Last week Australian news program “The 7:30 Report” had an extensive interview with Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, Kilcullen has been an important advisor to both the Bush and Obama administrations on military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is considered one of the world’s experts on guerilla warfare. He has just published a book on these topics as well, The Accidental Guerilla.
In this fifteen minute interview Kilcullen had some striking things to say about the present and the future of the war in Afghanistan, predicting it will take 10 years, and that the longer term concern might be Pakistan. I’ve printed selections below.
In your book you describe one battle in a mountain valley in Oruzgan in 2006 to make a point about “accidental guerillas” and the risk of playing into the hands of what you call an “Al Queda exhaustion strategy”.
Kilcullen: The battle took place 19th of May, 2006. It was a patrol from 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces group from Ft. Bragg, NC. They were moving through a valley in Northern Oruzgan when they were ambushed by about 150 Taliban. They were pinned down for about 6 hours, one American was killed, 7 were wounded, and it took calling up fighter jets to actually extract themselves from the fight. The interesting thing, though, was that the reason they were pinned down was not so much the Taliban; it was b/c the local people in the valley went home to their villages, got theier wapons came back and joined in. And assisted in fighting the patrol.
After the battle we asked a lot of the locals, why did you support the Taliban, we didn’t think you were on the Taliban side. And they said, well, we’re not. But this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in our valley for about 20 years, and we couldn’t sit it out, that would have been dishonorable; and if we’re going to join in, we’re going to join in on the side of the local guy, not the side of the foreigner.
This to me is a classic example of what I call the "accidental guerrilla" syndrome, where a lot of the people that are fighting us are not fighting us b/c they’re ideologically committed to Al Queda or to the Taliban or to any of the other extremist groups. They’re fighting us because we just turned up in their valley and sort of pushed them into the arms of a local enemy.
…Is Al Queda getting an air of legitimacy in the eyes of the people?
The most recent polling in Afghanistan suggested that about 88% of the Afghan population fears and dislikes the Taliban. Only about 4% want to see the Taliban take over. But our experience in Iraq particularly and in the east and south of the country suggests that when push comes to shove the population will go with who ever can provide a sense of predictability and order, and a sense of safety that comes from that order. And in the case of a lot of villages in the south of Afghanistan, that’s the Taliban.
One of the things I do is when I go out in the field, I ask people a bunch of questions designed to figure out where their loyalties lie and what they think about the situation. And I often say to people in Afghanistan, if someone stole your bicycle or one of your livestock, who would you report it to? Would you report it to the police, or would you report it someone else? And they laugh when you suggest that they would report it to the police; they say they’d just beat us up for bothering them. But if we reported it to the Taliban, we know we’d get it back. So that’s an indication to me that people don’t necessarily like that Taliban, but they trust in their ability to deliver security at the local level.
Does it really matter anymore whether Osama bi Laden is caught or not?
Well, Osama bin Laden’s in Pakistan, and it’s good to bring that up, because If you were take the population of Iraq and the population of Afghanistan and smash them together, you still add up to only about a third of the population of Pakistan. Pakistan has 173 million people, it has a hundred nuclear weapons, it has an army larger than the US army, and it has Al Queda headquarters sitting there right in the two-thirds of the country the government doesn’t control. If Pakistan were to collapse and we were to see an Al Queda takeover, that would be a problem that would dwarf anything we’ve seen since 9/11 in terms of scale and severity. So I think really the focus we need to be putting in terms of long term issues in what we used to call the war on terrorism is primarily Pakistan.
Even if the coalition forces do everything right from now, how long would expect the conflict to last?
Best case, 10 years. I would see 3-5 years of major combat ahead of us, the next year or two will be pretty intense. If that goes right, which is a big "if", then will probably be into a stabilization phase, which could last 4 or 5 years, and then into a phase of handing over to the Afghans and allowing them to take the lead role in securing the country. So that is best case. And you know, I think it’s important that we level with the Australian people and the American people about how much this is going to cost and how long it’s gong to take. This is something that in America wasn’t really done in relation to Iraq, and I think as we get into this thing we need to be clear on the fact that it could be an extremely long term endeavor.
You’re talking about an enormous stress on the political will of countries like America, Britian, and Australia, particularly since the longer it goes, the more the casualties mount?
Yes, although I tthink populations in the West aren’t necessarily completely casualty–averse. I think what they hate to see is losses not matched by any perceptible progress. One of the things we found in Iraq was that as we turned the campaign around during the surge and we started to see some very substanital progress on the ground, the willingness of people to tolerate combat operations became higher. And I think we may see something like that in Afghanistan, provided we can turn this around – and that’s a big proviso.