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Book Review: The Accidental Guerrilla


This is the fourth installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  4. Second World, Parag Khanna
  5. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen

Seven years ago, David Kilcullen was an obscure officer in the Australian Army. He served in East Timor, and wrote a dissertation on guerrilla warfare in traditional societies. Today, he is the military equivalent of a rock star, with a degree of influence in the US military rarely enjoyed by foreigners. Kilcullen rose to prominence by developing and codifying a set of principles for fighting modern counter-insurgency warfare, and became part of the team that imprinted these principles institutionally in the US military. Accidental Guerrilla describes his experiences and the essentials of his theory of guerrilla warfare.

Kilcullen’s title refers to his theory of insurgent behavior. Most guerrillas and insurgents, he argues, do not share in the overarching set of political goals represented by the insurgency. They fight because their relatives have been killed or their lands have been burned by the government/occupier, or they fight because the insurgent forces have threatened to kill them, or because the insurgent forces have offered to pay them, or because they’re simply bored and the insurgents are offering something to do. The last sounds trite, but ought to be taken seriously; an insurgency can offer young men in pre-modern agrarian areas the opportunity for travel and excitement. If most guerrillas don’t actual share the ideological premises of the insurgency, then the trick to is to create conditions under which they don’t have an interest in aiding or joining the insurgents. This means laying the foundations for economic development, creating opportunities for the underemployed, not killing people’s families or clan associates, and protecting people from attacks by insurgents. Such activities will, eventually, isolate the core of the insurgency, and force it into steadily riskier attacks in order to maintain its position and resources.

This is a fairly standard description of what has come to be accepted as modern counter-insurgency theory. It is embodied doctrinally in FM 3-24, to which Kilcullen contributed and which bears obvious similarity to the argument laid out in Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen focuses a great deal on the understanding of local cultures and the appreciation of local grievances. If few guerrillas are motivated by the overarching ideological goals of the insurgency, then most have local concerns in mind. Understanding local power structures, social units, and decision-making procedures is thus critical to successful COIN. This preference has found institutional life in the Human Terrain System and similar approaches to collecting information on localities.

While counter-insurgency theory has been adopted by substantial portions of the military and political elite, it is not without its critics. Kilcullen takes a short aside to denounce Ralph Peters, who criticized the counter-insurgency turn as being too touchy feely and not sufficiently oriented around the butchery of the wogs. Another line of criticism suggests that COIN isn’t terribly different than the normal operations that modern armies conduct, and thus that the “COIN revolution” has involved much smoke and little fire. I don’t find this latter line of argument particularly compelling; the training required by officers and enlisted personnel in a military organization emphasizing COIN would seem to differ considerably from that required in a more conventionally oriented army. This doesn’t necessarily mean that COIN doctrine will manifest in every single soldier or in every unit, but it does suggest preference for a different set of skills and aptitudes than are required in a conventional force. Yet another line of critique accepts that COIN is substantially different than conventional operations, but argues that this leaves the United States particularly vulnerable; developing a capacity to fight effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan means losing the ability to fight in large scale conventional operations. I’m convinced of the first part, but not convinced that the second is at all relevant; it is difficult for me to imagine plausible scenarios in the short or medium term (other, perhaps, than North Korea) where the United States is under any threat that would require the deployment of significant conventional land forces.

Accidental Guerrilla will not fully soothe the fears of those who believe that counter-insurgency theory and practice is a stand in for empire. This critique has emerged on both the political right and the left. The steps that an army will undertake in a counter-insurgency campaign essentially replace the presence of domestic security forces, including police and military. This procedure lies at the heart of all successful imperialism; we kill the bad men with guns, replace them for a time with our own men and guns, and eventually turn security duties over to a friendlier, more accomodating set of men with guns. Furthermore, Kilcullen is hostile to the notion that precision attacks of the type we see in Pakistan are suitable to winning a counter-insurgency conflict. Counter-insurgency cannot be done on the cheap; campaigns like Afghanistan and Iraq can only be won if military organizations replace the essential functions of the state. That said, Kilcullen also argues that counter-insurgency operations are extremely difficult, with the clear implication being that they shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, if at all. He notes his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, both on the grounds that the operation had a low chance of success, and that it was tangential to larger US and Western foreign policy goals. Overall, I would suggest that his thinking on the place that counter-insurgency practice plays in the foreign policy of the United States is roughly similar to my own. COIN is compatible with imperialism, and is probably necessary to successful modern imperialism in a democratic state; however, it does not necessitate imperialism. The United States Army prepared for war in the Fulda Gap for sixty years without actually engaging in such war; it is similarly possible for counter-insurgency theory to be part of the foreign policy toolbox, yet not the tool of choice.

As an advocate for and architect of the Surge, Kilcullen emphasizes its impact on the reduction of violence in Iraq more than ethnic cleansing or the tribal awakening movement. He points out that previous efforts by tribal organizations to resist Al Qaeda had failed, and suggests that the reason the Anbar Awakening succeeded is that it was backed by US forces that were a) capable, and b) knew what they were doing. While there’s certainly cause to argue with the notion that the Surge single-handedly reduced violence in Iraq (it did not), and there are certainly questions to be asked about its long term strategic impact (it may have succeeded only insofar as it allowed the US to stay in Iraq longer), I do think that the harshest criticisms of the Surge have not born fruit. It’s one thing to say that the Surge was unlikely to “win” the war in Iraq, and entirely another to suggest that it would be wholly useless and have no meaningful positive impact. In 2006-7, I was pretty strongly in the latter camp, arguing that the Surge was too little, too late and that it would have no noticeable effect on the course of events in Iraq. While I’m not prepared to take back the mean things I said about Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, it’s no longer tenable to argue that the Surge was operationally (as opposed to strategically) doomed to failure. In combination with other factors (and there’s no way to tell how much each factor contributed) the Surge helped reduce violence well below what I had thought possible; I don’t know how much money I would have bet on the “over 313” US casualties for 2008, but it’s fair to say it would have been a lot. Of course, withdrawal beginning in 2007 is the road not taken, but I argued not simply that the Surge was worse than withdrawal, but that it would fail according to its own metrics. Farley fail.

The term “must read” is by its nature trite; there really isn’t any book that everyone “must read” or have something horrible happen to them. Accidental Guerrilla, however, comes about as close as I can imagine to such status. It doesn’t hurt that Kilcullen is a remarkably good writer, with lucid, well-constructed prose and an eye for the relevant. Even if you’re not deeply interested in the ins and outs of counter-insurgency theory, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy Accidental Guerrilla. Even if you bitterly disagree with Kilcullen’s premises, it’s likely that you’ll find his argument useful, if only as a foil.

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