A Conversation With David Kilcullen

Interview by Carlos Lozada
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why is an Aussie anthropologist coaching American generals on how to win wars? David Kilcullen, an Australian army reservist and top adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus during the troop surge in Iraq, has spent years studying insurgencies in countries from Indonesia to Afghanistan, distinguishing hard-core terrorists from "accidental guerrillas" -- and his theories are revolutionizing military thinking throughout the West. Kilcullen spoke with Outlook's Carlos Lozada on why Pakistan is poised for collapse, whether catching Osama bin Laden is really a good idea and how the Enlightenment and Lawrence of Arabia helped Washington shift course in Iraq. Excerpts:

What is the real central front in the war on terror?

Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt.


Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don't follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems. . . . The collapse of Pakistan, al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover -- that would dwarf everything we've seen in the war on terror today.

How important is it to kill or capture Osama bin laden?

Not very. It depends on who does it. Let me give you two possible scenarios. Scenario one is, American commandos shoot their way into some valley in Pakistan and kill bin Laden. That doesn't end the war on terror; it makes bin Laden a martyr. But here's scenario two: Imagine that a tribal raiding party captures bin Laden, puts him on television and says, "You are a traitor to Islam and you have killed more Muslims than you have killed infidels, and we're now going to deal with you." They could either then try and execute the guy in accordance with their own laws or hand him over to the International Criminal Court. If that happened, that would be the end of the al-Qaeda myth.

President Obama has said that he will be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." Is his decision to remove combat forces by August 2010 and leave 50,000 non-combat troops careful or careless?

I think it is politically careful. The distinction between combat and non-combat forces in a counterinsurgency environment is largely theoretical. Anyone who is still in Iraq will actually or potentially be engaged in combat.

How much longer will the war last?

The intervention ends when the locals can handle it. Right now they can't. I think that within three to five years, we can say that the chance that the Iraqis will be able to hold their own against their internal threats is pretty high. So I'd say we have another three to five years of substantial engagement in Iraq. But one other factor here is external interference. What are the Iranians doing, what are the Saudis doing, what are the Jordanians and the Syrians doing? The Iraq part is not the problem, it's the regional security part that is the problem.

When history has its say, who will be the real father of the surge? Is it Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno, Fred Kagan? Someone else?

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