David Kilkullen’s Blood Year

David Kilkullen, Quarterly Essay 57: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (Black Inc May 2015)

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I think most people would agree that war is a major failure of human rationality. But the question of what to do once a war is under way is not so easily agreed on. When the subject of possible intervention against ISIS came up at a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel on the weekend, Nick Davies of the Guardian and Dan Mori, David Hicks’s defence lawyer, came close to calling each other stupid and arrogant respectively. This Quarterly Essay brings much more light than heat to the debate.

David Kilkullen was a senior adviser to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, when he helped to design and monitor the Iraq War coalition troop ‘Surge’. This ‘insider’ status may mean that the essay will have some influence with those in power, so one doesn’t read it with the background despair one often feels when reading brilliant analyses by writers who can be dismissed as latte-sipping etceteras. His privileged insider perspective means that the essay is full of small and large revelations. For instance, he describes a meeting at which George W. Bush spoke in his familiar, ‘folksy, shallow and upbeat’ manner about how well the war in Iraq was progressing but then, once the TV cameras had left the room, ‘he began to talk to talk in a concrete, specific, realistic way’. Who knew?

The essay tells the story of the development of the Islamic State in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ‘Surge’, the botched withdrawal of coalition forces, Obama’s policy of targeted drone strikes, the failure of the Arab Spring, and the rise of ‘a host of insurgent groups’. It gives a clear account of the contending terrorist groups, explaining in simple enough terms the role of Sunni–Shi’a conflict, and the way Iranian loyalties play out in that context. It outlines the thinking behind changing US strategy over the last decade or more, noting successes, shortcomings and outright failures. It’s hard to imagine a discussion further removed from our Prime Minister’s discourse of Good Guys vs Bad Guys, ‘Death Cult Death Cult Death Cult’ (could it be that behind closed doors he too becomes concrete, specific and realistic?). Arguing that the Surge was not a failure, Kilkullen writes:

Counterinsurgency (in fact, warfare generally) is a complex discipline, like medicine or architecture. if your building fails, it doesn’t mean ‘architecture doesn’t work’ – it means you built a bad structure. If violence drops when you apply a given approach, then returns when you stop, it doesn’t mean the approach doesn’t work; it means it does work, and you shouldn’t have stopped.

Forgetting for the moment that a defining feature of warfare (including counterinsurgency) is that people kill people, which makes comparison to architecture or medicine seem grotesque, this is a fair indication of the approach the essay takes to its subject: discipline rather than rhetoric, a search for solutions rather than a replay of grievances, assessment rather than blame. Blame isn’t a concept it avoids altogether:

President Bush conflated enemies, defaulted to attacking states rather than thinking about how to deal with non-state actors, and – mother of errors – invaded Iraq, and then botched the occupation. … President Obama compounded Bush’s errors – pulling out of Iraq without putting in enough effort to cement the gains of the Surge, indulging in a dangerous addiction to drones and special ops, acting opportunistically in Libya, remaining passive in the face of massacre in Syria … Allies, too – the United Kingdom, other NATO countries, Australia – went along with whatever was asked of them, made only limited efforts to influence the strategy, and then (in many cases) ran for cover when things went wrong … This is a multi-sided, multi-national, bipartisan screw-up, for which we all bear some responsibility, and the task now is to figure out what to do next: what a viable strategy might look like.

Having outlined the history, the essay goes on to offer a definition of the threat. Acknowledging that his view is not universally accepted, Kilkullen argues that ISIS is no longer an insurgent organisation but in fact a state, just as Nazi Germany was a state, so should be met with appropriate strategies – including non-military ones, though the essay focuses on the military, that is, conventional warfare. The current prioritising of countering the threat from unorganised individuals inspired by ISIS brings ‘boomerang effects’  – such the increased erosion of our privacy, or the militarisation of police that has contributed to recent clashes in the USA – that are on the way to turning our societies into police states, a response that is far worse than what it seeks to prevent.

This is an essay that casts light in a very murky area. I’m grateful for it, and recommend it. Kilkullen quotes something attributed to Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

Black Inc have put an extract from Blood Year up on The Monthly website.
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A number of people have tweeted that every Australian should read the previous Quarterly Essay, Karen Hitchcock’s essay on the treatment of elderly people, Dear Life. This issue includes 40 pages of robust correspondence about it, which should also be required reading.

It begins with word from an elderly resident of a nursing home. Given that Hitchcock’s concern is that ‘the elderly’ need to be treated with respect, it’s a healthy jolt to ageist assumptions that this elderly contributor happens to be national treasure Inga Clendinnen, and that the other self-identified octogenarian correspondent, Ian Maddocks, speaks as a palliative care provider of many decades.

Apart from one snarky piece that makes Hitchcock in her reply wonder if the writer had actually read the essay, all the correspondence is worth reading. In particular, more than one correspondent (most tellingly economist Peter Martin) takes a swipe at the recent Intergenerational Report’s shonky portrait of a future burdened by old people.

One response to “David Kilkullen’s Blood Year

  1. Thank you for this, Jonathan. I’m barely a quarter of the way through Kilkullen’s essay and am finding it one of the clearest assessments and histories of the misbegotten mess in the Middle East I’ve ever read. I’m also delighted to find out that the QE’s are available now as e-books for a very reasonable price and without international purchasing restrictions. And of course, a review that hints that I may be able to read something that Inga Clendinnen has written is a powerful incentive to pony up. If it’s true that a fool and his money are soon parted, you’ve been making a fool of me on a regular basis lately! 😉