Kilkullen, Luttwak and why the troops should leave Iraq

When President Bush announced his “surge” strategy for Iraq in January, he replaced General Casey, the last in the conga-line of Rumsfeld yes-men, with perhaps the sharpest General in the whole Iraq campaign, General David Petreus. Gen. Petreus is described as a warrior intellectual by the US military, and in taking on the daunting Iraq project, he assembled a team of unique advisors to assist in changing the paradigm in combating the insurgency.

Members include a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders. 

That quirky Australian anthropologist is Australian Colonel, David Kilcullen.  Killcullen had been highly critical of the approach in Iraq, and had published a paper now famously known as the Twenty Eight Articles.  Which is, in effect, a ‘How-To’ manual for counterinsurgency tactics in the field.  It’s a fascinating read, and not surprisingly  it grabbed the attention of General Petreus, who appointed Kilkullen as head of counterinsurgency in Iraq. 

Amazingly Kilkullen posts occasionally on a blog called the Small Wars Journal, where he engages in dialogue about the tactics and realities of the situation in Iraq, and no matter what you think of Iraq, it is clear that Kilkullen and Co. are dedicated professionals, applying some pretty shrewd observations on human nature to their almost impossible task. 

Last week the ABC’s Background Briefing ran a typically excellent program that gives a fascinating insight into the interplay between the Iraqi insurgency, the coalition forces and the use of new media, especially the internet.  The insurgency, some say, is using the new media more effectively than the coalition. The use of blogs and video material tailored to local appeal with souk music, and floral arrangements, that stand in stark contrast to the Western style. Violent content aside – the insurgency has got the cultural inside running.  Kilkullen’s regular spot on Small Wars Journal is a deliberate strategic response to the insurgency’s effectiveness with the new media but targeted to a different audience.  It is an attempt to have cogent, well argued, and rapid rebuttals to inaccurate or damaging articles appearing in the global media.  

A striking example of this effect, which reflects today’s fundamental Iraq debate Should we stay or should we go? is the response to neoconservative, Edward Luttwak, who once wrote Give War a Chance and in a Harpers Magazine article published in February, called the tactics being employed by Petreus a kind of malpractice.  Luttwak describes the problem and why he believes the coalition response will not work

when you have an insurgency and insurgents out-terrorise you, because you cannot engage in mass terror, then there’s no way you can win. 

Luttwak, a scholar of the strategies of the Roman Empire, argues that an empire would be able to win in this situation because it would have no qualms about brutalising the civilian population.  He says that an insurgency, in a position to coerce the locals to hide and protect them under threat of violent reprisal, will always have the advantage over an occupying force that refuses to play the same game. Luttwack’s logic then is the coalition must leave Iraq, now. For the coalition will never be willing to mete out the necessary brutality, and without that it will fail. So better to leave now and save coalition lives than lose more blood and treasure.

The answer is go home, and if this means that they can gather and plot terrorism against you and once they become visible, once you are not there and they start walking around acting openly, bomb them. We bombed Gaddafi and his behaviour improved notably 

Killcullen responded to Luttwak a few days ago. In fact the exact day that the ABC background briefing piece went to air.  Quite possibly the SWJ crew, who had been interviewed by the ABC were keeping tabs on what went to air, and deemed that the Luttwak views needed a return serve. 

Kilcullen’s response is unfailingly polite, as you would expect from a professional, but the little jabs are noticeable. 

He is not a specialist in counterinsurgency, but his opinions carry much weight and we should all welcome his recent foray into the field 

I am unsure when Dr Luttwak was last in Afghanistan, so he may have more recent information than me. 

Kilcullen explains entirely convincingly that the brutal approach used by empires past were never successful in the long run.  And also gives some fantastic insights into the complex and fluid social dynamics in Iraq. Nuance of a type that somehow never quite makes it into Prime Ministerial statements or The Daily Telegraph for example. Here’s a nice example showing Kilcullen’s reply to one of Luttwak’s tabloid moments.

Dr Luttwak argues that the vast majority of Afghans and Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers, illiterates or at best semi-illiterate, naturally believe their religious leaders (who, Dr Luttwak suggests, incite violence with claims that America seeks to destroy Islam and control oil resources). Again, this is at variance with field observation. In fact, neither Iraqis nor Afghans are particularly assiduous mosque-goers. And religious figures are prominent on all sides of both conflicts, in moderate and extreme political groups; there is an extremely wide range of clerical opinion, ranging from quietism through support for democratic government, to extremism. More fundamentally, in these societies, religious faith is not a function of ignorance and credulity, as Dr Luttwak implies, but a widespread cultural norm that infuses all social classes, political orientations and education levels.

Killcullen is clearly a bright fellow, and he rebuts Luttwak effectively. However, one point he hasn’t adequately addressed.  Perhaps because Luttwak doesn’t state it clearly in the Harper’s article,  but he certainly does on the ABC

The answer is go home 

Kilcullen pulls apart Luttwak’s coarse and typically vulgar neoconservative logic, which leads to the conclusion that the forces should leave, but does that mean that Luttwak’s, conclusion (that we should leave now) is wrong?  I think not.  For me a commenter to Kilcullen’s post hits on something far closer to the truth, and comes far closer to the real reason why we should leave. 

All systems have inherent energy and this energy is a product of the elements, relationships, issues and forces in play inside the system. If a system is in a high state of turmoil the energy flows inside the system are likely to be enormous. Containing such a system and bringing it back to close to equilibrium requires a number of steps not least working out how to bleed the excess and harmful energy out of the system. Sometimes this means letting things run their course rather than truncating them with equal or greater force or walls for that matter!

What the commenter is saying is that the problem will not go away,  the civil strife will not end, until the energy is dissipated. This is similar to the view put by Britain’s former Iraq ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who aside from having much more nuanced views about Iran that we normally see,  says this about Iraq

I believe that Iraq will not get rid of violence until the people as a whole are exhausted with it. And that will come when they’re on their own and there’s no longer a coalition there, they’ve been through a further terrible period of bloodshed, and then they’d begin to pull themselves to their senses. Or some leader, probably with the help of the Iraqi Army, which has a historical status in Iraq, begins to reform the structures of a united country. I think it will go through that process. 

And that seems to me to be the brutal truth.  There is no fix that the West can apply to the problem of Iraq. Only time.  Things will need to get a lot worse before they get any better.

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14 years ago
Cortexvortex
Cortexvortex
14 years ago

it always amazes me how morality is rarely mentioned in these sorts of articles.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

What sort of morality are you looking for?

Andrew Reynolds
14 years ago

Sorry, Rex – but i do not see your argument as persuasive. Firstly, you agree that the argument Luttwack has put together has been effectively demolished. You then say, in effect, that having created the problem we should get the hell out and allow unknown amounts of bloodshed, regardless of the morality of doing so. Get out and let them slaughter each other – it is the kindest thing to do.
Sorry, Rex, but, having created a mess I would argue that it is our duty to try to fix it. Running away and saying that, in our opinion, less of you will die that way and, oh, you need a dictator back, will (IMHO) simply not cut it.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Andrew, If you take the view that the surge will work, and the Gen Petreus will get things nicely under control within the six months timeframe he has apparently been given, then that of course that is the preferable option.

I don’t take that view. I think its a pipedream. A last throw of the dice.

Of course there will be unknown amounts of bloodshed. Will it be any less unknown if the coalition resolves to stay for the next ten years? We have been told that there will be a conflagration if the coalition leaves, and maybe there will, but consider the current staggering number of deaths each day while the coalition is present, and then extrapolate that line for years into the future – whose to say which will be worse?

Don’t forget that Iran presently have an incentive to create chaos in Iraq. If the Americans leave, then the Iranians will be much less keen to have a civil war next door. The whole dynamic would shift.

DavidLeyonhjelm
14 years ago

We have been told that there will be a conflagration if the coalition leaves, and maybe there will, but consider the current staggering number of deaths each day while the coalition is present, and then extrapolate that line for years into the future – whose to say which will be worse?

Would you have argued the same in relation to East Timor, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia? And do you say the same about Darfur? Do you maintain it was wrong of Vietnam to invade Cambodia and overthrow Pol Pot?

I’m not saying every civil bloodbath warrants intervention, but I’m having trouble understanding the principles behind this line of argument. It seems you are saying that because we can’t stop the killing (whether or not we are preventing it from getting worse) we might as well bug out. What is the basis of that reasoning?

Andrew Reynolds
14 years ago

The US has pulled out of a similar situation before, leaving a mess behind. The result was not pretty for the inhabitants – or their neighbours.
If we all pulled out of Iraq now, the result would probably be an even more concerted effort by the Iranians to take control of the bulk of the country, probably breaking it in three. The Turks would then object to the Kurds being effectively or actually independent again and invade. The Sunni around Baghdad and into Anbar would not exactly appreciate being effectively run by Tehran and woud go into full scale revolt. Syria would probably have to get involved – probably also causing some internal turmoil there as the ruling clan there are not Sunni, even thought the majority of the people are. Syria may well then collapse.
Jordan would probably get a flow of Sunni refugees.
I simply cannot see the above as either unlikely or desirable in the short to medium term. Long term – who knows?

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Gentlemen, I recommend listening to the interview with Sir Jeremy Greenstock. His specualations about the politocal consequences and realities of the region are more informed than any of ours.

DavidLeyonhjelm
14 years ago

This quote summarises Greenstock’s point of view:

I believe that Iraq will not get rid of violence until the people as a whole are exhausted with it. And that will come when they’re on their own and there’s no longer a coalition there, they’ve been through a further terrible period of bloodshed, and then they’d begin to pull themselves to their senses. Or some leader, probably with the help of the Iraqi Army, which has a historical status in Iraq, begins to reform the structures of a united country. I think it will go through that process.

There is no consideration given to the wider picture involving neighbouring countries (other than Iran), as mentioned by Andrew Reynolds. Greenstock is essentially saying the only option is to let the Iraqis massacre each other until they get sick of it. And that the rest of the region will stand by while that process occurs.

I think that’s what actually occurred in Somalia wasn’t it? Is that a better outcome than the current situation in Iraq, or what might emerge from the current situation if the insurgency can be defeated?

I’m still having trouble with this reasoning.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Greenstock is essentially saying the only option is to let the Iraqis massacre each other until they get sick of it. And that the rest of the region will stand by while that process occurs.

I think you’re misrepresenting Greenstock. The massacre is occuring right now in case you hadn’t noticed, and he certainly doesn’t advocate the rest of the region standing by.

The recent Lateline transcipt is a useful read.

So what we’ve created is something that we will have to walk away from at some point with the job only a quarter or half done. But we must then continue to support Iraq and Iraqis who want a united country at peace with itself and we need to support the neighbours, or encourage the neighbours, to give encouragement and support to Iraqis themselves so that the violence doesn’t spill over into them. They’ve got a stake in this fight as well.

Greenstock is simply facing up to the fact of the political realities in the US and the UK. The troops will come home sooner rather than later, and the consquences will be what they will be.

There’s no fixing the problem from the inside now. It’s was an ill-conceived adventure and a botched job from the beginning. The Iraqi population is no longer controllable. Vast swathes of the opulation hate the coalition, almost as much as they hate each other. Where’s the case for staying?

Let’s be under no-illusion. This Bush-Howard-Blair war has made us all less secure. Together they have trained more battle hardended terrorists than ever before.

You’ve been defeated on something that was – you’ve said – was very important for you. This is the super power. Its credibility will be affected. Terrorism will be motivated. There will be a territory in Iraq where terrorists have learnt battle-hardened techniques they can take elsewhere.

But staying in Iraq will not put the egg back into the chook. Only a complete change of paradigm can change the present course such as working from the outside, in conjunction with the neighbors, aligning the interests of those neighbors who realise that a full scale civil war in Iraq does no-one any good, getting the Russions onside and and letting the Iraqis find their way through this disaster themselves.

John Howard should be held to account this coming election for his preposterous hubris and its dangerous consequences for our all our future.

DavidLeyonhjelm
14 years ago

This Bush-Howard-Blair war has made us all less secure. Together they have trained more battle hardended terrorists than ever before.

I can’t help thinking that if the war had been initiated by Bill Clinton, with Blair and Rudd in support, your attitude would be different. I’m still looking for the principle here. What about Darfur, Afghanistan, East Timor, Kosovo? Are you saying we should only stop people killing each other when they really don’t want to?

It

Ingolf
14 years ago

Excellent article and followup arguments, Rex. Thank you.

MikeM
MikeM
14 years ago

The difference between Iraq and Kosovo is that the coalition operating in Kosovo was able to marshall forces large enough to substantially stop the violence.

IIRC, Petraeus’s own Counterinsurgency Manual guidelines mandated a force numbering at least twice the manpower that he currently has at his disposal in order to get the country under real control. The US has virtually run out of troops (besides its soldiers are not trained for counterinsurgency and nationbuilding) and nobody else has 250,000 troops they can throw into the fray. The one chance of getting Iraq under control would be if the Iraqi army shaped up as a large, dependable and effective fighting force to join with the Americans.

Unless that happens, the choice is not between staying the course on the one hand and cutting and running on the other. It is between continuing a dangerous and ineffective interference in a civil war as opposed to getting out of the way.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Again, I

DavidLeyonhjelm
14 years ago

Well there’s one principle I think should be applied that you haven’t mentioned: mass graves are worth preventing where possible. Even when George Bush is the one trying to prevent them.

I was hoping for a bit of insight here and I didn’t get it, I’m afraid. Don’t mean to be rude, just saying.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

I fear the days of being able to prevent mass graves are long gone.

Invig
14 years ago

The energy theorem is handy, and simple, but largely wrong.

Brutality begets brutality and violence begets violence.

While a little ‘action’ was necessary at the start, notice it is the Shiite not the Sunnis who carry on the violence.

Why?

Because they are scared they will be treated the same way that they treated the Shiite.

Those who suffer do not build up ‘negative energy’ they need to expel by doing violence. The system becomes more delicate because of that suffering, but the path to non-violence is not to let it simply be.

As I have said before, its all about empowering the good people.