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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.

Why?

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?

It's Petraeus. If this thing had [expletive] up, everyone would be blaming Petraeus. You wouldn't find Keane and Odierno and Kagan and President Bush and everyone else stepping forward. So I think the true father of the thing was and is Petraeus.

You argue in your book, "The Accidental Guerrilla," that if Petraeus had been killed in Iraq, the impact on morale alone could have lost the war. Do you fault President Bush for feeding the cult of Petraeus?

Our biggest problem during the surge was a hostile American Congress. They could have killed the thing. There was really nobody except [Senators] McCain and Lieberman arguing for a continued commitment. So I don't fault President Bush for pushing General Petraeus forward. I think what he was trying to do was to find a figure with sufficient credibility to restore hope within Congress and to gain a measure of support for the effort from the U.S. domestic population.

What are the lessons of Iraq that most apply to Afghanistan?

I would say there are three. The first one is you've got to protect the population. Unless you make people feel safe, they won't be willing to engage in unarmed politics. The second lesson is, once you've made people safe, you've got to focus on getting the population on your side and making them self-defending. And then a third lesson is, you've got to make a long-term commitment.

Obama has suggested that it might be possible to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, along the lines of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq. Would that work?

If the Taliban sees that we're negotiating for a stay of execution or to stave off defeat, that's going to harden their resolve. . . . I'm all for negotiating, but I think the chances of achieving a mass wave of people turning against the Taliban are somewhat lower in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq.

Did the U.S. military take too long to change course in Iraq?

I think it took them a historically standard period of time. In Vietnam it took three to four years to reorient. In Malaya the British took about the same amount of time. In Northern Ireland they took longer. The British in Iraq took longer than the Americans in Iraq. And again, it was Petraeus. . . . He put forward this whole change movement within the military. We were almost like insurgents within the U.S. government. My marker of success is that when I first arrived, we had to talk in whispers about stuff that is now considered commonplace. The conventional wisdom now was totally unorthodox in '04, '05.

Does having a medieval scholar as a father affect how you see war?

My father is a true believer in the Enlightenment. He always encouraged me to develop an evidence-based approach to whatever you do. But the other thing is, when I was 10 years old, my dad gave me a copy of a book by Robert Graves called "Good-Bye to All That," which is about the first World War. That was where I first encountered T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. And as a child I was steeped in Lawrence's way of thinking about tribes. In tribal warfare you don't go directly to your objectives, you work through a ladder of tribes. You go from one tribe to the next tribe to the next tribe to get to your objective. That's what we tried to do in Iraq.

In 2006 you wrote an essay on counterinsurgency called "28 Articles," one-upping Lawrence's "27 Articles." Do you consider yourself a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia?

No. I don't think there is a modern equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia. But we can all learn from his thinking about insurgency. The other thing about Lawrence is he understood and worked with the cultures that he dealt with, and he spent the rest of his life advocating policies to support the welfare of those people. He was one the biggest advocates of Arab independence, even when his own nation's policies were against that.

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