Inside Story

An “ordinary guy” in extraordinary times

Books | David Kilcullen helps us make sense of the madness unleashed by Islamic State, writes Tom Hyland. But he’s less convincing about what we should do next

Tom Hyland 1 April 2016 1766 words

Squandered gains? Barack Obama speaks to American troops during his April 2009 visit to Camp Victory, Iraq. Pete Souza/White House

Blood Year: Islamic State and the failures of the War on Terror
David Kilcullen | Black Inc. | $29.99

David Kilcullen reckons he’s an “ordinary guy,” but his CV suggests otherwise.

He was an adviser to US general David Petraeus and helped design the “Surge” in Iraq. He worked for US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, served as a strategist in the US State Department, and has advised, among others, the British and Australian governments. He founded a Washington DC–based consultancy that specialises in complex and frontier environments. As an Australian army officer, he served in East Timor in 1999, where he played a central role in a fatal cross-border exchange of fire with Indonesian forces that could have got much worse had he not helped defuse it. He has a PhD in guerilla warfare. Blood Year is his fourth book.

But if he’s not really an ordinary guy, he has written an informed account that’s accessible to any ordinary citizen who hasn’t paid close attention and wants to know what’s gone wrong in the fifteen years since the United States launched the War on Terror.

His focus is on the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria during the bloody year that started in mid 2014. Despite his professional background and front-row seat in some of the events he describes, he insists Blood Year is a personal account of “an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary events.” He seeks to explain not only why the War on Terror has failed, but also “where ISIS came from, what it all means, and what happens next.”

The War on Terror began well, or so it seemed back in 2001, with the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Then it went off course, diverted by George W. Bush’s folly in invading Iraq in 2003, which, after the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein’s forces, descended into a debacle. The invasion, Kilcullen concludes, was “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia.”

This is familiar territory for anyone who’s taken more than fleeting notice of the news from the Middle East, but it’s worth traversing again. Kilcullen tells it with a punchy, crisp and engaging style and the bare minimum of military jargon, informed by a perspective that comes from having witnessed the screw-up.

He is scathing in his assessment of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice-president Dick Cheney, who ignored the need for post-invasion planning. As a result of their ignorance, hubris and complacency, things went downhill from the start. Iraq’s elites squabbled, resistance festered, sectarian slaughter ripped the country apart. Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged from the ruins and added to the mayhem, and a war-weary Washington soon looked for a way out. And when al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into ISIS, things got even worse.

All of this, Kilcullen says, was not merely predictable, it was predicted – by military, intelligence and academic analysts whose advice was ignored by the Bush White House and the coterie around Rumsfeld and Cheney.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Kilcullen tries to spread it evenly. Yet having blamed Bush for the biggest strategic blunder since 1941 – for leading the West into the wrong war in the wrong country with disastrous results – he also praises his leadership of the 2007 Surge.

But while he tries to give a balanced account of Bush, he makes no allowances for the political realities confronting his successor, Barack Obama. Bush had committed to withdrawing US troops from Iraq, and Obama had been elected on a promise to extricate his war-weary nation from the war. In both cases, military strategy was not drafted in isolation from these political realities.

Kilcullen doesn’t resolve the tension between an ideal strategy and the political facts, and this failure leads to basic flaws in his outline of what should come next in the War on Terror.

He is particularly scathing of Obama’s performance after he took office in January 2009, faulting him for squandering the gains made during the Surge, and for conflating leaving Iraq with ending the war. He faults him again over his failure to act in 2012 when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemicals weapons, crossing one of Obama’s “red lines.” Kilcullen likens Obama’s failure to act against Assad to Bush’s decision to act against Saddam Hussein: “Where President Bush was reckless, President Obama seemed feckless, and it was hard to know which was worse.”

Kilcullen’s best insights and most compelling writing are in his sweeping account of the rise of ISIS and its eventual dominance of the Iraqi battlefield. His sparse style and grasp of detail help make sense of the madness ISIS unleashed.

Born of the bloody mess created by the US invasion of Iraq, ISIS had its origins as a Sunni extremist group that fought American forces while simultaneously seeking to foment a sectarian civil war. It was more or less destroyed after Sunni tribes partnered with Americans during the Surge, according to Kilcullen. Yet it managed to re-emerge, this time under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, showing its ability to morph and adapt.

When the Americans left, ISIS fed on the resistance to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shiite agenda, emerging from the shadows to wage a conventional war of rapid manoeuvre, fighting like a state. In the face of the ISIS blitzkrieg, Maliki’s army “collapsed like a rotten outhouse.”

In its May 2015 assault on Ramadi, ISIS used tactics that were simultaneously intelligent, precise, determined and relentlessly savage. “No wonder [the Iraqi] troops broke,” Kilcullen writes, “almost any troops in the world would have done so.” (When Ramadi fell, by the way, Australian army advisers were less than sixty miles away, where Australian voters had been assured they were safely “behind the wire.”)

The collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014–15 wasn’t just a military defeat, Kilcullen writes, “it was the collapse of the entire post-Saddam social and political order.” It represented not only a failure of Iraq’s leadership, but also US complacency and the failure of the West’s military and police assistance to produce Iraqi forces capable of defeating a terrorist threat.

In areas ISIS controlled – and by mid 2015 it accounted for half the territory and people of Iraq and Syria – it imposed its savage rule through a combination of slaughter and civil works, or “exemplary violence then essential services,” as Kilcullen puts it.

In these passages, Blood Year is compelling reading. Yet when it comes to the strategy Kilcullen proposes, a truly ordinary guy might find frustrating contradictions in his suggested approach to a devilishly complex conflict.

Kilcullen accuses Obama of dithering in the face of the initial ISIS offensive. At the same time, he says the Pentagon moved fast in response to the disaster. American troops returned in small numbers, special operations advisers helped the Iraqis plan and train, and US aircraft went into action. On whose orders, one wonders?

In Kilcullen’s eyes, the White House was in disarray. But another way of looking at it suggests that perhaps Obama was adopting a cautious, incremental, prudent and nuanced approach, constrained by the lessons of recent history and his own political reality. Given his predecessor’s calamitous performance, it’s not surprising that Obama reportedly regards the first task of a US president in the post-Bush international arena to be “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Kilcullen condemns the political “timidity” of western capitals, reluctant to take on ISIS and commit combat forces. Yet which Western leader had the domestic political capital then or now to expend on such a decision? Tony Abbott, who apparently had the inclination but didn’t follow through? Or would Britain be willing to retake the field after its disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan?

And what is a truly ordinary guy to make of Kilcullen’s call for a full-scale conventional campaign to destroy ISIS, one that would require only a “moderately large number of ground troops”? How many is a moderately large number, and who would provide them?

He suggests the campaign be backed by projects similar to the US Lend-Lease program and the Marshall Plan, which supported allies and rebuilt Europe during and after the second world war. Who would fund these programs? The logical answer is the United States, but could it afford it and, more importantly, would the American people allow it?

The strategy would require the West’s Middle East partners to improve their governance and human rights standards, something they haven’t shown they’re capable of. Kilcullen is not blind to the challenge. He concedes that if Iraqi governments won’t change, and continue to treat Sunnis with disdain, then even if every ISIS fighter disappeared overnight “a new ISIS would simply emerge in another year or so.”

To his credit, Kilcullen quotes counterterrorism strategist Audrey Cronin, an American academic and, like Kilcullen, an adviser to US governments, who argues that a full-on conventional war against ISIS “would be folly.”

“After experiencing more than a decade of continuous war, the American public simply would not support the long-term occupation and intense fighting that would be required to obliterate ISIS,” Cronin argues. “The pursuit of a full-fledged military campaign would exhaust US resources and offer little hope of obtaining the objective. Wars pursued at odds with political reality cannot be won.”

Kilcullen acknowledges the force of this argument, yet fails to counter it. Instead, we’re left with the feeling that he’s frustrated by the failure of political facts to bend to strategic theory.

Even so, an ordinary citizen shocked by recent events in Brussels and Lahore might still accept Kilcullen’s melancholy and sobering conclusion about what’s ahead of us.

“This conflict will not be going away anytime soon, and it certainly won’t end quickly or cleanly,” he writes. “On the contrary: this is, and will be, a multigenerational struggle against an implacable enemy, and the violence we’re dealing with in the Middle East and Africa is not some unfortunate aberration – it’s the new normal.” •