The Accidental Guerrilla

I can’t remember if I have mentioned this book previously, but I ran across a review of it that I thought was compelling, especially in light of the recent targeting of Osama bin Laden. Kilcullen was a senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Gen Petraeus during the Iraq Surge. Though my opinions of our engagement in Iraq are well known, I hold David Kilcullen in high esteem for his critical thought process concerning insurgencies.

David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla is at once an intellectual memoir of the author’s field research, a contribution to the academic discourse on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, and a prescription for the Western establishment to manage more smartly the many smaller conflicts included in the so-called war on terror. Kilcullen — a former Australian army officer who has served as a civilian adviser to the US government on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, including during the 2007 surge of US forces in Iraq — argues that the vast majority of persons the West faces in these conflicts had no initial intention of fighting but instead were moved to action by an extremist minority. Therefore the West should pursue courses that counteract the conditions that allow extremists to manipulate segments of populations into becoming “accidental” guerrillas rather than targeting certain individuals or groups. Engaging conflicts in the way Kilcullen suggests would have profound implications for intelligence.

Kilcullen examines recent activity in several theaters, primarily Afghanistan (2006–2008) and Iraq (2006–2007), and to lesser extents East Timor (1999–2000), southern Thailand (2004–2007), the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (2006–2008), and immigrant communities in Europe. Though not all of Kilcullen’s case studies are in Muslim areas, Islam figures prominently because of the frequency with which insurgent or terrorist activity is a function of takfiri Islam, which professes conversion to Islam by force and death for the unwilling — as a recurring script for violent resistance.

In looking at these cases the author uses a medical analogy suggesting phases of an infectious disease: “infection” — the entry of extremists into a vulnerable area; “contagion” — the spread of extremist influence; “intervention” — the engagement of establishment, often Western-partnered security services; “rejection” — the hoped-for elimination of the insurgent or terrorist group by the population.

What does Kilcullen suggest? Western intervention — if done at all — should be low-profile and should demonstrate that the West is advocating the well-being of populations and not imposing outside systems — no matter how altruistic or rational in Western eyes. Strategies should emphasize the population: building trust, creating good governance, establishing credible security services, maintaining relationships with local officials, and marketing the success of all of the above to those in the population who are wavering. Overwhelming use of force and search-and-destroy techniques that risk high collateral damage and rally locals in opposition should be avoided — though he does not dismiss selective operations against terrorist or insurgent leaders.

CIA

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