This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 13 August 2015, Dr. Doug Borer sat down with counterinsurgency expert Dr. David Kilcullen to talk about current trends in counterinsurgency planning and operations, and the fight against ISIS.2Dr. Kilcullenís books include The Accidental Guerrilla (2009), Counterinsurgency (2010), and Out of the Mountains (2013).3
DOUG BORER: Dave, I would first like to address your own experience as someone at the center of counterinsurgency, in theory and in practice, over the last decade or so. What are the greatest improvements you have seen in that time, in terms of both the conceptual thinking and practice of counteriinsurgency?
DAVID KILCULLEN: Thatís a great question. These days we have an incredibly high degree of both familiarity and competence on the part of US military combat units operating in a real warfare environment that really didnít exist 15 years ago. I would put US forces today up against any force on the planet in the last 100 years in terms of their ability to conduct this kind of unconventional warfare operation. We have also seen vast improvements in US capabilities. There are capabilities available to your average line infantry battalion or artillery battalion today that only existed in Special Operations Command back in 2001. Capabilities that only existed in Hollywood in 2001 are now regularly applied by high-end, tier-one special mission units.
While the militaryís conceptual understanding of counterinsurgency has dramatically improved, however, the United States, as a nation, has failed to close the gap between military success on the ground and a range of political reconciliation, stabilization, and economic development issues. The military has repeatedly created the conditions to achieve a political outcome, only to watch political organizations fail to follow through. Thatís not to shift blame from the military to somebody else; itís just to say that the improvements in military capability havenít necessarily been matched by improvements on the civilian side of government.
BORER: When you served as an advisor to coalition forces and saw these capabilities shift over time, where did you see the line of friction between providing security and order in these environments, and actually developing the local institutions of governance in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan?
KILCULLEN: I would argue that this issue is partly why we have seen, at best, a mixed outcome in both countries. If you put military guysówho have their own people out in harmís wayóin charge of the overall mission, then of course you are going to find that force protection becomes a high priority. There is a negative element of force protection, which is bunkers and blast walls and so on. But there is also a positive element of force protection, which is getting out and destroying the enemy before it can close in and destroy you. Either way, you end up with a fairly heavy emphasis on kinetics and on the intelligence side, what I would call ìforce protection risk,î as distinct from mission risk. In other words, the distinction is between things that can hurt the force and things that can undermine the success of the mission. You tend to find yourself committed to a structure of dependency, where the local actors depend on your presence. You create a safe environment, and you improve the situation to a dramatically better level than the locals can, because you have all these resources. At that point, it becomes really difficult to let go and allow failure.
One of the Afghans I engaged with in 2009 said it best. He said, ìLook, there is no question that if the US military fights the Taliban, the US military is going to win. Thatís not the issue now. The issue is, what about the Afghan military? How do we get the Afghan military to the point where it can win, initially with support from the US military, but then subsequently without them?î So, the outcome of each individual combat engagement eventually turns out to be less important than institution-building. The trick is to recognize that tipping point. When is it no longer crucial to win every engagement, but crucial to get the locals themselves out on the ground? The other question is, how do you get the people who have been responsible for stabilization up to this point to say, ìWe have made things really good. Now weíre going to let the situation go back to the way it was temporarily, because thatís the path we have to take to get the locals up to speedî? Thatís tough.
Iraq is a good example. We went in with three objectives that were actually incompatible: we wanted to democratize, we wanted to stabilize, and we wanted to create a new economy. The dictatorship was a completely state-based economy. The problem was, back in 2005ñ2006, we democratized before the country was stable, and then we surrendered control over the new leadership to the Iraqi people. But too many Iraqis had no intention of working with those leaders to achieve a stable outcome. You have to think about sequencing those different objectives carefully, because you are always going to have objectives that are incompatible and parameters that are hard to optimize. Itís a classic design problem, and there is no getting around it. I think our big mistake in Iraq, and to some extent, Afghanistan, was to surrender control over a lot of the tasks that needed to be done to keep the country stable before stability had really been reached, in the name of democracy. It is extraordinarily hard to get that control back. Then, in fact, we never did.
BORER: Do you think itís possible for a Western country to get involved in these types of conflicts without projecting itself as the role modelóas in, ìYou have to become a democracy if we are involvedî?
KILCULLEN: I do think itís possible. There are even a few historical cases, like the British in Amman, Jordan, in the 1960s and 1970s, or possibly El Salvador, where the United States has only a light footprint. The influence is more indirect, with the implication that the local government is in charge of its own destiny and we are just there to help it execute that. But as soon as you have a US general officer and a satellite dish on the ground, things change. Somebody starts talking back to Washington, and peopleís careers begin to build up around a certain outcome. The fundamental role of the embassy shifts significantly, and it becomes very difficult to avoid a kind of commitment trap where you want it more than they want it. And then itís impossible for you to disengage because you end up doing all of the hard work.
Looking at our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think itís a bit of a cop-out to say that stabilization and democratization didnít go well because Western countries just canít do this. Maybe they can but just didnít do a good job. Right? I donít think we know the answer to that yet. I would argue that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is a fair test of concepts if you didnít plan to execute the concepts in the first place. I have had this discussion with people around counterinsurgency theory. There are many great critiques of counterinsurgency theory, but itís not a fair critique to say, ìIt didnít go well in Afghanistan, so that proves counterinsurgency doesnít work.î It would be like treating someone who is sick with half the recommended dosage of antibiotics and then saying the drug doesnít work. You didnít follow the plan. I think thatís the case in Afghanistan. We did the job halfway and then let the Afghans handle it. Whether counterinsurgency works is an unanswered question, in my view, but this particular case is not a definitive answer to that question.
BORER: But will this be a case of history repeating itself? For instance, after Vietnam, the US military wanted to avoid these types of wars. But we just keep reinventing the same old counterinsurgency wheel, because the organizational construct goes back to what it does bestówhich is breaking things.
KILCULLEN: Yes. You mentioned the way bureaucracy operates. There are institutional pathways within the US government that mean we always do things a certain way. And while the Balkans are not like Iraq, and Iraq is not like Afghanistan, Americans are still who we are, so in each of those cases, at least half the equation is the same. There is certainly a tendency within the armed forces, at the political level, to say we want to avoid ever getting into a counterinsurgency environment again, and we want to avoid ever again having to do what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are shying away from a lot of lessons learned. I think thatís a very understandable human reaction, but itís not necessarily the best pathway to a better outcome next time. There are painful lessons that we really need to understand. Itís as wrong to say Iraq and Afghanistan prove that counterinsurgency works as it is to say those conflicts prove counterinsurgency can never work. Weíre paid to be smarter than that. Until we figure out what actually happened on the ground, itís going to be hard to come to any kind of judgments.
The issue, of course, is also obscured by politics, with Democrats blaming Bush for invading Iraq in the first place and Republicans blaming Obama for leaving Iraq and allowing ISIS to return. A similar discussion is now brewing around Afghanistan. I think it behooves those of us who are professionals to set aside all the political bullshit, for lack of a better term, and really look at the facts.
BORER: There is a presumption that small countries can reproduce what the United States is doing. Do you have any thoughts on that, based on your experience in the Western coalition?
KILCULLEN: I think it ís a classic error to believe that our capabilities can be replicated by a partner or by certain members of our coalition. One example you see is people copying drones and trying to field their own drone programs because that is what they think they should be doing. People also try to copy and replicate the time-
sensitive targeting cycle. Itís a lot like saying, ìI want to be a high-end cardiac-thoracic surgeon in an operating theaterî when, in reality, you are a bush doctor in a village somewhere. Without the right resources, you are worse than useless, because youíve structured yourself around the expectation that youíll have certain information at certain periods, certain communications tools, and certain reaction mechanisms that you may not actually have. I think there is a real danger in trying to copy something that seems sexy and useful without any real ability to accomplish it.
That said, I think that we have often also failed by neglecting to look at what is working on the ground and then creating something similar but not exactly the sameósomething designed to work in that specific environment. A classic example would be village stability operations in Afghanistan. Initially, it was about helping the Afghans, who already knew how to fight, determine ways to build legitimate, local-level political authorities so they could attack the Taliban from a political and governmental standpoint. Within six months, it became the formation of local Afghan militias to fight the Taliban. In other words, we went from something that was fundamentally an armed propaganda and political agitation activity designed to help local populations organize local governance, to putting an SF team on the ground to deal with infiltration. This is a typical pathway, where you take something that is small and works, and then rapidly pump it up into something much bigger to replicate that success. And then you find that there was something magical about the way it was done originally that just doesnít survive the transition to a large projectóand it all falls apart. Thatís the tragedy of a lot of what we do. We go in and pump money into something that works, just to watch it break.
The counterexample, which I think is a positive one, is what we have seen in Colombia. The Colombians have really gained ownership and taken control of what is going on there, and they have designed a series of equipment solutions and procedural solutions that work for them. They have listened to our advice, they have thought about it, and then in many cases respectfully said, ìThatís great, but we are going to do it another way instead.î The result is a set of locally appropriate technologies that suit their needs and are, by definition, affordable and legitimate. Itís not a matter of Americans coming in and trying to apply a template of something that works for us in a radically different environment. The Philippines is another example where it has worked, but the Balikatan exercise structure is fairly unique to the Philippines.4 And in the case of Colombia, there is a remarkable pool of talent on the Colombian side. The human capital is dramatically better than what we saw in Iraq or Afghanistan, where people have come out of 30 years of war and 40 years of dictatorship, and naturally need a period of recovery before they can get back on their feet.
BORER: To an outside observer, it might seem that insurgents put far more emphasis on information operations [IO] than counterinsurgency operators do. Can you speak to the importance of information operations in both insurgency and counterinsurgency strategies?
KILCULLEN: The answer to that depends on what you mean by information operations. I think insurgents often decide what their information strategy is going to be and then structure all their operationsóincluding communications and kinetic operationsóaround achieving that particular goal. The classic example would be the Taliban in 2006 and 2007, when you saw a Taliban commander on Al Jazeera doing interviews. One of the things he did was issue general information directives, and then local commanders would design operations to support that message. In other words, they decided on the message first and then planned the operation to support it. We take the opposite approach, designing the operation first and then deciding how to sell it. This becomes the IO plan. IO is literally an afterthought for US operators. For the Taliban, if that statement the commander made on Al Jazeera was an operations order, the order itself would be the IO plan, and all of the supporting appendices would be the physical operations that were carried out to fulfill the plan. So the insurgents completely flip the way that they approach IO and kinetic operations.
This strategy was short-lived in the case of the Taliban. After their spokesman [Taliban commander Dadullah] Akhund was killed, they adopted a completely new and less effective model. So that is my other point: sometimes the best way to achieve an IO goal is to shoot the right person in the head. Sometimes itís a kinetic action that is going to have the IO impact you were hoping for. It may be that your strongest messaging is not leaflet drops and radio and the internet, but just removing a key player from the battlefield. There are plenty of examples of this effect in Iraq and Afghanistan, where enemy activity in a given sector drops off to zero. And itís not because of any particular change in ideology but just because you managed to wipe out the right guy.
Some research shows that whether a population supports a particular group ideologically or subjectively has very little to do with the degree of cooperation with that group. Itís much more about who is creating a set of rules and sanctions that make the population feel safe by bringing predictability to their lives. I argue in one of my books that you can characterize that as ìcompetitive control.î Hearts and minds, at least insofar as getting people to like you, are much, much less important than we like to think. Behavioral change tends to follow incentives that you correct through a normative system. Some of those are through communication, but a vast majority of them are administrative.
BORER: Maybe you can come back around to that again as it relates to ISIS. In your recent article, ìBlood Year,î you describe ISIS as a state-building enterprise, but you stop short of calling it a state.5 Yet you seem to be uncomfortable with Audrey Croninís calling it a pseudo-state.6 Have your thoughts evolved since you published that article?
KILCULLEN: Yes, they have, and I am in the middle of turning that article into a full-length book. The environment has dramatically evolved since I finished writing that article. The United States is a signatory to the 1933 Montevideo convention, which says that there are four criteria an entity must meet to be considered a state in international law.7 First, you have to have a territoryóa permanent territory that you control. Second, you have to have a stable population within that territory; it canít be nomadic or transient. Third, you have to have a government that claims authority over that population. And fourth, you have to be capable of contributing to relationships with other states. The convention says explicitly that you donít actually have to be recognized by other states to have relationships; you just have to be able to participate in relationships.
If we apply those four criteria to ISIS, we can see that it controls territoryóitís about the size of Israel, or even a little larger now. It also controls a permanent population about the size of Norwayís. ISIS has its own economy, with roughly $600 million in revenue per year. And while that is small for a state, itís large by terrorist standardsóbigger than almost any other insurgent group in history. So it has an economy. Third, it has a government that exercises a degree of control over the population. We may not like that government or agree with its methods or even consider it to be effective, but it is a government. And finally, ISIS sells electricity and water to the Syrian government, and it trades oil on the black market, and it has the ability to enter into international relations.
So I disagree with Dr. Cronin, but only because she calls ISIS a pseudo-stateówhich technically means a fake state, like itís pretending to be a state when itís not. I think it is a para-stateóthat itís almost there. Itís on the verge of meeting, or is already meeting, all four of those key criteria.
This is not to suggest that we should recognize ISIS as a state. I think that would be a significant mistake. For example, people who challenged Australia to support ISIS are subject to be charged under whatís called the Foreign Recruitment Act of 1977. But if you support a state and travel to join the armed forces of that state, you have a defense under that act. As soon as we declare ISIS a state, those people who support ISIS can defend their actions under that act.
So, on the one hand, there are good legal and political reasons not to call ISIS a state. But on the other hand, we do need to treat it as a state-like entity for targeting purposes. This is not a counterinsurgency environment; ISIS is not an insurgency. There is actually no danger that we will be sucked back into a counterinsurgency, because itís not an insurgency. ISIS is running a conventional fight, controlling cities. Itís a stateóa state-like entity. Yes, itís a revolutionary state that is trying to overthrow the state system, but thatís not unique to history. The Soviet Union before 1924, or China after 1949, or the Islamic Republic of Iran after 1979óthese are all now states, part of the international state system, but all of them started off with the goal of overthrowing the entire system and then creating something better. Itís unlikely, but not impossible, that ISIS will follow a similar path.
BORER: In the article, you also note that there is a lack of political will today to treat the conflict with ISIS as a state, or state-like, fight. Under what conditions could you foresee a change in that attitude?
KILCULLEN: That, to me, is the most important critique of what I write in ìBlood Year.î Dr. Croninís critiqueóand it might be trueóis that thereís no way at this point that the current US administration or the American people will support a full-scale, conventional fight against ISIS. I think she might be right about that.
Weíve seen two major changes in just the last month, and we have yet to learn the outcome or the impact of those changes. One of them is Turkeyís entry into the war, which has not only significantly increased the pain ISIS is suffering but also brought the Turks into direct conflict with some of the Kurds who are fighting most effectively. The other is the Iran nuclear deal. And while personally Iím not convinced that the deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long term, I do think it may create the basis for some form of collaboration between Iran and the United States for stabilizing both Iraq and Syria. That may have been the real geopolitical reasoning behind the administrationís push for the deal. Frankly, I am not confident that it will work, because it would severely alienateóand already has alienatedóthe vast majority of our allies in the region. We need to ask ourselves, ìWhat am I trading here, and am I getting more than Iím giving away by pissing off the Israelis and the Saudis and everybody else for the sake of getting the Iranians on board?î
It might come down to Syria. I donít think there is any hope that we can stabilize Iraq or solve its problems until we reach some kind of resolution in the Syrian civil war. We are not going to get a political resolution until we can convince the majority of armed actors that they are better off negotiating than continuing to fight. Thatís the military role: to do enough damageómuch like in Kosovoóto the Syrian Arab Republic, to ISIS, and to others, to convince them that the better option is negotiation. I will also repeat something I have heard a lot from Syrian peace activists in the last six months, which is that ISIS needs to go, Assad needs to go, but the regime needs to stay. We need some kind of framework to allow for a long-term political resolution. This is where the Iranian nuclear deal and other factors may start to lay the foundation for a collaborative approach. Until we do that, we can beat back ISIS forever in Iraq, but itís not going to make a long-term difference.
BORER: Going back to The Accidental Guerrilla, which seems to have launched your public career, do you think that termóthe ìaccidental guerrillaîóand the concepts embedded in the book could help us understand the phenomenon of the lone-wolf terrorist?
KILCULLEN: Yes, I do. Let me say up front, though, that I think the idea of an accidental guerilla is, at some level, an easy insight. Obviously, when you send a large expeditionary force into somebodyís home turf, you are going to piss off a lot of people, and some of those people are going to take up arms against you.
The point I was trying to make in The Accidental Guerrilla is that ìradicalî is not the start of any insurgent groupís life cycle. They tend to emerge on the side of law and order, clean government, or identity. They gain a lot of support initially. And then they outlive their welcome, and they radically piss everybody off, and thatís when you start to see the rise of internal opposition. What we did in many casesóIraq and Afghanistan are both good examplesówas intervene in the middle of that life cycle and then turn everybody against us when, in fact, those groups were already losing a lot of support. If we had gone about it in a different way, we may have been able to accelerate the cycle and watch them get kicked out on their ear without having to intervene. Thatís a great answer, and an argument for what we should have done after 9/11, though nobody involved at the time would have adopted that point of view.
Of course, itís arrogant to say in hindsight, ìOh, thatís what we should have done.î But you can apply the same idea to the lone-wolf terrorist phenomenon. An analogy I use in the book is this: Imagine that a criminal gang moves into your neighborhood and starts robbing the rich peopleís houses on the other side of town. If the police come in and start demolishing houses in your neighborhood and running checkpoints to find the bad guys, that will just turn everybody in the neighborhood against the police. Thatís the accidental guerilla syndrome. And it has actually happened to a lot of people in Muslim-minority communities in the West since 9/11.
In my view, there are three really negative dynamics from what Western countries have done. One is that exact phenomenon, the accidental guerrilla. Guys from Manchester start bombing in London, and suddenly there is this massive security crackdown on a bunch of young blokes in Manchester and the Midlands. And soon you end up with another crop of guys who are thinking differently about the British state.
The second outcome is within the Muslim communities in our own societiesóthe United States, Australia, France, Britainóafter 9/11. These Muslim communities established their own contact groups of notables and elders, and the idea was that the government would engage with them and run policies by them so that these communities could police themselves with their own internal security systems. What it actually did, though, was move older, mostly male, religiously and socially conservative elders to the top of the community hierarchy, to act as middlemen for groups of young people who were already pissed off. In essence, it further alienated members of those communities who were already alienated. Now, not only were they feeling disenfranchised and alienated from the parent society, but they also felt cut off from their own society. This is the case particularly with women who join the Islamic Stateóa kind of double disenfranchisement. Itís ironic but true that, in some ways, a young woman is going to win more respect in ISIS than in the Pakistani community in London.
The third issue, along those same lines, is young people. We are seeing a young crowd of people joining ISIS. These recruits are war-on-terror natives; they have grown up in a post-9/11 environment that is, in our view, a temporary aberration but for them is the norm. And their reaction to this ìnew normalî is a feeling of disenfranchisement and a desire to take action of their own. I think this is a key consideration regarding where the accidental guerilla syndrome has come home to roost domestically since 9/11. Other examples fall under the category of what French philosopher Michel Foucault called ìboomerang effects,î where you manage a colony overseas a certain way and then turn around and apply the same kinds of techniques to the domestic population. I think we are seeing this already with things like domestic surveillance. Certainly the disenfranchisement and alienation of Muslim communities in the West is a great example of the accidental guerilla syndrome as well.
BORER: When you look back at history, is there any periodóthe Thirty Yearsí War, for exampleófrom which we can draw parallels that might help us make sense of what is going on today?
KILCULLEN: You mentioned the Thirty Yearsí War in Europe. The former prime minister of Iraq made that comparison more than once. What he is talking about is the emergence of a region-wide Sunni-Shiía proxy conflict in the Middle East. One of the key lessons there is to realize the Westís limited potential to influence the situation. If this is another Thirty Yearsí War, then within that analogy the United States probably plays the same role as the Ottoman Empire. Imagine if the Ottoman sultan had tried to make peace in the middle of the Thirty Yearsí War. It would never have happened, right? In fact, many of the European state systems involved eventually unified in opposition to perceived threats from the East, from the sultan. In some ways, the West creates a unifying effect, but itís a unification by opposition to other people. As soon as we try to influence the situation or play the role of mediator, we run up against the fairly sharp limits of what we can do.
Another example is one we touched on earlier while discussing Audrey Cronin. She wrote a really useful paper, almost 10 years ago now, about what she called the electronic levÈe en masse.8 She was looking at the period immediately following the French Revolution, when this massive explosion of printing technology, literacy, and the ability to build bridges between people with the written word led to significant shifts in the patterns of warfare. You went from small, professional armies that fought for a personal sovereign for a defined number of months per year in accordance with very specific rules to recruiting these mass armies motivated by public propaganda issued through print communications. What we are seeing now is, I think, the effect of a massive explosion in electronic connectivity, particularly in the developing world, since the year 2000. My go-to quote is that, in the year 2000, there were 30,000 phones in the whole country of Nigeria. Today there are 113 million. Thatís a 280,000 percent increase in just over a decade. And we are seeing similar rates of increase in many of the countries affected by the Arab Spring, in Eastern Europe, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Latin America. The result is a radical shift in the information environment, and in the ability of non-state actors to organize action, transmit messages, and share information.
Dr. Cronin wrote that paper well before most of this happened, so itís very prescient in that respect. The nine years since that paper came out have reinforced her point: What is new about the current operation environment is not the weaponry, and itís not the tactics, and itís not the types of actors. Itís the opponentís ability to communicate and share information and organize in near-real time, enabled by this massive explosion of connectivity. Thatís something we want to think about carefully when considering where our capabilities need to go next.
BORER: I usually like to end with the ìking for the dayî question. If we could make you king for the dayóif you were the next US president, and you had the ability to bypass Congress and do one important thing for US national security, what would you do?
KILCULLEN: Wow, thatís a great question. This is going to sound weird, but I think the solution to many of our military problems over the last 15 years lies in a complete restructuring and revamping of civilian capability. We often leave the military hanging by asking them to do something that is not their job, that is actually the job of another agency, only to find that that agency just doesnít have the capacity, or the capability, or the political willingness to go out on the ground and do it. I would focus most of my efforts during my one day, then, on enabling civil agencies in the US government to partner effectively with military forces on the ground. There are lots of factors involved, but most important is making people understand that itís not acceptable to just leave everything to the military. There is a whole-of-nation requirement here, and if you are unable to execute your side of the operation, you will continually put the military in an unwinnable situation. It will only be able to achieve its goals halfway and then fail to close the gap to the desired political outcome. This is a big lesson for us from the last 15 years. But the very fact that you have to frame the question hypothetically means that it will never happen, right? So, knowing this, we have to think about what we should do next, and when.
BORER: On behalf of the school and the Department of Defense Analysis, I want to thank you for this interview.
Dr. Doug Borer teaches in the Defense Analysis department at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.