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Sources Holler Back: Kilcullen Edition

In the course of a piece I’m proud of about David Kilcullen’s forthcoming strategy-level counterinsurgency handbook, I included a profanity-laden quote from him about the wisdom of the Iraq war. This was a mistake on my part and I take full responsibility for the fact that it overshadowed what I consider Kilcullen’s valuable, serious, and hard-learned counterinsurgency insights.

On Small Wars Journal, Dave writes a clarification of his views on the war that I’d like to quote at length:

Spencer Ackerman, in yesterday’s Washington Independent, claims I told him the Iraq war was “f*cking stupid”. He did not seek to clear that quote with me, and I would not have approved it if he had. If he sought a formal comment, I would have told him what I have said publicly before: in my view, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was an extremely serious strategic error. But the task of the moment is not to cry over spilt milk, rather to help clean it up: a task in which the surge, the comprehensive counterinsurgency approach, and our troops on the ground are admirably succeeding. …

Like every other counterinsurgency professional, I warned against the war in 2002-3 on the grounds that it was likely to be extremely difficult, demand far more resources than our leaders seemed willing to commit, inflame world Muslim opinion making our counterterrorism tasks harder, and entail a significant opportunity cost in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This was hardly an original or brilliant insight. Nor was it particularly newsworthy: it was a view shared with the rest of my community, and you would be hard-pressed to find any professional counterinsurgent who thought the 2003/4 strategy was sensible.

The question of whether we were right to invade Iraq is a fascinating debate for historians and politicians, and a valid issue for the American people to consider in an election year. As it happens, I think it was a mistake. But that is not my key concern. The issue for practitioners in the field is not to second-guess a decision from six years ago, but to get on with the job at hand which, I believe, is what both Americans and Iraqis expect of us. In that respect, the new strategy and tactics implemented in 2007, and which relied for their effectiveness on the extra troop numbers of the Surge, succeeding and need to be supported. In 2006, a normal night in Baghdad involved 120 to 150 dead Iraqi civilians, and each month we lost dozens of Americans killed or maimed. This year, a bad night involves one or two dead civilians, losses are dramatically down, and security is restored. Therefore, even on the most conservative estimate, in the eighteen months of the surge to date we have saved 12 to 16 thousand Iraqis and hundreds of American lives. And we are now in a position to pursue a political strategy that will ultimately see Iraq stable, our forces withdrawn, and this whole sorry adventure tidied up to the maximum extent possible so that we can get on with the fight in other theaters – most pressingly, Afghanistan.

In the course of our conversation about his handbook, Dave made these and other points about the war, which are included lower down in the piece. I included the profanity because I thought it underscored the depth of his commitment to try to dig American strategy out of the morass of Iraq, which I and many others view as uncomplicatedly admirable. What I should have realized is that the profanity overwhelms the broader points presented in the handbook and about Dave’s personality and professional vision. For that, I apologize, not only to Dave, but to my readers, who I hope will pay attention to those broader points despite my error in judgment.

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