Kevin Drum points us to an important article in the latest issue of the New Yorker. In it George Packer profiles David Kilcullen, an Australian Army Captain currently ‘on loan’ to the U.S. Department of State. Kilcullen is an anthropologist who has made his reputation by applying his academic training to the so-called war on terror.
His primary insight is that our strategy should be one of disaggregation. This isn’t a war on terror but rather a global counterinsurgency. We should be working on countering the insurgents' narratives and preventing their movements from congealing together. Kilcullen prefers the term insurgent to terrorist:
A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required.
It is at these political and informational battles that the U.S. is lagging. Twenty-first century information technologies, which we invented, have been powerful catalyst working against us. The U.S. is like an elephant trying to play hopscotch.
Kilcullen advocates a ‘granular’ knowledge of the cultural battleground. But if that makes you think he must be a bleeding heart getting ready to give terrorists ‘therapy’, then you’re mistaking understanding with a lack of ferocity:
Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”
Despite that jaundiced view, it is remarkable how full Kilcullen’s empathy with his enemy is:
“If I were a Muslim, I’d probably be a jihadist,” Kilcullen said as we sat in his office. “The thing that drives these guys—a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now—that’s the same thing that drives me, you know?”
Of course, every military theory guru from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz has told us that we should know our enemy. But this statement goes beyond that – Kilcullen has willed himself to understand the emotive and interpersonal life of not just his enemy, but also the common quarry that he shares with his enemy: the indigenous populations in the conflict areas, populations which can act as the insurgency's supply line, shield and home base… or can strangle it to extinction. Think of how far such an imaginative leap is from President Bush’s formulation that ‘they hate us because we love freedom.’
This is why the so-called war on terror is a bad fit for the Republican Party. The values that conservatives hold dear – nationalism, individualism, moralism – lead them to be actively repulsed by attempts at empathy. The reason they cite Churchill so often is because his attitude is so appealing to them: every war should be won with just pugnacity and principle. But Churchill did not need to win over the German population in order to crush Hitler.
In this war, understanding is the weapon that will make the biggest bang.