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A Counterinsurgency Guide for Politicos

This story is the eighth in a series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents. After nearly seven years of costly strategic ignorance in the U.S. wars in Iraq

Daniel James
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Jul 28, 2008

David Kilcullen (left) asks a question of Lt. Col. Michael Infanti. (army.mil)
David Kilcullen (left) asks a question of Lt. Col. Michael Infanti. (army.mil)

*This story is the eighth in a series: **The Rise of the Counterinsurgents. *

After nearly seven years of costly strategic ignorance in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a coming handbook written mostly by a former top aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus seeks to instruct senior civilian policy-makers about the complexities of counterinsurgency.

“Counterinsurgency: A Guide for Policy-Makers” takes the lessons learned by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and elevates them to the highest levels of national strategy. Counterinsurgency is defined in the text as “the politico-military techniques developed to neutralize… armed rebellion against constituted authority.” The handbook is due to be published in November or December. A copy of its most recent draft was obtained by The Washington Independent.

The handbook seeks to provide a framework for considering whether Washington should intervene in foreign countries’ counterinsurgency operations, raising difficult questions about whether such nations deserve U.S. support; under what conditions that support should occur, and whether success is possible at acceptable cost. No systematic approach to strategic-level questions in counterinsurgency currently exists for senior U.S. government officials.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Asked for comment, the handbook’s chief author, David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who is now an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, explained that it tells policy-makers to “think very, very carefully before intervening.” More bluntly, Kilcullen, who helped Petraeus design his 2007 counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, called the decision to invade Iraq “stupid” — in fact, he said “fucking stupid” ** — and suggested that if policy-makers apply the manual’s lessons, similar wars can be avoided in the future.

“The biggest stupid idea,” Kilcullen said, “was to invade Iraq in the first place.”

Kilcullen explained that the handbook will not apply to future operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. “We try not to forge doctrine around an example,” he said. Instead, it frames questions about supporting counterinsurgencies in partner or potential-partner countries through the prisms of national interest; graduated levels of commitment, and cost/benefit analysis. It offers numerous warnings about how arduous counterinsurgency is. In a paragraph about the “characteristics” of counterinsurgency, Kilcullen bolds the words “complex,” “violent,” “difficult,” “controversial,” “ambiguous,” “long-duration” and “high-cost.”

The handbook instructs policy-makers about the necessity of using all elements of national power — not just military force, but also diplomacy, development aid, the rule of law, academic disciplines and other specialties often considered peripheral to warfighting — to triumph in counterinsurgency. Victory, as well, is defined as support for a foreign nation’s ability to successfully govern, rather than a decisive U.S. military effort.

“No amount of competence, know-how or dedication on the part of an intervening country can compensate for lack of determination by the government affected by the insurgency,” the draft reads. “Thus, the primary focus for USG [U.S. government] or international agencies engaging in COIN [counterinsurgency] is often the building of governmental capacity within a host government, rather than directly killing or capturing insurgents.”

The biggest stupid idea was to invade Iraq in the first place.

There are lessons in the handbook that the U.S. government has clearly been reluctant to adopt. It explicitly instructs policy-makers to “co-opt” insurgents whenever possible — something that the Bush administration’s rhetoric about the “evils” of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents makes problematic.”The purpose of COIN,” the handbook says, “is to build popular support for a government while suppressing or co-opting an insurgent movement.”

Kilcullen added that negotiations are a two-way street in counterinsurgency. “A government that offers [insurgents] no concessions [will] usually lose,” he said, but “an insurgency that offers no concessions will usually lose.” Another piece of advice — one that resonates in the wake of the administration’s torture scandals — simply reads, “Respect People.”

Similarly, the handbook attempts to integrate civilian and military agencies into a concerted strategy — something the Bush administration has been unable to substantively accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan. “COIN planning should integrate civilian and military capabilities across each of the four COIN strategy functions of security, politics, economics and information,” it reads.

The handbook urges that military and civilian efforts in counterinsurgency be launched simultaneously. “Economic and political progress is not dependent upon a completely secure environment, nor does the ability to provide adequate security depend entirely upon on political and economic progress,” the draft reads. “Establishing security is not a precursor to economic and governance activity: rather, security, economic and political efforts must be developed simultaneously in parallel.” Accordingly, the handbook is a joint effort of the Depts. of State, Defense, Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development, with input from other bureaus, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

Unlike the 2006 Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual. written principally by Petraeus and Marine Gen. James Mattis, this new handbook is not intended to be a guide for counterinsurgency practitioners, but rather to give Cabinet-level officials and their staffs a framework for viewing questions of intervention in combatting insurgencies. Kilcullen says his envisioned ideal reader is a “Wolfowitz, a Meghan O’Sullivan, a Paul Bremer,” he said, referring to the former deputy secretary of defense; the National Security Council’s longtime chief Iraq staffer, and the former viceroy of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Perhaps the most important conceptual advice the handbook offers is a distinction between intervention and counterinsurgency. Assessing that the U.S. will not face a domestic insurgency in the near future, it considers U.S. counterinsurgency efforts a matter of deciding to support a foreign government against an internal enemy — and therefore confronts the question of when to get involved.

“It is folly to intervene in a counterinsurgency in a foreign country,” the draft reads, “unless there is a reasonable likelihood that the affected government will cooperate with the international community in introducing necessary reforms and demonstrate adequate willpower and capacity to defeat insurgents, or at least the willingness to accept advice as well as assistance. … Intervening to support an oppressive, authoritarian or abusive government against an insurgency is extremely problematic, not only from an ethical standpoint but also in terms of the practical likelihood of success.”

From there, the handbook explores an array of options for intervention in counterinsurgency — everything from bolstering U.S. embassy staff in an insurgency-plagued country to a full-blown U.S. military engagement.

It is folly to intervene in a counterinsurgency in a foreign country, unless there is a reasonable likelihood that the affected government will cooperate with the international community…

One of the lead drafters of the Army/Marine counterinsurgency field manual, known as FM 3-24, praised the “Counterinsurgency: A Guide for Policy-Makers” as a welcome supplement. “When we did 3-24, we couldn’t put in guidelines for policy-makers, because that was not our purview,” said Conrad Crane of the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. “This document that Dave’s working on, it really brings home the cost/benefit analysis contemplated in these kind of interventions. It will cause policy-makers to be realistic planning these operations, and anything that helps inform decision-makers can’t be a bad thing.”

Kilcullen, 40, considered one of the brightest lights in the counterinsurgency community, is uniquely positioned to write the handbook. He studied counterinsurgency from his days as a cadet in the Australian service academy Duntroon, paying particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Indonesia’s decades-long battles with various insurgent groups. Kilcullen practiced counterinsurgency in East Timor, where he both trained and occasionally fought against the Indonesian special forces, which gave him a visceral understanding of the vagueries of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen’s military career also took him to Papua New Guinea, Cyprus, Bougainville and Lebanon, as part of United Nations peacekeeping forces in the 1990s.

George Packer documented in a 2006 New Yorker profile that, Kilcullen’s writings and lectures on counterinsurgency garnered Wolfowitz’s attention in 2004; and Kilcullen contributed to the 2005 iteration of the Pentagon policy-priorities document known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. That spring, at a conference sponsored by the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Kilcullen met Hank Crumpton, who ran post-9/11 CIA operations in Afghanistan before becoming the State Dept.’s counterterrorism coordinator. “We compared notes and became fast friends,” said Crumpton, who left government service last year.

Crumpton made Kilcullen part of his staff, as the chief counterterrorism strategist. The two created the Regional Strategic Initiative, an attempt to “employ all elements of statecraft” in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Crumpton said. Additionally, Crumpton sent Kilcullen around the world to learn best practices in counterinsurgency and counter terrorism. “He was very active when he worked for me,” Crumpton remembered. “He went all over — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Iraq. He and I traveled together, I think, everywhere but Latin America.”

In his travels, Kilcullen developed an ability to view an insurgency the way that foreign civilians and even insurgents view it. Akbar Ahmed, a former administrator in the turbulent Pakistani provinces of Waziristan and Baluchistan, remembered the first time he met Kilcullen, in 2005. “I was invited to brief very high-level State Dept. officials on the Muslim Middle East situation,” said Ahmed, who currently teaches Islamic Studies at American University. “I remember feeling somewat frustrated. I said, you guys are playing baseball, but those guys [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] are playing cricket. It’s a different game. It has different rules, different objectives, a different idiom, different strategy. And unless you are very quick to change strategy, you’ll be in trouble.

“I remember I was not getting a response,” he continued, “just blank looks. But then one of the guys in the room, with an Australian accent, said ‘I play cricket! I understand!’”

That understanding informed the effort behind the handbook, which began in 2006 after a counterinsurgency conference organized by Janine Davidson, then a Pentagon counterinsurgency official. The conference yielded an interagency COIN initiative between State, Defense, USAID and Justice to create civilian counterparts to the Army/Marine counterinsurgency field manual. (At Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., an Army major named John Klug is working on a civilian COIN practitioners’ field manual.)

Out of the State Dept.’s political-military directorate, an energetic group including State officials Carlos Bergos, Donna Hopkins and Tom Cooney contributed significantly to early versions of the handbook. Indeed, Kilcullen took a leave of absence from writing it, for an unexpected return to practicing counterinsurgency. “As I was leaving [the State Dept.], I got a call from David Petraeus,” remembered Crumpton. “He wanted Dave [Kilcullen] in Iraq. I thought it was a great idea, so he went downrange.”

Arriving in Baghdad in early 2007, Kilcullen advised Petraeus on applying counterinsurgency strategy to a chaotic situation in Iraq. “We tended, in the early days, to act as if Iraq was what we wanted,” Kilcullen said of the early years of the Iraq war. “We’d walk in and say ‘we’re in charge. In 2007 that stopped. We said, ‘You guys are in charge.’ You know, ‘Take me to your leaders.’ … We treated the landscape as we found it.”

Despite being treated by some on the left as a warmonger — Tom Hayden, for example, has written several attacks on Kilcullen — Kilcullen was an opponent of the Iraq war. “My main motivation in going to Iraq was to end the war,” he said. “Not to get out, I mean to end the war. … Not to leave halfway through, where we’d have no moral authority left.” He estimates that Petraeus’ change in strategy diminished violence in Iraq to the point of saving 12,000 to 15,000 Iraqi lives. “We got the knife-blade off the necks of the Iraqis,” he said.

Yet that effort was an attempt at mitigating a war that had already become disastrous. His current effort with “Counterinsurgency: A Guide For Policy-Makers” means to prevent future such disasters from occurring. “With the manual, you wouldn’t get there from here,” he said, meaning Iraq. The war was, in Kilcullen’s view, “stupid.”

Crane, of the Army War College, worried that the handbook’s scheduled publication — sometime after the November election — might make it a casualty of an unpopular and lame-duck Bush administration. “The dilemma that the writers are gonna have is: do you make it the last gasp of an outgoing administration — or the first policy shot of a new administration?” he said.

Like Crane, Crumpton applauds his former aide’s coming handbook. “It’s a way of educating a lot of people, not just practitioners, on a whole range of instruments of national power, and how these instruments can be brought to bear,” Crumpton said. “It’s an important document, but it’s not going to be the Bible…. It’ll be a great reference point today, but it will have to continue changing as warfare changes.”

Not that Kilcullen wants the handbook — which, he envisions, will require frequent updates — to be viewed as a counterinsurgency bible. Quoting a line from Monty Python’s movie,”The Life of Brian,” he said, “I’m not the messiah, just a very naughty boy.”

***Quote Clarification: David Kilcullen responds here, saying he would not have approved the quote had approval been sought. *

This story is the eighth in a Series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents.

Part One: The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’

Part Two: A Famous Enigma

Part Three: Petraeus’ Ascension

Part Four: The Insurgent as Counterinsurgent

Part Five: King David

Part Six: Civilians Missing From Action

Part Seven: Women Prominent in Counterinsurgency Movement

Daniel James | Daniel James is an author, keynote speaker, and entrepreneur who is a professional coach and gerontologist. Daniel holds a bachelor's degree from Georgia Tech, a master's degree from UCLA, a diploma in gerontology from the University of Boston, as well as a Professional Coaching Certification.

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