With the Obama administration about to announce a new way forward in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has written a new book on the role of counterinsurgency in what has been called the War on Terror: The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. For Kilcullen's purposes, the war in Afghanistan is a small war in the midst of the broader War on Terror (an unfortunate formulation that the Obama administration appears to have abandoned).
Mucking around by outsiders converts small problems into big ones. An appreciation of this phenomenon lies at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy, which Kilcullen describes as “fundamentally one of bleeding the United States to exhaustion, while simultaneously using U.S. reaction to incite a mass uprising within the Islamic world.” With that end in mind, al-Qaeda conspires to lure the West into launching ill-advised military actions, confident that one result will be to antagonize the local population, which will then respond to al-Qaeda’s calls to expel the intruders. In essence, Western intervention serves as al-Qaeda’s best recruiting tool. This is Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla Syndrome.
Kilcullen emphasizes that accidental guerrillas fight not to reinstitute the caliphate or to convert nonbelievers, but “principally to be left alone.” What they want above all is to preserve their way of life. The vast majority of those who take up arms against the United States and its allies do so “not because they hate the West and seek our overthrow, but because we have invaded their space to deal with a small extremist element.”
When we respond to al Qaeda by invading and occupying other countries, we're playing from al Qaeda's playbook. Nevertheless, Kilcullen supports a massive expansion of our mission in Afghanistan:
In 2008, Kilcullen left Baghdad and turned his attention to Afghanistan, surveying the situation there at the behest of then-Secretary Rice. More than seven years after U.S. forces first arrived, the news coming out of Kabul is almost uniformly bad. Kilcullen knows this but insists that the war “remains winnable.” In this case, winning will require the United States and its allies to commit themselves to an intensive effort, lasting “five to ten years at least,” aimed at “building a resilient Afghan state and civil society” capable of fending off the Taliban. The key to success, in his view, is to extend “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.” Such a presence, he concedes, is something that has never existed.
Stripped to its essentials, this is a call for Western-engineered nation building on a stupendous scale—in Kilcullen’s own words, “building an effective state structure, for the first time in modern Afghan history.” Yet even that will not suffice. Given the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, unless the United States and its partners also fix Pakistan, “a military victory in Afghanistan will simply shift the problem a few miles to the east.” With this is mind, Kilcullen calls for a “full-spectrum strategy” designed to “improve governance, security, and economic conditions” throughout the region. Although he illustrates this approach anecdotally, he offers no estimates of costs or who will pay them. Nor does Kilcullen explain why the results to be achieved in Afghanistan-Pakistan, even in the very best case, would produce an outcome any more definitive than the one he foresees in Iraq.
9/11 was a terrible blow, but it makes no sense to respond by invading and remaking countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in any event we can't afford the massive burdens of empire that this entails. It may make sense to add troops in the short run, but they need to be employed in pursuit of much more modest goals consistent with a clear-eyed reassessment of our national interest. Any assessment of our national interest that requires us to spend another decade or more conjuring up a new Afghan society that has never before existed has clearly gone off the rails.