Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

The Contours of the Conflict

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Eric R. Sterner


Full Text

There's an old saying that military institutions always prepare to fight the last war, only to be surprised when the next war unfolds in an entirely different manner. Ironically, some in the military remain so focused on preparing for the next war that they have been accused of being prepared to lose the current one. David Kilcullen, combat veteran, senior advisor to both then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus, scholar, counterinsurgency expert, and member of the brain trust that crafted the new strategy for success in Iraq, has authored a book that could help the West avoid that fate. The Accidental Guerrilla melds theory, memoir, policy analysis, and strategic recommendations into an enlightening narrative that can assist the national security community in winning the "Long War" against al-Qaeda and its brand of violent religious extremism.

As its name implies, The Accidental Guerrilla is primarily concerned with "new actors with new technology and new or transfigured ways of war." Kilcullen does not address threats derived from traditional concepts of interstate warfare. Thus, Kilcullen's book is not a comprehensive review of the current security environment, the breadth of the contemporary threats to Western security, or the resources and capabilities needed to secure the United States and its allies in the 21st century. It is, however, one of the most thoughtful books on the immediate conflict in which we currently find ourselves.

That struggle has had various names over the years. During the Bush Administration, it was typically referred to as the Global War on Terror/Terrorism, or GWOT, a phrase that seemed to emerge spontaneously from the vast muddle of the country's national security bureaucracy. It was a poor moniker, perhaps, suggesting a conflict against a tactic and muddying the waters about the religious motivations of the adversary. Then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld tried to do away with the phrase, but it stuck as a shorthand reference. Today, the Obama Administration refers more vaguely to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), downplaying the fighting and death that come with combat.

More important than the name, however, is the nature of the conflict itself, and Kilcullen approaches the struggle against radical Islam the way a doctor might approach the stages of a disease. First, infection, in which the outside agent-in this case al-Qaeda-establishes a presence in a remote, largely ungoverned region or conflict area. Second is contagion, as the outside agent uses its safe haven to spread violence and its corrosive ideology throughout the local community and into other regions. Third comes intervention, when outside, largely non-Islamic, forces intervene to deal with the threatening agent and disrupt the safe haven. Fourth is rejection, as the local population reacts negatively to outside intervention and allies itself with the original infecting agent, that is, al-Qaeda.

In short, when faced with competing demands made by al-Qaeda and anti-al-Qaeda forces, at-risk local populations tend to identify with their co-religionists, rather than outside forces representing modern, secular states. Those local populations, who may merely have local grievances, thus become "accidental guerrillas" in al-Qaeda's global war. The significance of this dynamic, Kilcullen argues, cannot be overstated:

[M]ost of the adversaries Western powers have been fighting since 9/11 are in fact accidental guerrillas: people who fight us not because they hate the West and seek our overthrow but because we have invaded their space [emphasis in original] to deal with a small extremist element that has manipulated and exploited local grievances to gain power in their societies. They fight us not because they seek our destruction, but because they believe we seek theirs, a belief in which they are encouraged by a cynical, manipulative clique of takfiri terrorists who, though tiny in number, have been catapulted to great political influence and prestige because of our reaction to 9/11.

The challenge in defeating the accidental guerrilla is to understand what part of the cycle a local conflict is in, and then to break the cycle. In other words, get the diagnosis right and make sure the treatment is not worse than the illness.

Kilcullen offers two major case studies (Iraq and Afghanistan) and several smaller ones (East Timor, Southern Thailand, Pakistan and Europe) to test his intellectual framework and examine effective counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. For Kilcullen, Afghanistan was deeply infected by al-Qaeda. The West's intervention-properly administered-now has the potential to break the cycle. In Iraq, however, the situation was very different. Operation Iraqi Freedom plunged the patient into stages three and four, creating an opening for al-Qaeda to infect the patient-an infection which was not reversed until the additional troops and change of strategy cumulatively known as the "surge" were put into place. Of course, this approach ignores the threat posed by Iraq before Saddam's overthrow-a period during which the Ba'athist regime is known to have used weapons of mass destruction and sponsored terrorist acts.

If there is a shortcoming in The Accidental Guerrilla, this is it. Kilcullen primarily views security through a GWOT lens, considering how Western policies, plans, and actions contribute to success or failure in that conflict. Such a perspective is essential in winning the conflict with al-Qaeda, but it is not the only security challenge the West faces. Kilcullen readily acknowledges the limitations of his book, but is less inclined to incorporate those limitations into his perspective on international security.

Kilcullen's recommendations are straightforward and unsurprising: focus on developing local solutions to local problems, rather than intervening directly to fight extremists; build a Western strategic consensus in favor of such counterterrorism approaches; accept risk-management as the guiding reality of managing terrorist threats; and, accept the limits of Western power and influence. Most experts who have studied the West's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan would agree with at least one, if not all, of these recommendations. Yet implementing even the most uncontroversial of them remains elusive.

Figuring out how to do so is the subject of at least another book. One hopes that Kilcullen, with his wealth of experience and mastery of the current conflict, writes it.