I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of David Kilcullen's Blood Year, and finally got to read it this week. Kilcullen has been appearing a lot on ABC current affairs shows recently giving expert opinion on terrorist-related issues, and he always seems so knowledgeable and articulate.
And so he ought. Not only does he have a PhD in guerrilla warfare, he is a former Australian military officer who, during various phases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, served as an analyst in the US State Department, an adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq and on the staff of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. These days he runs a private research company which, among other things, advises humanitarian organisations about security issues in war zones and maintains a network of contacts in trouble spots around the world.
The "blood year" of the title is 2014-15, when Islamic State emerged from the pack of extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria to claim large swathes of territory and launch terrorist attacks around the world. Kilcullen sets out to explain how it came to this.
The killer line in the book (pardon the pun), which the author has been using to sell it in his various interviews, is that the invasion of Iraq was "the biggest strategic blunder since Hitler invaded the USSR". You may feel that he is overstating his case a little but he justifies the comparison in a fair bit of detail. Like Hitler, the Bush administration chose to invade a country that was well contained and was not currently posing a threat. In the process it committed itself to fighting on two fronts, stretching its capabilities to breaking point. For an additional level of difficulty, unlike the Germans the US did not have a continuous supply line between the two fronts, so that the transfer of resources between them was challenging and slow.
If the decision to invade was the fundamental mistake, it was compounded by many more. US military planners estimated that the invasion would require about 400,000 military and civilian personnel to carry out the invasion and then secure and rebuild the country. In the end, they got 200,000. This meant that while the initial invasion was a pushover, the subsequent occupation struggled to establish effective control.
To increase the degree of difficulty, the US collaborated with the interim Iraqi Government on a process of "de-Ba'athification", disbanding the Iraqi army and removing all Ba'ath Party members from the civil service. Since party membership was a qualification for holding any kind of responsible position in the Ba'athist regime this meant that any competent administrator was removed from the service, even though their membership may have been a career necessity rather than an expression of deeply held political allegiance.
This led to a dangerous situation from the beginning. Because the US and its allies were unable to secure the country, many of the army divisions were able to depart with their weapons, withdrawing to secure locations from which they could harass the occupying powers. They are still there today - according to Kilcullen, about three quarters of the senior IS military commanders are former Iraqi Army officers who were displaced after 2003.
While he is highly critical of the Bush administration, he has at least qualified praise for Bush's later conduct of the "Surge", the insertion of extra troops into Iraq in 2007-08 which led to a dramatic reduction in violence and the securing of large parts of Iraq on behalf of the Maliki government. He also has strong praise for his sometime boss Condoleezza Rice and for Bush himself, who he says took personal charge of the Surge with at least weekly contact with its commanders. He comments that while Bush's public persona was folksy and facile, in private he was highly intelligent and engaged. However, his focus on Iraq came at the cost of attention to to the wider "War on Terrorism" in places like North Africa, other parts of the Middle East or even Afghanistan.
While he has this level of faint praise for Bush, he has none for Barack Obama. Bush, he says, was at least prepared to back words with action. Obama, on the other hand, acted as if merely making statements was enough. Furthermore, Kilcullen is highly critical of his decision to withdraw troops from Iraq at the end of the Surge, and is scathing about Obama and Hilary Clinton's claim to have "ended the war in Iraq" when all they actually did was leave it.
From here, the book is a sorry tale of decline. With coalition troops withdrawn and the Maliki Government increasingly aligned with sectarian Shi'a groups against their Sunni rivals, violence rapidly increased. Al Qaeda in Iraq, all but wiped out in the Surge, bounced back and reformed itself as Islamic State. All this was aided by the confusions of US and European policy in Syria, where the allies encouraged attempts to overthrow the Assad regime but failed to back them in any meaningful way, throwing the country into the kind of chaos in which groups like IS thrive and providing IS with a safe haven outside Iraq from which it could rebuild.
In the end, the US found itself in an untenable position. In Syria it ended up having not one enemy but two - the Assad regime and IS - which were fighting each other. This meant it was unable to respond effectively against either opponent and it became hugely complicit in the mass killing and displacement of Syrian civilians by both sides. Kilcullen points out that the Assad regime has killed roughly eight times as many Syrians as IS has, and has been guilty of war crimes such as bombing civilian targets with chemical weapons. Yet after announcing that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for his administration in Syria and would force them to act, when Assad's generals did in fact deploy these weapons the US did nothing. The signal was clear - you could safely ignore anything the US said because it would not act.
The other really interesting part of this book is Kilcullen's analysis of the terrorist attacks in the West. First of all, he talks about them in terms of their tactical goals. These attacks are designed to drain the resources of the allies fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, diverting resources to homeland security. This tactic has been highly effective - the cost of mounting the attacks is very low for IS, but the costs they have extracted from Western nations have been extraordinary - billions of extra dollars or euros spent on policing, surveillance, airport security and border protection.
Secondly, he applies a sophisticated analysis of the tactics involved. He describes the 9/11 attacks as "expeditionary terrorism" - terrorists are recruited and trained for their task in one country, then inserted into another to carry out the carefully prepared plan. Other attacks over the years have followed this plan - for instance, the Mumbai attack carried out by Pakistani terrorists in 2008. Such attacks can be devastating but they are also complex and expensive, and security improvements since 9/11 make them much more difficult.
Terrorist organisations have adapted by using other methods - remote recruitment particularly over the internet which allows groups to recruit people already in the target country; "leaderless resistance", in which a central group will do no more than issue general instructions (such as IS's public call for supporters to carry out attacks on Western targets) which supporters then carry out without central control or planning. These two measures result in lower intensity attacks with fewer casualties, but they are also far less resource intensive and far more difficult to detect and prevent.
In addition, tactics have changed, making more use of what Kilcullen calls "guerrilla terrorism" - lightly armed groups of attackers hitting civilian targets (possibly multiple targets at any one time to fragment responses) and compensating for lack of fire-power by conducting sieges which tie up manpower and paralyse city centres for extended periods. Terrorist groups, he says, are creative and adaptable. If you take security measures to prevent one sort of attack, they will devise something different. Defence is always one step behind attack.
Where does all this leave us? Kilcullen is pessimistic about the future of these conflicts - he doesn't see any quick or easy victory either over IS or over a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nor does he see any let-up in terrorist attacks in the West. However, he sees very clearly that these outcomes are the result of decisions the US and its allies have made, not inevitable facts of destiny.
In this spirit he closes with a number of "lessons" to draw from the past 15 years of the War on Terror.
"Don't confuse bad management with destiny"
"Never think, 'This is as bad as it gets'"
"Strategy, without resources and sequencing, is fantasy"
"Battlefield success is not victory"
"You can't fight without fighting"
Kilcullen is, or course, a military man and this is a military book - a very enlightening and insightful one. He is far from ignorant about politics, but his focus is on military successes, failures and prospects. Within these terms, his pessimism seems more than justified. However I wonder, is this pessimism because he, and those he has worked for, were seeking military solutions for what were primarily political and social problems? And what might be the political and social solutions, given that military ones have failed so badly? Perhaps there are none, but given the alternative is ever-spiralling violence and repression, we need to keep searching for them.