The Accidental Guerrilla and the Deliberate Interventionist

by , April 15, 2009

The Australian soldier and anthropologist Dr. David Kilcullen’s new book – The Accidental Guerrilla, Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford, 2009) – is receiving a good deal of attention as the manual with which the Obama administration will forge a successful conclusion to the U.S.-NATO campaign in Afghanistan. The title, The Accidental Guerrilla, refers to those locals living in an insurgent environment who pick up weapons and fight counterinsurgent forces because of tribal mores, because they like to fight, because the West has invaded, or because they are intimidated by what Kilcullen claims to be the limited number of dedicated insurgents or jihadists, in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, or other Muslim locales. This being the case, Kilcullen argues, the U.S.-NATO goal in Afghanistan should be to split the “accidental guerrillas” away from the jihadists. Echoes of Kilcullen’s thesis can already be heard in public statements by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Afghanistan guru Bruce Reidel, and others who have claimed that up to 75 percent of the Afghan insurgents can be peeled away from the Taliban and its allies and brought over to Karzai’s regime.

Kilcullen writes well, and his book contains a great deal of vital information on the complexities and importance of tribalism in the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies, as well as some interesting but extraneous data on Islamist and other violence in East Timor, Indonesia, and southern Thailand. The Accidental Guerrilla is a book that seems sound if you read it fast, but which on reflection is a deeply flawed recipe for more and longer-lasting U.S.-led intervention that promises no permanent success.

The book is framed, unfortunately, by Kilcullen’s social scientist side. Like most social scientists who have acceded to the title of “terrorism expert” – one thinks of Fawaz Gerges and Mary Habeck, although neither is remotely in the Australian’s league – Kilcullen does not like the problem the United States confronts: an increasingly well-organized Salafi insurgency that professes an attractive ideology – especially for young Muslims – and whose influence and violence are spreading in many areas of the world. So instead of writing a book on how to deal with the reality of a growing Salafi movement, Kilcullen simply redefines the enemy into something that is less daunting, but also nonexistent. For Kilcullen, America’s Islamist foes can be defined as a relatively small number of takfiris who are enemies of Muslims and Westerners and who can be beaten once the accidental guerrillas are eliminated from the equation.

Now, if the United States were confronted by takfiris – Sunni Muslims who eagerly kill other Muslims they decide are not practicing Islam correctly – it would be in high clover. A wholly takfiri enemy would be an extremely limited body of men which would have almost no popular appeal or growth potential, given that would-be members who fall short of religious perfection would be killed. In the 1990s in Sudan, for example, takfiri gunmen twice tried to kill Osama bin Laden because he was not a “good enough Muslim.” And the only genuine strategic threat to al-Qaeda since 2001 was its own commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, himself a takfiri, who readily killed any Shi’ites or Sunnis who did not measure up to his religious requirements. The transitory U.S. success in Iraq’s Anbar province that Kilcullen superbly describes occurred precisely because Zarqawi’s takfiri ways caused a rebellion against al-Qaeda forces by local Sunnis, forcing al-Qaeda’s dispersal northward or into the Levant. Bin Laden sent a veteran and talented Salafi Egyptian jihadist, whose war name is Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, to take Zarqawi’s place and try to rebuild a sense of shared purpose between al-Qaeda and Iraq Sunni mujahedin. That work has been painfully slow and difficult from al-Qaeda’s perspective, but the now unraveling “success” of the surge suggests Muhajir is making some limited progress. The bottom line on this issue is that all Americans and their allies should pray for ever greater number of takfiris in the field, because a U.S.-led victory over a takfiri enemy would be as certain as a U.S.-led victory over the Salafi movement is now unthinkable.

The great bulk of The Accidental Guerrilla‘s recommendations, therefore, pivot off what I believe is a wrong definition of the Islamist enemy we confront. Indeed, the author’s failure to adequately analyze the religious motivation of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their allies significantly undermines the book’s value. Kilcullen has taken a large and still growing Salafi enemy and reduced it to a quite limited and potentially manageable number of takfiri religious fanatics whose ability to put significant numbers of fighters in the field rests solely on their ability to intimidate other Muslims via a “fight-or-die” ultimatum. Given this limited but deadly enemy, Kilcullen’s recipe for U.S. success in Afghanistan is to prolong our military intervention, but to refocus it on extracting the accidental guerrillas from the insurgent mix by focusing on reconstruction, Westernization, and the panoply of activities that fall under the concept of nation-building. “The ultimately decisive mission set is what we might call ‘military assistance,'” Kilcullen writes.

"This set of tasks aims to restructure the threat environment over the long term so that we hardwire the enemy out of it, deny them a role, reduce the recruiting base, and attack the conditions that generate the threat. This is the truly decisive activity…. But in [the] future we may need to apply ‘assistance by militaries’ or even by the whole of our government, to the whole of an at-risk society. … This means that cooperation with aid agencies, educators, departments of foreign affairs and state, intelligence services, economic development agencies – truly full-spectrum assistance – is required. This is the truly decisive activity at which we will need to become highly proficient if we are to break the accidental guerrilla cycle." (p. 289)

Clearly, the foregoing is intervention and Westernization – for the latter, Kilcullen uses “creating the rule of law” – with both a vengeance and a very long on-the-ground timeframe. Even if we accept that the intricate and expensive program of cooperative military-political-social activities proposed by Kilcullen is possible in theory, there is absolutely no reason to believe such a program can be achieved in Afghanistan. Why?

First, the insurgents we confront in Afghanistan are not takfiris. They are mostly Salafis who have shown a remarkable ability to accommodate and work with approaches to religious practice that differ from their own. We have yet to run into an Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan and, if we do, the Taliban or al-Qaeda will kill him to avoid another Anbar-like scenario. Therefore, the most basic premise of The Accidental Guerrilla – that the insurgents are takfiris – is inapplicable to Afghanistan.

Second, the U.S.-led coalition’s time in Afghanistan is quickly running out. The Karzai regime is terminally corrupt and incompetent, and we are already in the eighth winter of the war. Kilcullen’s proposed method of operation requires: (a) an almost 180-degree shift from the U.S.-NATO approach now being used; (b) a far greater foreign military and civilian presence to implement it; and (c) a commitment of substantial financial resources over an extended period of time. While the West could certainly change horses in the manner Kilcullen suggests, the shift would be pointless because the Afghan insurgency has already become as much a popular nationalist reaction to foreign occupation as it is a Salafi insurgency; there is not, Messrs. Blair, Reidel, and other Obama officials notwithstanding, a mass of accidental guerillas yearning to be separated from the Taleban-led coalition. Indeed, there would be no better way to ignite an ever broader anti-foreign Afghan nationalist insurgency than to follow Kilcullen’s recommendations that we patiently extend our already far too long occupation.

Overall, Kilcullen has written an informative and in many ways useful and insightful book. To his credit, he has caveated his theories to try to dissuade readers from believing that they can be applied and expected to work in all locales and situations. That said, The Accidental Guerrilla is a study explicitly written with an eye toward influencing the Obama administration’s Afghan policymaking, both parties in Congress, and Gen.David Petraeus, the book’s amazingly pure, courageous, brilliant, and knightly hero. Unfortunately, this lot has proven repeatedly that it is consistently able to ignore caveats, miss nuances, and fall deeply in love with any plan that even remotely justifies U.S. interventionism. Odds are that in the future much blame will be laid at Kilcullen’s feet for the defeat of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, blame that would be better placed at the door of America’s rabid, bipartisan interventionists who are now reinforcing failure in an already lost war.

Read more by Michael Scheuer