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THE ACCIDENTAL GUERRILLA Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One By David Kilcullen - Reviewed by JANINE di GIOVANNI
THE ACCIDENTAL GUERRILLA
Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One
By David Kilcullen
Illustrated. 346 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95
April 26, 2009
Reviewed by JANINE di GIOVANNI
David Kilcullen is a former officer in the Australian Army, a strategist and a scholar. He is also an expert on counterinsurgency, or how to combat a rebellion, and one of the few brave souls who had the ear of people in the Bush White House and advised against the invasion of Iraq.
“It’s going to take a lot more than you seem to be willing to commit,” he told the Americans. No one listened. After the invasion, Kilcullen watched the growing mayhem with outrage and dismay. This time people listened.
The French writer on military affairs David Galula, who was known for his theories on counterinsurgency, particularly during France’s Algerian war, must have influenced Kilcullen while he was doing his Ph.D. in political anthropology. Galula’s thesis is that one aim of war is to support the local population rather than control the territory. Part of Kilcullen’s academic research involved living and working alongside villagers in West Java, trying to absorb the culture of Dar’ul Islam, a guerrilla movement hatched in the late 1940s (and later identified by some as an Indonesian clone and ally of Al Qaeda).
What Kilcullen wanted to do was to observe the movement the way the locals did — not from the “official version I could find in books.” So he lived in villages and conversed with his curious neighbors about blue jeans and the Internet, until they trusted him enough to share information.
“You should talk to old Mrs. N, her husband was an imam who worked with the movement,” was the kind of lead Kilcullen would get after a time. And with patience and cunning, he built up the knowledge he needed. Later, Kilcullen went on to advise Condoleezza Rice and helped Gen. David Petraeus implement the 2007 surge — which, up to a point, he believes has been successful, largely because of his friend Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
His work in Iraq and Afghanistan involved much on-the-ground fact-gathering — meeting with the people rather than locking himself in the Green Zone. His ideas were linked to the research he did 10 years earlier in the Javanese jungle: the theory that the war on terror has essentially two contrasting aspects.
One is the larger international movement: the Long War, as the Pentagon calls it, against Al Qaeda. The other, though largely ignored, is equally crucial: the uprisings of local networks and fighters. These are small insurgencies seeking autonomy that align themselves intentionally (or sometimes not) with the larger movement.
These “accidental guerrillas” are the kind of individuals Kilcullen met in Java, like Mrs. N’s husband, the local imam. Or the villagers in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, who joined the Taliban in a 2006 offensive against an American patrol simply for the joy of fighting.
“When the battle was right there in front of them, how could they not join in?” Kilcullen writes. “This was the most exciting thing that had happened in their valley in years. It would have shamed them to stand by and wait it out, they said.”
Kilcullen’s later observations in Iraq led to his conclusion that America has not responded wisely to global terrorism. Washington was focused on the big picture — Al Qaeda. It had ignored the separate, interlocking struggles.
In “The Accidental Guerrilla,” Kilcullen draws on his vast experience not only as a dedicated field researcher, but also as a soldier — he commanded an infantry company in counterinsurgency operations in East Timor in 1999. The most extensive sections of his book concentrate, naturally, on Iraq and Afghanistan (which he still sees as “winnable” with a long-term commitment), but his analysis leads him as well to smaller movements in such places as Chechnya, Thailand, Indonesia and the Horn of Africa.
Discussing the tribal areas of Pakistan, Kilcullen shows how Al Qaeda moved in by taking over communities — establishing bonds by marrying local women, operating businesses, eventually recruiting the villagers as fighters. To see Kilcullen’s theory at work, you need only to look at the Swat region of northern Pakistan.
How does the initiation process of the accidental guerrilla happen? Kilcullen likens it to a disease. Al Qaeda establishes its presence in a remote area of conflict, then penetrates the population the same way influenza infects a weakened immune system. Contagion occurs when the safe haven is used to spread violence. When outside forces intervene, disrupting the safe haven, the local population aligns with Al Qaeda. The terrorists’ effort is meant to be long lasting, and it’s highly effective.
Kilcullen believes that to succeed, the West needs to remain agile, and to protect the people who support the government, what he calls “population-centric security.” “Effective counterinsurgency,” he writes, “provides human security to the population, where they live, 24 hours a day. This, not destroying the enemy, is the central task.”
But how does one go about doing this? Counterinsurgency, he says, “demands the continuous presence of security forces”; “local alliances and partnerships with community leaders; creation of self-defending populations”; and “operation of small-unit ground forces in tandem with local security forces.”
So the work of the international community, or NATO (which Kilcullen also advises) or America comes down to basics: securing villages, valleys, roads and population centers. But still, Kilcullen warns, it is essential to reassure the native peoples that you are not there to occupy them. The military must also protect.
He quotes a colonel in Afghanistan: “You can drill a well in a day, and build a school in a month, . . . but it takes a long, long time to build a road. When you start a road, you send a message that this isn’t a monthlong partnership — it’s for the long haul.”
“The Accidental Guerrilla” is not an easy book. It’s best when Kilcullen uses narrative to recount his personal experiences. Then, he becomes a military adventurer, a modern Fitzroy MacLean: wandering through volcanic jungles; or flying in a Blackhawk over northwest Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonates on the ground below, nearly plunging him to his death.
Kilcullen’s knowledge of warfare is highly sophisticated, but he does himself and his readers no favors when he weighs his book down with acronyms and digressions. For those not willing to put in the time and effort, reading “The Accidental Guerrilla” could be like a junior high school student’s attempting “Ulysses.”
Even so, this book is essential. One of the larger mistakes America has made in its handling of the Long War against Al Qaeda was ignoring the details of small conflicts that are so important to Kilcullen. What is needed, he points out, is to develop strategies that deal both with global terrorism and conflicts at the local level.
Kilcullen skillfully interprets the future of counterinsurgency, the proper use of military force and what we must learn from our losses and mistakes.
After reading “The Accidental Guerrilla,” one is left to wonder why the Pentagon did not listen to his sage advice back in 2003, instead of that of all those cheery optimists who predicted the Iraqis would greet the American forces with flowers.
Janine di Giovanni is the author of “Madness Visible: A Memoir of War.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 22:00