’s wrong. Islam is the enemy of not just the West but of all civilization, because all Muslims, not just takfiris, accept the doctrine of Islamic supremacy.

They may be -- obviously are -- eager to kill each other over trivial points of theology, like hairstyles, but no Muslims reject the doctrine that Allah intends all the world to come under his control through them. Kilcullen puts much naïve faith in the purportedly moderate Amman Declaration, but it does not repudiate Islamic supremacy, or even mention it. Of course not. It would never occur to a Muslim to doubt it.

Thus, it is not in the interest of America to preserve Islam, although doing that is just the point of “The Accidental Guerrilla.” And not some hypothetical modernized, reformed and tolerant Islam. Kilcullen advocates supporting and nurturing the most backward and oppressive kinds of tribal Islam, because this is most acceptable to the Muslims. Well, yes, of course it is. But why would it be acceptable to us? Kilcullen does not say, except that it would be expensive to do otherwise. It has been expensive anyway.

This does not mean that Kilcullen does not present many plausible methods of dealing with terrorists (Muslim or otherwise, although it is kind of hard to find the other kind these days) locally.

This is the theme of the “accidental guerrilla.” It assumes that the world is well-stocked with generally inoffensive, tribal, local, traditional people who are resentful of (pick as many as you choose) colonialism, outside notions of decency, poverty, corrupt officials etc.

If, says Kilcullen, a provocative group infiltrates such an area (call it Afghanistan) and uses it as a base to attack civilized people (say, New York City), the civilized people will likely react by invading. The locals will ally with the provocateurs against the infidels.

A glance at the daily newspaper shows that Kilcullen is wrong. The world has plenty of resentful, poor, backward, misgoverned postcolonial people, but they do not welcome the kind of people who attack skyscrapers -- they do not even dream of doing so -- unless they are Muslims.

Kilcullen supplies many field examples -- mostly from direct experience in West Java, East Timor, southern Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq -- and in each (even in East Timor) he finds himself explaining that, although the bad actors are Muslims, the real cause is something else.

If a strategist finds himself analyzing a series and eliminating the one common thread in all its elements, that is a pretty good indicator that he is missing the point. We know for certain this is the case with Kilcullen, because there are plenteous examples of Muslim assaults on their infidel neighbors where the resentful postcolonialist explanation makes no sense. The most glaring (though not best known) example is Trinidad and Tobago, where a Muslim putsch was put down but where Saudi subversion continues unabated, to the distress of the infidel majority. Nobody thinks Trinidadians are oppressors, so the concept of legitimate grievances, which Kilcullen constantly invokes to justify violence by Muslims, does not apply.

Kilcullen offers a menu of methods for detaching “accidental guerrillas” from the co-religionist extremists who are manipulating them. The incoherence of Kilcullen’s conception is obvious: To believe this is what is happening, you have to believe that people will ally with terrorists busy murdering them in preference to allying with the people who have come to protect them from the terrorists. You have to believe that religion does not trump self-survival.

But even if Kilcullen's analysis were correct, then drawing back and letting the “traditional local governance system” operate is not going to protect us, no matter how happy it makes the local big men. It didn't before.

Anyhow, there is something going on here that Kilcullen declines to engage. The world is full of dissatisfied people, but it is not full of suicide bombers. With the insignificant exception of the Ceylonese Tamils, all these are Muslims.

The Sri Lankan government followed the Kilcullen policy of “putting up with” the Tamils for decades: Kilcullen does not say “putting up with.” He calls it a policy “not to destroy the enemy -- but to win him over.”

The Sinhalese finally had enough of that and decided to use asymmetrical force. The final tally is not in, but it looks as if the Ceylonese Tamil masses, like the Japanese or Germans before them, have gotten the point of asymmetrical warfare. They won’t ever like the Sinhalese, but they are learning to leave them alone.

Occasionally, a glimmer of reality breaks through Kilcullen’s very hard to read mixture of military jargon and academic jargon (he holds a. Ph.D. in counterinsurgency): As when he writes of Iraq in early 2007, “where innocent noncombatants bore the brunt of violence that was often savage quite literally beyond belief, from an enemy who was used to benefiting from our self-imposed restraint.”

The so-called Awakening in Anbar came about because (we are offered a choice of two) the local tribes objected to bids from the outside Muslims to have them for sons-in-law, or they objected to having their children baked alive.

One can see why they would object to either, but it is harder to see why, up to 2007, they thought it well to ally themselves with people who baked American children. Kilcullen never explains why we should want such people on our side now (or ever) or care what happens to them. Worse, he acknowledges that the alliance of the Anbar (and similar) sheikhs with the Coalition and/or the central (not national) government of Iraq may not endure. Count on it. The sheikhs were not fighting for a unified, free and democratic state. Nothing could be less congenial to them.

In one of the sillier of his many inane remarks, Kilcullen describes a “full-spectrum strategy” which will sometimes fail because of dependence on “unreliable or ineffective local allies.”

Here is the crux of the confusion, which Kilcullen shares with many others: He thinks the confrontation of the West with Islam is an example of asymmetrical warfare. It is just the opposite.

The United States has the capacity to make war with Islam asymmetrical to any degree you care to specify. What it has done is make it symmetrical by “assuring other nations that the United States will exercise its power responsibly, sparingly, virtuously and in accordance with international norms.”

The word he left out was “effectively.”

A winning strategy does not depend upon reliable or effective allies. The Russians, when they decided to end German terrorism, did not rely on German cooperation, and they certainly did not care what the Germans (or anybody else) thought about Russian methods. America's Chinese allies in 1941-45 were neither reliable nor effective, but the Japanese were defeated nevertheless; and while we have since cared somewhat what the Japanese and the rest of the world thought of our methods, nobody has ever proposed another one that would have worked.


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