News & Politics

The Insider: David Kilcullen

The Crumpton Group's David Kilcullen, in his own words.

Kilcullen says we need new ideas in responding to terrorist threats. Photograph by Chris Leaman

An anthropologist by training, David Kilcullen is a combination of boots-on-the-ground soldier and ivory-tower thinker. He’s served in hot spots from East Timor to Afghanistan while doing fieldwork for a doctoral dissertation on counterinsurgency strategy. On loan to the United States from the Australian military, he worked with General David Petraeus in Iraq, Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, and US officials around the world. The recent book that grew out of his thinking and experiences, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, became a bestseller. He has now joined the Washington-based Crumpton Group, where he advises policymakers and military leaders.

In his own words:

“ I was very critical of the war in Iraq in 2002, saying we shouldn’t be doing this. Once they decided to go ahead and do it, I felt it my duty as a military guy to help do it in the best possible way—minimize the damage, as it were.

Over time, in the military, the State Department, Capitol Hill, there was a group of us thinking of the whole “war on terror” as a counterinsurgency mission. We gravitated toward each other. There was a bit of schadenfreude in the military establishment when David Petraeus was given control in Iraq: Okay, you guys with your counterinsurgency movement think you’re so smart—you have a go.

People were expecting him to fail, and there wouldn’t have been a lot of tears shed if he had. Instead it succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Well-to-do people in big cities in the Western world—the readers of The Washingtonian—tend to generally see globalization as a good thing. Yet in many places in the world, it’s a big threat to identity, the traditional way of life, the economy, and religious identity.

You have this very small radical clique—the most prominent of which is al Qaeda—that has an offensive intent.

Accidental guerrillas, meanwhile, are people who are fighting us not because they seek our destruction but because we turned up in their valley or their village, and so they’re defending their own cultural territory.

When you look back on the period from about 1945 to 1980, while we had many wars that appeared different at the time, we can now look back and see a pattern of wars of decolonization. Today we may look back on this period as a period of wars of globalization. 

“Al Qaeda are bad guys. This is a war. There is no way to do this without killing some people. You’ve got to kill the right people—and only the right people—and make sure that while doing that you’re not creating more of them.

The way terrorists damage societies is through an autoimmune response. It’s like the AIDS virus. The body destroys itself.

Insurgents don’t defeat armies in the field. The British Army won in Palestine but lost in the UK. The French Army won in Algeria but lost in France. The American Army won in Vietnam but lost at Kent State and in San Francisco. Insurgents defeat regular armies because the political leadership at home gets tired and gives up. That’s the strategy of al Qaeda.

“The reason we reacted to this as a military problem is that our military is so much larger and more powerful than our other organs of government. The State Department is 210 times smaller than the Pentagon.

Large-scale intervention is not the response going forward. We need to get out of that business.

We need to expand the Foreign Service and the Agency for International Development and then develop some new capabilities. I do think the CIA probably needs to be a little larger, and it certainly needs greater political support in doing an extremely tough job. In the post-conflict-stabilization arena, we need to have a “US Field Service” that could go do the tasks like those done by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams—sort of an international version of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I love being in Washington. It has such a vibrantly beating intellectual heart. Every day and every night, you could be out at some mind-opening event.

When I first arrived here, I felt I was with the US government but not of the US government. Now that I’ve fought alongside the US military and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel almost more American than Australian. There’s a comradeship that comes from being in these places together. And I certainly feel like a Washingtonian.

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.   

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