The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One
By David Kilcullen
Oxford, 346 pages, $27.95
Contemporary counterinsurgency theory is the sabermetrics of war-making. The method of baseball analysis made famous in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball relies on counterintuitive insights that are actually grounded in common sense. For example, when rating players, everyone used to discount on-base percentage (which does not distinguish between hits and walks) in favor of batting average (measuring just hits)—after all, getting walked doesn’t seem particularly impressive. But ever since sabermetricians pointed out that, from a team’s perspective, a walk is little different than a single, everyone knows OBP is the more useful stat.
Likewise, counterinsurgency (or COIN) theory disregards what may sound right in favor of what actually works. So where war used to be about shooting the bad guys before they shot you, for leading COIN theorist David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla, “Killing or capturing terrorists is a strictly secondary activity.” Generally, says Mr. Kilcullen, the United States ought to wage its war on terror not by targeting the enemy directly but by using all means, military and civilian, to protect indigenous locals from the enemy living among them, thereby drawing the locals to our side. Ask not how many Iraqis you killed; ask, as Gen. David Petraeus famously would, “What have you done for the people of Iraq today?” Just as every Major League team now crunches sabermetric numbers, the ascent of COIN is a true revolution in military affairs.
The most prominent counterinsurgent is General Petraeus himself, a bona fide intellectual who now commands all U.S. troops in the Middle East and Central Asia. As General Petraeus prepared to implement the “surge” in Iraq in 2007, he tapped Mr. Kilcullen, an infantryman on loan from the Australian army, as his senior counterinsurgency adviser. “Kilcullen’s influence on how the U.S. military thought about counterinsurgency campaigning cannot be overstated,” journalist Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Gamble, his authoritative history of the surge.
Now, as the COIN community gets the band back together for an Afghanistan tour, this book provides a valuable insider’s account of the assumptions and methods they will bring to that nasty mess. Much of it is highly technical and almost seems designed to ensure that the reader takes the Ph.D. Kilcullen—who, though over 40, is apple-cheeked and boyishly blond—seriously. But embedded among the repetitive truisms and bromides is an exciting, well-informed, brilliant Big Idea book, whose individual case studies—Iraq and Afghanistan, East Timor and Western Europe—make for interesting reading in and of themselves. In other words, liberal skimming is recommended, but so is The Accidental Guerilla.
LIKE OTHER GOOD Big Idea books, the title is the Idea. The “accidental guerilla,” while likely a traditional Muslim, didn’t have a particular beef with America until America (or an American client) attacked his area in retaliation for some atrocity committed by terrorists who also live there. Now he’s our accidental enemy—after all, we were not targeting him, we were targeting his Al Qaeda neighbors. (Of course, his Al Qaeda neighbors attacked us precisely in order to provoke our counterstrike. That’s the group’s MO.) The good news is that the accidental guerilla’s commitment is not ideological or absolute, so he can be co-opted. Which is why, in COIN, “the population is the prize, and protecting and controlling it is the key activity.”
The Iraq chapter forms the book’s heart, as it should: The U.S. military’s drastic reduction of instability there is as near a realization of Mr. Kilcullen’s theories as you’ll find. Mr. Kilcullen reminds us that the literal surge—the 30,000-troop boost—was always just a means to the indelibly COIN end of population protection.
Additionally, 2007’s “Anbar Awakening”—in which Iraq’s Sunni tribes, alienated by the jihadists’ puritanism and insistence on marrying into the society, turned on them and effectively joined our side—represents the immaculate converse to Mr. Kilcullen’s paradigm: It’s what happens when Al Qaeda’s MO fails.
Throughout The Accidental Guerrilla, Mr. Kilcullen adroitly treats the nebulous war on terror as one big COIN campaign against Al Qaeda’s “transnational globalized insurgency.” His chief advice? No more Iraqs: The U.S. invasion could not have more perfectly played into Al Qaeda’s hand—it was precisely the type of adverse event that persuades on-the-fence locals to become accidental guerillas.
However, Mr. Kilcullen also opposes “precipitate withdrawal.” Agree or disagree, his ability to hold this position despite strong opposition to the war itself is further evidence of Mr. Kilcullen’s relentless empiricism, his total devotion to the facts on the ground. George W. Bush may have set in motion what became Mr. Kilcullen’s greatest triumph, the surge, but Mr. Bush’s reality-based successor is much more Mr. Kilcullen’s kindred spirit. Except for the small band of true, irreconcilable assholes who really do want to kill us all, the whole world is better off for that.
Marc Tracy is a New York-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.