Every nightly newscast for as long as I can remember has had a story about war in the Middle East. In the 1990s I recall the fighting under the first President Bush and, even though I was living safely in North America at the time, the distant war seemed very close to home. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, there has been a constant battle waging and it has been hard to keep up and make sense of it all. Why are people killing each other? What role does religion play? How real is the threat at home? When will it end? So many questions, so few answers.
I heard David Kilcullen speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival and he spoke with such clarity and sense that I was keen to read his Quarterly Essay, "Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State" (2015, QE58). Kilcullin, an expert in counterinsurgency, was an adviser to General Petraeus and Condoleeza Rice. He is extremely knowledgeable and passionate, and has written a very interesting, if confronting, essay.
During the aftermath of 9/11, Kilcullen advocated for a policy of disaggregation to 'dismantle, or break up, the links that allow the jihad to function as a global entity." (p7) Instead, President Bush chose an us/them strategy with his 'axis of evil' speech that served to bring groups together against the West. Disaggregation would have 'rendered bin Laden irrelevant, so it wouldn't matter whether he lived or died.' For America, however, bin Laden needed to be dealt with despite his marginalisation.
Turning to Iraq and Afghanistan, Kilcullen likens 'the invasion of Iraq to Hitler's invasion of Russia' (p13) in that Iraq held no immediate threat when Bush invaded, and resources were needed in Afghanistan but were redeployed against Saddam Hussein. As things play out in Iraq, and the new President Obama was in need of an exit strategy, Kilcullen felt 'they were conflating leaving Iraq with ending the war.... the hard reality is that once you're in a full-blown insurgency, your choices are tightly constrained: you either leave well, or you leave quickly' (p31).
Kilcullen then looks at the rise of ISIS (p61) and asserts that IS is on the verge of becoming a State as it meets all the common criteria of statehood. I did not realise how big IS has become, how much land it occupies, how many people live in its territory. The chapter on IS was fascinating, not least of all because Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ramped up the rhetoric to a fever pitch with his nightly rants about death cults. So I was keen to understand the way in which IS evolved and what its motivations are.
Looking at a 'strategy for the future' Kilcullen says there are four threats: 1) domestic radicalisation, which we have seen in events in Ottawa, Boston, Sydney, France and elsewhere; 2) foreign fighters, largely a question of border security; 3) the effect of ISIS on other groups (e.g Boko Haram); and finally 4) the war IS is waging in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Kilcullen argues we need to go in hard, militarily on IS with different rules of engagement. He writes, 'this is a case when the job will become much harder, require much more lethal force and do more harm as time goes on: we have to go in hard, no, or we'll end up having to go in harder, and potentially on a much larger scale, later - or accept defeat' (p80). There does not seem much political will in the West for following this advice, but I imagine there are many politicians, military leaders and strategists who have read this Essay and are contemplating their next move.
Having absorbed this Essay, Kilcullen answered many of my questions, but also opened my mind to many more. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but in the meantime things will get a lot worse before they get better. We will wait and see, which unfortunately may be the worst thing we can do.
Also included was correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay, QE57 Dear Life by Karen Hitchcock.