Friday, January 15, 2016

Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State: Quarterly Essay 58, by David Kilcullen

Staff review by Chris Saliba

David Kilcullen explains the blunders of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, but offers no real solution to the problems they created.

David Kilcullen is a well known counterinsurgency specialist who has worked with such big names as General David Petraeus and Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. An Australian national, he has written several books. Currently he runs his own big data analytics firm which models conflict environments.

In this Quarterly Essay, Blood Year, Kilcullen gives an overview of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. As a key adviser on counterinsurgency strategy, he confesses that "we" got things wrong, but doesn’t really explain any advice he may have regretted giving. Hence it’s hard to figure out what kind of an impact Kilcullen has really had on war policy, from this essay anyway. The tone throughout is of someone trying to catch up with events, rather than being in the middle of them as they unfold.

What the reader learns is that, in Kilcullen’s opinion, the decision to invade Iraq was an enormous blunder. That blunder was compounded when the US took over Iraq and implemented a  de-Baathification policy. This threw many police and military personnel out of work and paved the way for much bitterness. Eventually these sacked Iraqi military experts would join ISIS. President Obama didn’t do too much better when he took charge of the messes created in Iraq and Afghanistan. His desire to get out as quickly as possible was entirely unfeasible. An over reliance on drones showed weakness by taking the easier option, rather than sending in troops. In short, the invasion of Iraq pretty much created ISIS.

Kilcullen is quite candid in saying he doesn’t really know what the answer to this mess is. It’s something that can’t be unscrambled. However he maintains it is a new reality that Western governments must deal with. If we try to ignore the crisis, we will only have to face it at a later stage. He suggests that ISIS as it exists now can pretty much be considered a state and that it must be defeated as one. This calls for a much more aggressive military intervention, something he concedes would not be popular in Western electorates.

What this essay highlights is how the West is completely at a loss when it comes to dealing with ISIS. Kilcullen’s solution of a strong military intervention, of which even he remains unsure, is another roll of the dice. As in any war, its consequences, if implemented, would be impossible to anticipate. While there is much to recommend in this interesting essay, I’d heartily suggest reading British journalist Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul for a richer examination of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State: Quarterly Essay 58, by David Kilcullen. Published by Black Inc. 9781863957328 RRP: $22.99

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