Varun Ghosh reviewing David Kilcullen: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State, Black Inc, 2015 (?), 128pp, $22.99 … in The Weekend Australian, 6/7 June 2015, with the title “Snapping the terror tentacles.”
A battle-weary West must summon the political will to defeat Islamic State and continue the fight against global terrorism. That is the central message of David Kilcullen’s expansive and ambitious Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State. Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, develops his thesis by weaving together two distinct but related accounts: an analysis of the policy failures in Iraq that led to the rise of Islamic State and a broader evaluation of the global war on terrorism.
Kilcullen, in addition to his considerable experience as a counter-terrorism strategist and former adviser to US general David Petraeus and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, is a deft storyteller. The artful combination of his professional experience, insightful analysis and strategic recommendations makes for enthralling reading.
The story of Islamic State begins in Iraq. Kilcullen is a severe critic of the decision to open a second front in the war on terrorism by invading Iraq before the conflict in Afghanistan and complex situation in Pakistan were resolved. By 2006, Iraq was mired in a sectarian civil war, led there by the “mindless obstinacy” of US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who “insisted on leaving the absolute minimum force in Iraq” following the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Ambassador Paul Bremer’s “disastrous de-Ba’athification edict and the disbanding of the Iraqi army” only compounded the folly. (Later, one US officer wrote to Kilcullen, “Note to self: consider renaming Camp Victory.”)
In 2007, with Rumsfeld gone, the most successful phase of the war — the so-called surge — began. US troop numbers increased and coalition forces shifted to an explicit counter-insurgency strategy. The surge coincided with the Anbar Awakening, during which Sunni tribes joined the fight against al-Qa’ida. The result was a more stable and less violent Iraq. However, Kilcullen says this created a false optimism that (in light of trong US public opinion against the war) provided a fig leaf for the premature departure of American troops in 2011.
In counter-insurgency, ‘‘you can leave early, or you can leave well”. The coalition, in Kilcullen’s view, left early. The stability and security achieved in Iraq was quickly lost. Without US pressure, then Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, leading a coalition of Shia parties with sectarian tendencies, reverted to type. Power-sharing agreements were ripped up and persecution of Sunni Iraqis rose. Maliki gutted the army by replacing “competent technocrats with loyal functionaries” who proved incompetent and corrupt. He also began to draw greater support from Iran. In short, Maliki created the conditions for the rise of Islamic State.
Left unstated in the analysis is the question of how long (and at what levels) coalition forces would have needed to remain deployed to ensure the stability and longevity of a federal Iraq. Given the forces unleashed by the invasion and occupation, it is a difficult one to answer.
The second strand of Kilcullen’s essay concerns the broader fight against terrorism. He was an author of the “disaggregation” strategy that sought to “dismantle, or break up, the links that allow the jihad to function as a global entity”. Thus isolated, jihadists could be fought by assisting governments to deal with localised threats, counter extreme ideologies, and address the conditions that foment radicalism.
Kilcullen’s sense of frustration with the execution of this strategy is palpable: “This two-front dynamic became a hole in the heart of Western strategy: the cost, in human life, credibility, money and time, of extracting ourselves from the unforced error of Iraq fatally weakened the impact of disaggregation.” Even after Iraq, he argues, leaders neglected the more difficult elements of disaggregation — developing partnerships with governments and building local capacities to fight the roots of terrorism — in favour of high-profile efforts to capture or kill individual leaders. It is a compelling critique.
The two strands of Blood Year coalesce around the rise of the Islamic State. A proto-state with “Ba’athist lineage and jihadist facade”, it combines the regional appeal of fundamentalist Sunni Islam with the martial discipline and experience of Saddam Hussein’s army, intelligence and special operations apparatus. Its ranks have been swelled by local grievances against the repressive governments of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State is a diverse coalition with significant internal contradictions. But it is also a potent military force.
Kilcullen convincingly argues for more decisive action against it. Unchecked, Islamic State could destabilise the entire Middle East and enmesh the region in broader sectarian conflict. Substantial disruption of global energy supplies and trade routes would result. The instability may also offer opportunistic jihadist groups the chance to expand their influence.
In addition, Islamic State attracts young volunteers from across the world, and many regional jihadist organisations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have already sworn allegiance. It has also spurred a dangerous competitive dynamic among other global jihadist groups.
Kilcullen says the group fights like a state and can be defeated conventionally, through significantly more airstrikes and expanded rules of engagement in Syria and Iraq. It is less obvious how, following this defeat, the region can be stabilised for the long term. Iraq’s problems remain deeply rooted and Syria’s may be “intractable”, as Kilcullen notes. Serious consideration of the political settlement following Islamic State’s defeat is required, not only to build support for any further intervention but to ensure the mistakes of the Iraq war are not repeated.
In the end, Kilcullen’s overwhelming concern is that a reversion to isolationism will allow jihadist movements to grow. Absent an international strategy, we will be left trying to secure our societies through heavy policing and excessive surveillance. He concludes his analysis pointedly: “Preserving and strengthening the political will of our societies, the will to continue this struggle without giving in to a horrific adversary, but also without surrendering our civil liberties or betraying our ethics, is not an adjunct to the strategy — it is the strategy.”
Varun Ghosh works as a lawyer in Perth. He was previously a commonwealth scholar at Cambridge and a consultant for the World Bank.