International Security Studies

Events

Book Discussion: The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One

September 17, 2009 // 12:00pm1:30pm

This event, co-sponsored with Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, is part of International Security Studies' ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum.

David Kilcullen, a former Australian military officer and a former adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, stated that the conflicts of the post-9/11 era are a "complex hybrid of contrasting trends" in which local social networks and insurgencies coexist with worldwide social movements. The United States and its Western allies, Kilcullen argued, have mistakenly conflated these trends, thereby blurring the distinction between local and global struggles. "Accidental guerrillas"—local insurgents with limited aims and legitimate grievances—have been mistakenly perceived as part of an al-Qaeda global terror network. Kilcullen argued that the United States needs to "disentangle these strands"—the global and the local—and to develop targeted strategies to address the particular conditions in each country.

Kilcullen concurred with the British military historian Michael Howard's assessment that the United States, by framing the problem as a "war on terror," has tended to over-militarize its response. A rebalanced approach requires a new "mental framework" for thinking about the "current conflict drivers," four of which Kilcullen highlighted.

The first driver of current conflicts is the "backlash against globalization." This dominant force shaping the international economy has produced winners and losers, haves and have-nots. For those not benefiting from globalization, the term is synonymous with a Western-dominated, American world culture that is corrosive of local identities. Al-Qaeda is at once implacably opposed to this international system even as it utilizes the tools of globalization (the Internet, commercial aviation, etc.) to plan and carry out attacks.

The second way of viewing the current "war on terrorism" is that of a "globalized insurgency" by al-Qaeda against the established international order. The implication, Kilcullen argued, is that "the best-fit conceptual framework" to deal with al-Qaeda is counter-insurgency rather than traditional counter-terrorism. For example, a counter-insurgency approach would emphasize protecting local populations from al-Qaeda intimidation and marginalizing insurgent movements.

The third way of thinking about the threat is as a civil war within Islam. Al-Qaeda began as a movement to overthrow apostate rulers, such as the monarchical regime in Saudi Arabia. The West has failed to exploit the interest-based differences between Shi'a and Sunni groups. Iran and al-Qaeda, Kilcullen noted, are "natural enemies," as are Iran and the Afghan Taliban. The United States "has stepped into the middle of a conflict" within Islam and is "fighting all sides."

The fourth key characteristic cited by Kilcullen is the asymmetric character of contemporary warfare. The United States remains the world's sole superpower with an annual defense budget larger than the rest of the world combined. U.S. adversaries have adapted by employing asymmetric means combining terrorism, insurgency, propaganda, and economic warfare to counter American conventional capabilities.

The discussion period focused largely on Afghanistan, from which Kilcullen had just returned. Even though al-Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan, he called the argument for ending the Western military commitment "spurious." Kilcullen argued that the West had a "moral commitment" to the Afghans opposed to the Taliban, that failure in Afghanistan would be a body blow to NATO as an organization, and that the security of Pakistan would be undermined by a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. The key to an exit strategy, he concluded, was the potentially lengthy process of building up the Afghan military.

By Robert Litwak

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  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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