The Occidental Guerrilla

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars In The Midst of a Big One.

by David Kilcullen

US: Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $18.45

UK: Hurst Publishers, 376 pp.,  £20.00.


Soldier, scholar, linguist, adventurer. David Kilcullen, a former Australian special forces officer with a PhD in political anthropology, is unique in the level of influence and cachet he wields in Washington. A career soldier-scholar, his portfolio derives from a wide range of military appointments, combat operations, and scholarly research. As a senior counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus and counterterrorism advisor to the State Dept., that expertise was tested and refined in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an Australian in D.C., he cuts an almost exotic swath: appealing, no doubt, to a distinctly American appreciation of rugged individualism in any form, Kilcullen’s latter day renaissance man is a romantic figure, a throwback, it would seem, to days of empire when orientalist advisors could be brought in from abroad.


It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that Washington’s attraction to this straight talking foreigner is symptomatic of a loss of faith in itself: that it has ceased, over the last eight years, to trust many of its own, has acknowledged the need for intervention, and worships the source of its deliverance from self-doubt. But it would also be a mistake to dismiss Kilcullen as a colorful anachonism or merely the object of another singularly American trait, a tendency towards political personality cults and military hagiography. He has written some of the most influential articles on modern counterinsurgency published over the last few years, and has the credibility that comes from long immersion in his subject. Based at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), he is well positioned to continue channelling his hard earned wisdom directly to senior levels of the US government and military, where it most needs to be heard.


Which is why his timely new book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (Oxford University Press in North America, Hurst Publishers in the UK, 2009) is so important. An astute work of synthesis, it was amassed, Kilcullen tells us, “between combat operations, research trips, diplomatic meetings, scholarly conferences, and policy planning sessions; on long-haul flights in commercial airliners, corporate jets, and military transports; in hotels, apartments, and cafes, library reading rooms, earthen bunkers, and armoured trailers, on the couches and at the kitchen tables of friends and relatives.” Location, location, location, he seems to be suggesting. Indeed, on the trail of insurgents and terrorists from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Europe, he manages to pinpoint the political shear between minority existential threats to US interests and the majority of locally invested guerrillas who just want to be left alone.


Thinking Innovatively


The “accidental guerrilla”, Kilcullen argues, “emerges from a cyclical process that takes place in four stages: infection, contagion, intervention, and rejection.” Using this medical terminology, he treats the phenemenon as a “syndrome”, wherein “AQ moves into remote areas, creates alliances with local traditional communities, exports violence that prompts a Western intervention, and then exploits the backlash against that intervention in order to generate support for its takfiri agenda.” Essentially, accidental guerrillas fight to defend local interests and preserve their autonomy amid the complex “hybrid wars” in which Al Qaeda thrives, partnerships between them the product of a deliberately manipulative strategem that relies on active subversion and exploitation of grievances. Kilcullen has observed this approach to Al Qaeda recruiting and alliance formation in one theatre of operations after the next since the early 1990s. The predatory nature of the relationship and its ultimate failure has been most visible in the way Al Qaeda in Iraq turned on its erstwhile tribal allies. “Out in the wild western desert,” Kilcullen writes, “things often tend to play out in a manner that is considered brutal even by other Iraqis.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “changed the rules of the game by adding roadside bombs, beheadings, death by genital mutilation, baking of children alive, raping of women and children to death, and torture. Eventually, enough was enough for the locals.”


The Accidental Guerrilla, Kilcullen writes, is a reflection of its subject: “part field study, part personal recollection; perhaps too academic to be popular and too populist to be purely academic.” Indeed, it lacks the symmetry of approach that would satisfy a purely academic audience. Core chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq are packaged very differently, the former a meticulously prepared case study, the latter based primarily on the author’s longer field experience in that region. Extensions – Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, and Europe – are developed in greater depth in a subsequent chapter, through a wide ranging and judicious exploration of existing literature. Kilcullen’s accidental guerrilla syndrome is similar to historian Brian Glyn Williams‘s observations in a late 2007 issue of Jane’s Islamic Affairs and in the journal Civil Wars, of the pitfalls of working through local proxies and the limits of Al Qaeda’s ability to integrate with local social structures. The book offers an updated and candid snapshot of what sometimes happens when East meets West (though sometimes the axis leans more North-South). Kenneth Payne, for example, recently discussed Ian Buruma and Avishai Magalit’s book Occidentalism, which portrays

the efforts of peoples from a wide variety of cultures and societies to reconcile, adapt, or resist the west; for which read, modernity. That response to the Occident has been prompting war, terror and barbarism for many hundreds of years. And those wars have been among the people, as well as between peoples. The west seen from without:
decadent, lazy, distopian, unheroic, mercantile, immoral. And the East, seen from the other end of the telescope, barbarous, devious, backward, romantic, also immoral.

Separating Aghanistan from Pakistan would seem counterintuitive at a time when the Obama Administration is re-lensing its policies toward wider regional pivots – but that’s not what Kilcullen does here. He carefully considers each, for  their respective ethnographic pressure points; both contain elements that transect Af-Pak. Academic critics might object to Kilcullen’s use of scholarship merely to confirm a theory rather than to challenge its merits. One might also expect, from this disparate range of influences and contexts, an inchoate outcome. But one of the singular lessons of the kind of “population-centric” counterinsurgency that he advocates is that every case is distinct and has to be evaluated on its own merits. In that sense, each chapter works, on its own merits, and in the aggregate they convey valuable lessons about Kilcullen’s accidental guerrillas, and how we should – and shouldn’t – be dealing with them.


Kilcullen also demands that we think innovatively about the complexities of global counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. He suggests, for example, that the best bang for buck might come not from militarily-oriented special operations forces, but from something long consigned to the history books: an Office of Strategic Services. The chapter on Afghanistan is built around a case study of road building in Kunar Province, an intriguing lesson on manipulation of the physical environment to affect real and metaphorical fissures between armed insurgents and the populations they exploit. This sort of spatially sensitive social engineering is worthy of architect Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land (Verso, 2007), but Kilcullen is otherwise sparing in his analysis of such issues. The urban context is implicit in much of what he writes, but very real distinctions between rural and urban insurgency deserve more depth than they’re afforded here. The elastic role of sanctuary in militant thought and practice is also given only cursory treatment – cited frequently, but explored little.


In a November 2008  New Yorker interview, Kilcullen suggested to George Packer that a “countersanctuary strategy” is needed for restive Pakistan. Within days, he repeated the phrase in a second appearance, on Fareed Zakharia’s CNN show, Global Public Square. A few months later, in late March, Andew Exum explored the subject in a short piece printed in The New Republic, paying homage to Kilcullen’s terminology and sparking heated debate. My hope in reading The Accidental Guerrilla had been that Kilcullen would lend some coherence to the subject, that he would redress some of the blindingly awkward policy language of the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz years, when State went postmodern on “geographic”, ideological”, “virtual”, and “democratic” safe havens. But he defers more or less uncritically to these official definitions and geopolitical orthodoxies. I have to wonder, given his own role in State Department counterterrorism policy at the time, if he didn’t have a direct hand in drafting those very same definitions. Most surprising of all is that despite the occasional mention of “active” and “micro” havens, there is not a single reference to baseline insurgency theories of sanctuary anywhere in The Accidental Guerrilla. Rex Brynen’s long out-of-print book, Sanctuary and Survival: The Palestinians in Lebanon (Westview Press, 1990) remains the standard on the subject, and I would encourage anyone dissatisfied with Presidential, bureaucratic, and postmodern buzzwords to give it a close reading.


All of which isn’t to say that Kilcullen neglects the more subtle ethnographic threads of guerrilla sanctuary and survival. The details are there, peppered tantalizingly throughouth the text. Among them are distracting throwaways that hold the analytical key to dismantling the incoherence and awkwardness that shrouds the issue: the pivotal Al Qaeda in Iraq attack in 2006 on the al Askarriya shrine in Samarra, which “almost completely destroyed the dome of this ancient sanctuary”; or his personal note in early 2007, amid the chaos and crump of mortar fire in Baghdad, that the US “embassy is no safe haven”. The point not made about these is that sacred shrines and extraterritorial jurisdictions are archetypal forms of middle ground from which latter-day notions of safe haven derive their meaning. Such conceptual cues suggest there is more at stake in our attempts to understand the subject than simply determining how best to eliminate the problems that reside in states that fail, remote mountain warrens, and terrorist safe houses.


Ulysses of the Khyber


The texture and substance of Kilcullen’s writing is as much a point of interest as has been Washington’s love affair with him. In a recent New York Times review, Janine DiGiovanni argued that The Accidental Guerrilla is “not an easy book”, suggesting its accumulation of “acronyms and digressions” amounts to a distracted, impenetrable narrative. “For those not willing to put in the time and effort,” she writes, the book “could be like a junior high school student attempting ‘Ulysses’.” This rings utterly false to me. I read the book in much the same way that Kilcullen wrote it: on a trans-Eurasian NATO airbridge flight; at a German military transit camp in Termez, Uzbekistan; in the back of a C160 Transaal en route to Kabul; while stranded in Mazar e Sharif at Regional Command North; in the DFAC, my cramped quarters, and in the Destille Garden at ISAF Headquarters. I don’t consider myself a COIN expert, bequeathed of exceptional intelligence, or indeed more than passingly familiar with much of the wide swath of issues through which Kilcullen cleaves. Despite these mortal limitations, I found the text to be accessible, engaging, and enlightening, and although The Accidental Guerrilla requires some mental gear switching to keep pace with its varied substance, the effort is worth the reward.


Kilcullen’s reviewers, in fact, have been a strange mix, all praising his work yet most somehow missing the mark in peculiar and particular ways. DiGiovanni is an award winning journalist but her profile as a reviewer of counterinsurgency texts (and her appreciation of this one) seem a little inapt. George Packer’s post-interview New Yorker review was more invested in current events than in what Kilcullen has to say, expending most of his verbiage on an assessment of the recent shuffle of US General officers in Afghanistan. The accomplished Andrew Bacevich published an unseemly critique in the March issue of the National Interest that came across as a snide and jealous tirade against Kilcullen’s success, stopping just shy of labelling the Australian a profiteer. Frank Hoffman, a well regarded US defense academic at the Potomac Institute and proponent of the “hybrid war” concept upon which Kilcullen explicitly relies, heaped praise in the Small Wars Journal. If anyone is qualified to review Kilcullen, it’s Hoffman and the community of SWJ readers – but this is exactly the sort of thing that raises eyebrows in some quarters about the alleged clubbishness of modern day counterinsurgency thinkers, an insularity that even Kilcullen notes in the opening lines of his book. Writing in The New Criterion, Jay Nordlinger offered what was, on balance, an even-handed critique, but concluded by suggesting Kilcullen “likes to paint himself as the one native-knower—the Malinowski of the warrior class—amid oafish and insensitive palefaces.” This struck me as downright odd. My reading of The Accidental Guerrilla left me with the impression that its author is that rare breed of intellectual blessed of a demonstrably humble appreciation of the accomplishments and wisdom of others. While he is not self-effacing – the book is, after all, part memoir – he is unafraid of giving credit where it is due, and does so repeatedly and unreservedly throughout the book.


While Kilcullen does sometimes have a habit of explaining jargon with yet more parenthetical jargon, The Accidential Guerrilla is otherwise a thorough assemblage of cognitive threads exlained in terms more deliciously literary than any of us have a right to expect of such a project. This is, I would argue, one of its principal strengths. Practitioner memoirs have come into vogue over the last fews years, many of them unsurprisingly partisan. Some seek to reveal the dark and byzantine innards of the power elite, or bear witness to the false steps and missed opportunities of the war on terror (a term Kilcullen isn’t participarly fond of). Some steer mercifully clear of attempts at self-vindication, but these tend to have been written by soldiers about their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than by the grizzled veterans of Washington knife fighting. A rare few, like Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, elevate the role of embedded outsider to a literary trope. Kilcullen’s book isn’t really any of these, and it is all of them. He is very much the soldier, albeit one reared in the service of another nation. He distances himself from the Bush administration, and is heavily critical of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but his politics have more to do with identifying constructive solutions to today’s problems than finger-pointing, recriminations, and casting about for scapegoats.


In the midst of all of this, the directness of Kilcullen’s observations are simultaneously a source of relief and worry. Lest any suggest that his training as an anthropologist has bred a degree of political correctness, for example, he writes of the “martial character of Pashtun tribes”:

…over the years the warlike nature of Afghans has become very evident to me, over the course of repeated activities and operations in Afghanistan between tours in Iraq and visits to other war zones. At the risk of reinforcing cultural stereotypes I would be remiss if I failed to record my observation that while the Iraqi insurgents I encountered like to win, and they certainly enjoyed killing people who could not hit back, they did not particularly like to fight. They didn’t exactly dislike fighting, and would do so willingly in protection of relatives or hope of plunder of or profit, but it was a rare Iraqi insurgent who loved the fight itself. The Afghan insurgents and former insurgents I have encountered do love to fight: they like to win, and are certainly not averse to killing, but what they really love is the fight, jang (battle), for its own sake.

Kilcullen draws a number of similarly evocative portraits, couched in seductive flourishes worthy of the best Victorian travelogues. More remarkable is the fact that anyone would have the courage (or be at liberty) to admit to them in such a public way, absent some sort of pronounced political affiliation. It’s possible that Kilcullen, the outsider, can get away with what a native Beltway Brahmin couldn’t; alas, his writing sits astride and outside (yet another) marked shift in thinking on intervention and foreign policy. Environmental determinism, like its corollary, ethnic essentialism, is quickly regaining some of the purchase it once had in geopolitics – symptomatic, Robert Kaplan recently argued, of a return to realism in international affairs. It is, Kaplan writes, “about reckoning and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action – culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization.” The clarity of Kilcullen’s voice lends itself well to such a view – never mind that he and Kaplan are both Senior Fellows at CNAS. He arives at this with a blend of military pragmatism and scholarly rigor that remains, intriguingly, aloof from the potentially corrosive temptations of either colonial past or imperial present.


Kaplan’s arguments about realism hinge on the suggestion that “of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.” This is an overstatement, in my opinion, of the ugliness of the proposition. Kilcullen, contra Kaplan, observes the world clearly and openly, his thick description of demography and geography at times both blunt and uncomfortable. It is, however, an essential part of a complex landscape, whi
ch simply can not be understood absent the details. Of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, for example, he allows that “terrain and the tribes drive 90 percent of what happens” – a pretty straightforward assertion that implies a fair degree of determinism. But he also offers a counterargument, inverting the orthodoxies about transnational networks that anchor them to destructive, cyberneticized neocartographies. Instead of fixating on the imputed threat of communities in which terrorists thrive or the places where they live, Kilcullen writes that we should treat them as subversive, exploitative actors, and work from there. This is the crux of his argument, and it is a bold statement in its own right. Its fixation on terrorist intent and capability redresses a remarkably obvious and glaring gap in how we’ve waged war since 2001, breaking free of the geographic templates against which human agency has been repeatedly smashed.


Still, there’s an immutable logic to the idea that tough terrain makes tough people. It serves an irresistable muse, too, drawing us in to the heady, vicarious atmospherics of danger, adventure and exotic travel. Describing “that great tangle of dust-colored ridges known as Safeh Koh,” where the people “are as harsh and handsome as their hills”, Kilcullen writes:

The terrain is barely believable: razor-backed ridges, precipitous goat tracks, near-vertical foot trails, deep ravines where the sun scorches the midday rock and you seem to struggle in a furnace, rivers that are gravel gullies nine months of the year and roaring torrents the other other three, winter passes deep in snow where vehicles bog, mountain winds slash your face, and pack animals sink to the belly. And yet there are lush river valleys with magnificent chenar trees, where the fertile green of crops and orchards and the sparkle of flowing water soothes the eyes. And there is a scent to the Frontier: a mixture of hot granite, dry grass, wood-smoke, and pine – an aromatic, dusty, sun-baked scent that never leaves you once you have smelled it.

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas – the FATA – are described as “the ancestral home of the accidental guerrilla and the place where the syndrome is visible in its purest and most classic form.” Here, Aussie cynicism is also at its best, pointing out the opaque political space where real and virtual worlds coincide, in the occultated form of a mystic, invisible enemy. “The majority of people who actually think in concrete terms about the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden,” Kilcullen scolds, “tend to describe him as hiding, ‘holed-up’, harried, fugitive, pinned down, in a hideout in the FATA and eking out a hunted existence in a cave.” As conventional as his views of sanctuary may be, Kilcullen’s thinking on geographic unknowns is also eminently sensible and grounded. He warns us that they can be as deceptive as they are harsh, and that refusing to admit “here there be dragons” in some parts of the world, or refusing to allow middle ground of any kind, has been a less than constructive approach to foreign policy. With great style, he writes – quite rightly – of a “Western popular imagination” captivated by “the ideologically satisfying notion of bin Laden and the senior AQ leadership as infernal troglodytes, plotting fanatically against the West from an underground lair like demons in a mythical netherworld.”


Ultimately, Kilcullen’s use of memoir works best, when, as DiGiovanni put it, “he becomes a military adventurer, a modern Fitzroy MacLean: wandering through volcanic jungles; or flying in a Blackhawk over northwest Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonates on the ground below, nearly plunging him to his death.” But The Accidental Guerrilla also disappoints somewhat when it segueways from Kilcullen’s personal recollections to more theoretically oriented treatises and surveys of academic literature. Not because they are dull or irrelevant (they’re not), or even because so much of it has been said before (which he admits), but because his story is such a uniquely charismatic one. The book is not easy because despite its brilliant prose and old school vignettes of life lived hard at the ends of the earth, Kilcullen short shrifts both reader and himself by using them as mere devices to leverage an equally important grand theory. They don’t tell the full tale, and one hopes that the story of this adventurer’s life will yet be revealed, in full.

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One thought on “The Occidental Guerrilla

  1. "Still, there’s an immutable logic to the idea that tough terrain makes tough people. "Not just logic, but evidence, facts, history. Clausewitz said: "The troops’ national feeling (enthusiasm, fanatical zeal, faith and general temper) is most apparent in mountain warfare, where every man, down to the individual soldier, is on his own. For this reason alone mountainous areas constitute the terrain best suited for action by an armed populace. "Geographic determinism has a large element of truth. It does not explain everything. But nothing does.

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