War and peace

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

It's no secret that David Kilcullen is one of the world's top counter-insurgency experts. But the former Australian army officer's fascination with countering what used to be called 'irregular warfare' goes back a long way.

Kilcullen, who served as senior counter-insurgency adviser to US General David Petraeus during the 2007 'surge' in Iraq and now advises Nato, was 10 when his father 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 the first world war.

'But the person that jumped out of the book most for me was T.E. Lawrence,' says Kilcullen, who became steeped in Lawrence's respect for tribal culture, and drew on Lawrence's 'ladder of tribes' strategy when drafting the coalition approach to the Iraqi tribal revolt against al-Qaeda. He quotes Lawrence's words about the 1916 Arab revolt against the Turks early on in his new book Counter-insurgency. 'Suppose they [the enemy army] were an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas?'

He also cites details of myriad insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, from ancient Greek historian Herodotus' fifth-century BC Histories through to the present 'to make the point that there is no one set of techniques for counter-insurgency. 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, a selection of his most influential writings on the subject. It includes 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 a bottle of whisky, it is now used by the US, British and other allied forces as a training document.

Counterinsurgency also includes his analysis of the problems in Afghanistan, aspects of his pioneering study of counter-insurgency in Indonesia, and his extended argument for a new approach to the war on terror.

Kilcullen has long argued that counter-insurgency 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 dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal and the instalment of General Petraeus as commander of US and ISAF forces, it's Kilcullen's candid assessment of the Afghanistan campaign that has taken centre stage. Indeed it now looks set that the 42-year-old political anthropologist will play an even larger advisory role than he is currently, yet he sees the much publicised Rolling Stone article and subsequent 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 before 2005 when he, Petraeus and their fellow counter-insurgency 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 so I think that's a net gain for the campaign. I'm still very worried about it,' says Kilcullen who admits he has felt for a while now 'that our priorities in Afghanistan are actually a little skewed'.

'We've put our priority on fighting the Taliban militarily and we need to be putting our priority very firmly on reforming the Afghan government ... I think Petraeus is more likely to make some tweaks and really focus on the stuff I think is important - trying to change the dynamics of the Afghan government.'

He goes so far as to say in the book that 'we're losing in Afghanistan not because we're being out-fought, but because the Afghan government is being out-governed'. He also sees the timeline for US withdrawal as a strategic problem, along with the ongoing operational problem of the Taliban 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 ... I think we need to take a different attitude to Pakistan.'

Kilcullen is renowned for his straight talking, even-handed approach. It's easy to understand why his fresh vision of an age-old military and statecraft is credited with influencing America to rethink its military strategy in Iraq. He possesses an unparalleled ability to communicate the sometimes counter-intuitive strategies of best-practice counter-insurgency to specialists and outsiders alike. Yet like many counter-insurgents, he cautioned against the Iraq war. He was so forthright in expressing his views that he raised eyebrows in Washington for calling the decision to invade, according to The Washington Independent, 'f***ing stupid'.

But what drove him to join Petraeus' team as senior adviser in 2006, he says, 'was the bloodshed. It had got to the point where 300 Iraqi civilians - that's a 9/11 every week - were being killed week after week in the last half of 2006 and it was tearing the country apart. We had to 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.'

Making things work from a point of view of peace, rather than war, is what continues to drive Kilcullen. He undertakes consulting work for Nato and for a range of organisations through Caerus Associates, a small Washington-based company he founded that specialises in finding 'counter-intuitive solutions' to the world's most difficult problems - problems associated with violent conflict, poverty and energy shortage.

He finds it 'very satisfying' to solve such problems, and 'has no plans to get into security work or anything like it ... I'm going to continue to put most of my focus on the NGO work, the alternative energy work and the work we're doing with aid agencies. I find from a karma standpoint, it's better to be in the peace business'.