The real topic of the latest book by Australian counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen is contained in the book’s subtitle: "The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism." Kilcullen offers a unique perspective as a key architect of the very strategy whose demise he explains. His verdict is scathing: America’s abdication of responsibility as the steady leader of the international order has been apocalyptic, resulting in the bloody series of events, or "Blood Year," that started around 2014. The Western world, left rudderless, is far worse off today than at the turn of the millennium.
Our principal, though hardly sole, enemy is the Islamic State, but this book is not simply about the rise of this successor to al Qaeda. There are bookshelves of such studies. Rather, Kilcullen, who has advised both the Bush and Obama administrations, offers an insider’s sober assessment of four alarming threats confronting the Western world, and offers a few wise recommendations.
The counterterrorism collapse led first to the escalation of terrorism inside our society, which Kilcullen pointedly refuses to call home grown, describing it instead as "remote radicalization" of individuals reached primarily through electronic means. He warns that it is a mistake to conclude that ISIS does not pose a major threat because it has caused few Western casualties. In fact, the global impact of ISIS "has triggered an escalating conflict whose consequences are indeed existential for many regional states," and potentially "hugely damaging."
A second threat comes from foreigners answering the call to help ISIS "build the state" it seeks to establish by traveling to battlegrounds in the Middle East and Africa. This threat underscores the need for domestic measures that include border security, intelligence, and critical infrastructure protection.
A third threat is the energizing effect of ISIS’s rise on terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in Pakistan, al Shabaab, and the Taliban, which have adopted its tactics, rendering them more lethal. This suggests that Western assistance to nations struggling to combat these groups will have to radically change. Kilcullen states:
We have to stop training civil servants and soldiers to mimic our methods, and instead work with them to design and fund systems that work in their own environments. The biggest difference, though, would be the focus on protecting communities, stabilizing governments and rebuilding trust, rather than (as too often in the past) focusing on killing and capturing terrorists.
He might have added that we should stop thinking that throwing money at the problem is a substitute for intelligent and effective assistance.
The final threat comes from the "catastrophic war" that the rise of ISIS is currently waging in the Middle East, its effects radiating throughout the world, destroying the lives of millions and destabilizing the world economy. Given the book’s generally measured, almost understated, tone, this conclusion is troubling. Kilcullen offers little in the way of comfort.
As I write, Western countries (several, particularly the United States, now with severely reduced international credibility) face a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy, in a less stable, more fragmented region, with a far higher level of geopolitical competition, and a much more severe risk of great-power conflict, than at any time since 9/11.
We are, in short, engaged in a long war, having entered an "Age of Conflict" we cannot escape. The best we can do is learn from our mistakes and try to avoid repeating them.
As may be expected from a counterinsurgency expert, Kilcullen scoffs at civilian policymakers’ "addiction" to unilateral strikes, charging that their "obsession" with killing terrorists in the short term undermines the long-term goal. Careful to avoid the impression that he rejects the use of drones and special operations, he advises using these powerful assets only as part of a broader plan, not as a panacea expected "to substitute for lack of strategic thought."
While blaming George W. Bush not only for starting the Iraq war but for committing many mistakes along the way, Kilcullen states that primary responsibility for the current dismal state of affairs lies with the Obama administration. President Obama’s first monumental mistake, of course, was pulling out of Iraq completely in 2011. This mistake was exacerbated by his repeated rebuffing of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s requests for assistance in 2013, so that by September of that year "a new crisis had arisen, and it was the mishandling of this, more than anything else, that undermined U.S. leverage as the ISIS threat grew."
No less damaging was Obama’s decision to draw a red line on the Syrian regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction—which he had claimed would be a "game changer"—only to ignore it when Assad did exactly that. America’s credibility was shattered. Kilcullen explains:
The Syrians’ take was that U.S. policy had shifted from regime change to regime behavior change, that this was Washington’s way of communicating—to Assad, but also to leaders in Tehran, with whom the administration was negotiating on Iran’s nuclear program—that leaving Assad in power would be acceptable, provided he drew the line at massacring his own people …
Some change. Some game.
The Iran deal itself was another "transformational" event, signaling that the United States was "powerless to force Assad out," followed by Russia’s entrance into the conflict on behalf of the Syrian regime. As Washington displayed weakness in both Iraq and Syria, Moscow saw an opportunity to expand its influence, anticipating no push back whatever. The implications for the future are frightening, if only because credibility is much easier to lose than regain.
An important takeaway of this book is that "we don’t know, or have forgotten, how to translate battlefield victory into enduring and stable peace." While acknowledging that "strategy, without resources and sequencing, is fantasy," Kilcullen believes that calls to fix the military are basically misguided. He recommends that we should focus instead "on civilian agencies of government, educating policy-makers on both military strategy and conflict transformation, building greater capacity for peacemaking and war termination, … developing civilian officials who can operate effectively in the grey area between war and peace," and educating the public.
That last task may be the most daunting. But it must be attempted, or future years will be even bloodier.