David Kilcullen is the author of The Accidental Guerrilla: fighting small wars in the midst of a big one, which was published in Australia in April.
David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading experts on guerrilla warfare and, rarely among his kind, has a PhD in political anthropology. He has served in every theatre of the ‘War on Terror’ since 9/11 as special advisor for counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and chief counterterrorism strategist for the US State Department. He is a former Australian army officer with combat experience in South-East Asia and the Middle East.
David addressed the National Press Club on 31 August 2009.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Press Club and today’s National Press Club address. It’s a great pleasure to welcome David. Dave who’s become known in recent times even to the general public as one of the one of the world’s leading experts on counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. They’re not subjects that most of the public’s very familiar with, or hasn’t been until recently. But his name’s been familiar to those who are involved in those fields right from the beginning of what we’ve come to call the war on terrorism. Wider notice followed from the publication of his book ‘The Accidental Guerrilla’ which has the subtitle, fighting small wars in the midst of a big one. David Kilcullen is a former army officer, has political degree in anthropology, not a bad combination. He advises the current department of State on various things and was an adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq before the change of policy there. He’s also worked, and still does, in virtually all the areas where these things are particularly relevant. They’re not the greatest tourist spots in the world, and we’re pleased that he was able to join us today in a rather more subdued atmosphere to talk about his work. Please welcome, David Kilcullen.
I thought I’d talk a little bit about my book, and I’m going to do you a favour by talking about the most boring part of the book, the first chapter, so if you ever do actually buy it, you won’t have to read that book. I want to spend about 30 minutes laying out what I think are the key drivers in the international security environment, because those are the things that basically set the parameters for the for the various conflicts going on around the world. When we get done with sort of talking through that basic framework, then we’ll throw the floor open to questions and it’ll be an opportunity for us to get into a little bit more detail on some of the current conflicts which I know you’ll probably be interested in, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thank you for having me, delighted to be here and let’s get into it. In the start of the start of the book I lay out what, I think, are the four basic key drivers of the conflict environment in which we find ourselves now, and they’re not exhaustive. I’m sure there are other things, things like climate change and resource shortage which I haven’t addressed in detail in the book. Things like urbanisation and the youth bulge in large parts of the Middle East. Again, I haven’t addressed in detail, so there are other things out there driving conflict. I’ve tried to identify the four main drivers of the sort of conflicts we found ourselves in since 9/11.
The backlash against globalisation, the presence of a globalised insurgency in the form of al-Qaeda, a civil war within the Islamic world, and then a dynamic dynamic that I call asymetric warfare but I use that term in a different way to our military colleagues, and I’ll explain that as we go. Let’s talk about the backlash against globalisation. If you were to look back at the 20 years after the end of the World Uighur Congress war you would see a pattern of wars of decolonisation where the various European powers pulled back from possessions in Africa, in South-East Asia and Africa, in South-East Asia and in the Middle East and there were a series of wars of national liberationist, Christophe called them in 1961, guerrilla wars of various kinds, civil wars in which the new sort of order, the political and social order in ex- colonial countries was determined. One of the things we may do in looking back at today’s conflict environment is we may actually see a similar kind of pattern of wars of globalisation.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Globalisation obviously accelerated over the last 20-30 years and it’s a process of increasing connectivity in terms of information, people, money, weaponery, and a variety of goods and services being much more easily transported across international boundaries, to the point where boundaries, to the point where we’re starting to see the growth of a global economy and to some extent, a global culture. And that culture is very much Western dominated and in particular, United States influence in that form of globalised culture. You know, Coke, Nike, you could run through the list of global brands that are, in fact, of US origin, or of US cultural origin and as a consequence, one of the effects of this global of globalisation on people in the third world, the Islamic world and other parts of the world which are not sort of poor areas of western civilisation has been this feeling that globalisation in its current form is corrosive of traditional, deeply-held identity and undermines the essence of what it means to be essence of what it means to be Nigerian or Iraqi, or Pashtun and sequence .
We’ve seen a pushing — as a consequence we’ve seen a pushing back against it. Some are quite benign. You think about… one of the examples I use in the food is the slow food movement in Europe which orginated in 1996 against the process of an opening of a McDonald’s franchise in Rome and a bunch of Europeans got together and said “This is really acceptable, it’s going to undermine European identity, we’re going to lose our traditional cuisine to sort of globalised Mc Whatever and we don’t want to do that” and they started this movement which has spread to cover most of Europe and is known as the slow food movement.
Then you’ve chauvinistic population by different populations around the world where they target people involved in globalisation in a different way from themselves. For example, people who live in Nigeria and grow vegetables for the European supermarket chains are often targeted by other people, who see them as kind of tied into a globalised economy and benefits in ways that they are not. So I guess you could boil it boil it down to haves and have-nots and we’re getting now to the more extreme end of the spectrum where you have groups like al-Qaeda, but not just al-Qaeda. Groups that look at a Western dominated US-led world economy and world culture as basically an atrocity to be pushed back against. Something that’s targeting them, undermining what’s right and destroying the real basis of their identity. And so you see a number of different groups pushing back in different ways against globalisation.
Now I would divide these into two guides. There are a vast number of locally motivated locally focussed anti-globalisation groups who are really defensive in orientation. They don’t really hate the West, they just want us out of their face.
Then you have a very small number of fairly widely-spread groups that are what you might call counterglobalised. They have just as globalised a view, they want just as globalised a structure and a global culture and a global culture and political order, but it’s very different from the sorts of things that we’re seeing now, and al-Qaeda is the forefront amongst those groups. It has a vision that’s highly vision that’s highly globalised, it has an ideology that’s fairly universal and non-cultural. One of the problems that al-Qaeda struck in Iraq was that very lack of local cultural content in their ideology. It has a great ability to use the tools of globalisation, the Internet, satellite communications, international monetary transfers, all kinds of systems and processes that we’re all very family with, are intimately familiar to groups associated with al-Qaeda, but again, serving a radically different agenda. One of the things that I’ve observed as I’ve gone around from sort of theatre to theatre in whatever we’re calling the war on terrorism now, is that the counterglobalisers, guys associated with al-Qaeda and similar movements tend to manipulate and exploit local groups, so they come in and essentially try to point everybody in the same direction to spin up people’s motivation. In some cases to exacerbate conflict. We saw this during the Malacca and Sulawesi conflicts in Indonesia after 9/11 where groups in some way associated with al-Qaeda came in and tried to spark up civil war in some parts of Indonesia in order to then exploit the violence and dislocation caused by those conflicts for their own ends. We’ve seen exactly the same thing in affidavit, same thing in Pakistan, same thing in North Africa and obviously very much so the same thing in Iraq. A large group of anti-globalisation local focus groups who are accidental guerrillas, and we’ll get into that in a minute, being exploited, manipulated and all pointed in the same direction by some fairly widespread but numerically small counterglobalisation global focus groups, like al-Qaeda. So that’s the first kind of big driver that we see in the international conflict environment.
The second one is what I talk about as a globalised insurgency. Now what is an insurgency? An insurgency is an organised movement that tries to overflow the political the political power in a given piece of territory, a district, a State, whatever and it uses subversion, terrorism, guerrilla warfare and sometimes open warfare in order to do that.
Now terrorism is a tactic that’s used by pretty much every insurgency in history, so you’re never going to see an insurgent movement that doesn’t have terrorism as part of its repertoire, one of the things that it does, the things that it does, so insurgency is terrorism. But in the 1970s we started to talk about international terrorist groups and, in fact, transnational terrorist groups as if they were somehow kind of disembodied from the population base which gave rise to them and groups like the Red Army Faction, Italian Red brigades and a variety of sort of late ’70s early ’80s late Cold War terrorist groups terrorist groups came to be seen as somehow different from traditional insurgent groups that just use terrorism, almost defined by their use of terrorism. That is, violence designed to frighten the civilian population and bring about a political result. I would argue that that period that gave rise to terrorism studies in western universities was something of a historical aberration and, in fact, what we see today is a more rejoining of the mainstream of terrorism with insurgency as it always was a fundamental part before the 1970s. But if an insurgent group is one that rides and exploits a social wave that’s probably the main thing that distinguishes it from a terrorism group in terms of academic distinctions.
You may think of a terrorism network as one that draws its strength and its freedom of action from a clandestine network of cells and its ability to maintain that secret network, to move resources around the network, and to carry out attacks on targets that are identified to pursue a political strategy. So it’s about the network, and the problem of terrorism in an academic sense we’ve defined it as something that proceeds from the terrorist network, and that’s led us down a case-based that’s led us down a case-based enemy-focussed approach to terrorism. What we’re trying to do is to break up and disrupt a terrorist network. Now, insurgency’s different. An insurgent movement rides on a social tsunami of grievances. They may be legitimate or otherwise, but the strength and freedom of action that an insurgent movement has derives not from the secrecy of its network, but from the power of that that social wave of people upset with an issue or motivated or able to be mobilised to back the insurgent group, and that in a functional sense is probably the most important distinction.
There are four basic tactics that all insurgent groups use. Provocation, where you basically provoke a government, or your opponent into taking action that alienates the population and is ultimately harmful to its own interests. Intimidation, where you get out out and you try to intimidate both the local population, and security forces in order to create space for yourself. Protraction, where you drag the conflict out, so every time the Government does something which makes it hard for you to operate, you go quiet and wait them out and you say “We’ll be still here when they go” and you wait until the pressure goes down and you come back. And the final tactic is exhaustion, where you basically try to run out the clock and you say “Look, we only need to maintain a certain level of effort here, and eventually the government that we’re fighting and the political support for that government will erode to the point where we can inherit the wreckage”.
Now by definition, al-Qaeda is an insurgency, not a traditional 1960s terrorist group. It rides a social wave rides a social wave of mass grievances across large parts of the Muslim world. It adopts exactly those four tactics we just talked about. It draws strength and freedom of action from the ability to motivate and mobilise and manipulate local groups to follow its agenda. I’ll give you some examples of that in a minute. But it’s an insurgency with a difference, because unlike the sort of traditional 1960s idea of insurgency as rebels inside one country trying to overcome the government, the piece or territory that al-Qaeda’s focussed on is global in extent and what it’s trying to do is to reorientate and change the political structure within the whole globe and to reorientate the world’s relationship between the Muslim population and the rest of the world.
So it is an insurgency with an unprecedentedly ambitious scope of operations, but it’s tactics are basically the same as any other. The 9/11 attack is is a classic example of a provocation attack. The Madrid bombing was an intimidation attack. A lot of what al-Qaeda does in Pakistan in Afghanistan and in Iraq is in that category of intimidation. Protraction is the classic al-Qaeda tactic. Whenever things get difficult they simply go quiet and move to another location and wait things out and al-Qaeda has done this four or five times now in its history since it was first founded in the early 1990s. And finally, exhaustion. Let me quote to you from Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden made this statement in November of 2004 and I’m quoting verbatim. “All that we’ve done has proven how easily it is to bait and provoke this current US Administration. All we have to do is two in to the furtherest point east with a flag on which is written the word al-Qaeda, and the Americans will panic and send a general and an army there and engage in military operations which cost blood and political capital, and then we’ll do it again. So strategy, we’re pursuing this strategy of bleeding the United States to xauks and bankruptcy”. Again, terrorism, the high-profile attack, the creation of a political message through terrorising a population is part of what insurgents do. I’m not saying that al-Qaeda aren’t terrorists, what I’m saying is it’s more important to see them for what they are, that is an insurgent movement with a global focus than to just focus on that one terrorist tactic which they share in common with pretty much every other insurgent group in history. The defining tactic is the focus on manipulating and exploiting a global population. We’ll come to this in a minute, but if that’s true , then hunting down individual al-Qaeda terrorists is not the way to go in terms of defeating al-Qaeda. There is, in fact, a whole different approach based on what we on what we know about how to do effective counterinsurgency. Let me tell you about the third and fourth drivers in the global security environment. The third one is, what some people have described as a civil war within the Islamic world. You’ve got to be careful using the term ” Islamic world”. It isn’t monolithic, it isn’t unified and there is a lot of variation, just like you can’t talk about an Anglo-Saxon world… in fact, you probably could, with a much higher degree of fidelity than talking about the Islamic world. But we see a number of different conflicts going on inside the world’s Muslim community and I want to talk about those a little bit.
The first one is the fight of radicals against the establishment and al-Qaeda as you remember got its start in opposition to what it describes as a prostate – described as prostate regimes across the Middle East. So the number two of al-Qaeda was in Egyptian Islamic Jihad before joining al-Qaeda and his main focus was on the Egyptian Government and overthrowing and they saw as an oppressive government. Osama bin Laden’s initial target was the Saudi Government and he, in fact, focussed most of his efforts on changing the relationship between between the Saudi Royal Family and the Wahabi clerical establishment until the time of the 1991 Gulf War. It was only around the ’92, 93 period that al-Qaeda focussed more on attacking the United States. Even then, it was a conscious strategic decision on the part of al-Qaeda leadership that they would get further by attacking what they described as the far enemy, that is the element that props up these regimes ie us, rather than continuing to directly attack the regimes in the Middle East. So al-Qaeda initially started as a movement against the establishment, and it still is to some extent really targeting the control of the Muslim world and using us as a means to an end to build itself into a much more powerful entity in that Muslim world, and that’s certainly one of the key dynamics of a lot of the things al-Qaeda does. It’s trying to raise itself up to be seen as the inciter in chief or the rebel in chief across the whole Islamic world and thereby gain a degree of status that wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. That’s one dynamic.
There’s another dynamic known as the Shi’ia revival, where we’ve seen since 1979 the Islamic revolution in Iran, a group in Iranian rather than Arab and Shi’ia rather than Sunni radicalism, that’s spread now through a lot of the Middle East, South America, parts of central Asia, parts of Europe, and really belongs to a different traditional of Islam and of Islamic radicalism than al-Qaeda. And that’s been deeply destabilising to the establishment again in the Islamic world. The Muslim world is 90% Sunni, about 10% Shi’ia. It’s mostly non-Arab or Persian, but in the Middle East, there’s a real stand-off between Persian-dominated Islam and the Arab States and you also have to remember that oil and gas generically in the world economy are Shi’ia minerals. Eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is located, the majority is Shi’ia. Iran is obviously majority Shi’ia. Parts of the Caspian Basin are majority Shi’ia, so again there’s a certain amount of destable ice arrived in the rise to prominence of Iranian-dominated Shi’ia religion. Obviously that’s been a process that has accelerated very dramatically since the Iraq war. In going into Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and leading to a democratic Iraqi society, there was a lot of good in that. But one of the side effects is that we’ve created the first ever Shi’ia-led Arab State in history, and that’s something that hasn’t been lost on leaders across the Arab world, and it can be destabilising to them. So that’s the third way of thinking about it.
I make a very obvious point that we’re currently fighting all parties to this civil war at once, and we’re both taking on the Iranians and al-Qaeda who are, in fact, natural enemies. We’re trying to undermine various groups that are naturally fighting each other. There’s a strategist called Frederik Hartman who wrote a book in 1982 and he said emnity in international affairs is a given, any successful State will have enemies but great powers that maintain success over a long period of time, tend not to make anymore enemies than they absolutely do and when they do, they fight them one at a time, not all at the same time, and I guess what you could say is our approach to dealing with radicalism and terrorism around the world kind of breaks that strategic principle of conservation of enemies.
OK, nearly done with the boring part of the book. Let me give you the fourth kind of driver of conflict and then we can get into some case discussion, and that’s what I call asymetric warfare, I don’t mean it in the sense mean it in the sense we use in the military, in a different way. Let me start talking about finances.
The US is today the greatest conventional military power in history. There’s never been a military, a power as dominant militarily as the United States is today. Let me give you a comparison. In the British Empire, which was the most dominant military organisation before the United States. At the end of the 19th century the British Navy had a principle known as the ” two Navy standard” and it said that aspirationally in the domain of maritime power only the British Empire wanted to be as strong as the next two navies combined and they wanted to be able to take on the next two strongest Navies in the world. The United States today is as powerful across all domains – land, air, space, intelligence, cyberspace – as not only the next two countries and not only aspirationally but, in fact, it’s as powerful as every other country on the world stage combined.
Let me give you some sort of budget figures for that. Total global defence spending by all countries every year is about $1100 billion. Of that, the US defence budget accounts for about 60% and if you take into account the supplemental spending between Iraq and Afghanistan it bumps between 70-75%. The US spends about 1.5 times on defence as much as every other country in the world combined. There’s this enormous mismatch between American military power and the power of everybody else militarily.
That has a number of very important implications. One of them is the US is basically invincible in conventional conflict . By definition, if you want to fight the United States and you fight in a fair fight in a conventional style in which the US is used to fighting, you’re going to lose and one of the implications of that has been that no sensible enemy for about the last 15 years has chosen to fight us chosen to fight us that way. People have basically moved out of the way of American and indeed Western conventional superiority into other areas of conflict, other ways of taking us on that don’t allow us to bring that unprecedented military superiority to bear.
Another very important effect of this American and indeed Western superiority is that people tend to regard Western powers and particularly the United States as a threat. If you do intelligence analysis typically when thinking about threats you look at capability and intent. US capability is so enormous that it essentially comes out of the equation, because the US is capable of destroying any country in the world five or ten times over, which which means it boils down to intent and if countries don’t believe that the United States has the intent to do the right thing that it’s not an oppressive player in the international community that it’s not going to be exploitative in its relationships you can tend to get into what international relations theorists call a) security dilemma, where the US will take actions that seem sensible to it to defend itself. They will look threatening to other people, so they’ll take actions which look sensible to them to defend themselves, which look threatening to the US and you get into this cycle where people think they’re acting to protect themselves defensively but ultimately you end up moving closer towards conflict. That’s one important implication.
There’s another form of asymmetry I want to talk about. We’ve talked about the asymmetry between the US and everybody else, but there’s asymmetry in the US structure, too. There is a huge degree of asymmetry between US military power and US non-military power and that’s been one of the defining features of the war on terrorism since 9/11. The militarisation of non-military aspects of national power just because the military is so much more powerful than the other tools of the government. Let me again give you numbers. There’s 1.68 million people in the US armed services. 2.1 million people in the US Department of Defence if you count civilians. By comparison to that, taking the next two largest foreign agencies, the US Agency for International Development and the State Department and smashing them together, there’s about 10,000 foreign service officers in aid and State combined. In other words, defence 2.1 million, diplomacy and aid, 10,000. Another way of putting that, there’s actually more musicians in defence bands than there are foreign service officers in the US. There’s more accountants in the Department of Defence than there are foreign service officers by a factor of five. There’s actually 50,000 accountants in defence. There’s more lawyers in the Department of Defence than there are foreign service or aid officers combined in the US system.
So does this mean we need a smaller defence? Of course not. Defence by definition including in Australia is much more expensive than other forms of national power and it’s normal for there to be some imbalance, but it’s not normal to be 210 to 300 times larger. And so one of the dynamics we see in the US system is that things that really should be done by non-military elements of national power tend to end up getting done by the military because the commitment is huge and the military’s the only element that has the resources available to actually deal with them.
The final element of asymmetry is asymmetry within American military forces. We’ve talked about asymmetry between the US and the rest of the world and the asymmetry within the US Government between military and non-military. Even when you get down to the military element of national power there’s an asymmetry between the platforms and the systems we need to conduct conventional military orptionzs and the types of the things that we use to do aid, stablisation, counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and so on. It turns out you don’t need a lot of widgets to do counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. It’s mainly retraining, and that’s a bad thing in terms of defence capability, because it’s a lot of people, a lot of jobs, a lot of industry to build conventional platforms like tanks, bombers, aircraft carriers and so on. And if you were to say to some congressional delegation “Good news, we’re going to reorientate the military away from that stuff, because no-one wants to play that game with us anymore, we’re going to reorientate it towards counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism” they’d be like “That will put people out of work, 100,000 lost jobs is 100,000 lost votes” so the very people in the US system that control the allocation of money have a strong political and personal interest in not shifting spending away from conventional capability towards unconventional and again, it’s only unconventional because we don’t like to do it. If you look across the broad sweep of history and geographically around the world today the most common forms of conflict are terrorism, insurgency, civil war, the very things we define as unconventional. Let me chop quickly to this idea of the accidental guerrilla and we’ll go to questions. I guess what I’m arguing in the book is a lot of people fighting us around the world are not fighting us because they’re aligned politically with al-Qaeda or the Taliban or they somehow want to come and oppress the West and change our way of life. They’re primarily fighting us because al-Qaeda moved into their area and we came in to find al-Qaeda and they’re pushing back against the presence of a western brigade combat team in their valley or village, or because their crops were damaged or civilian colleagues of theirs were killed or some other issue that’s usually local in nature. Does this mean we should back up and go home and not chase al-Qaeda? Absolutely not. We need to find ways of doing it that work with the local population instead of creating a backlash against us and that is possible. That is how we turned the war around in Iraq. It’s how we’ve done a lot of things that have succeeded in Afghanistan, even though the overall conflict isn’t working as well as it should in Afghanistan, the parts of the country where we’ve done well over the last seven or eight years, there’s always been a) consistent pattern of going in, partnering with the local population and building a rapport and then working with them to push the extremist groups out of their environment. And I liken it to, imagine that you live in a depressed neighbourhood somewhere in town and a gang moves into your district and they start intimidating everybody and beat people up, do drive-by shootings, carry out intimidation so they can create their own gang turf, safe haven in your district. Most people hate the gang at that point. Now they go to the other side of town and they start robbing the rich people. If the police turn up in your district and start blowing people’s houses up looking for that gang, sooner or later you’re going to turn against the police and find yourself exploited and manipulated by that gang if it has any kind of political sensitivity whatsoever and find yourself pushing back against the police, because the gang aren’t hurting you, they’re robbing the rich folks on the other side of town. It’s police coming into your district doing stuff to find the gang that’s creating a bad day out for you, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in Afghanistan. We saw it in Iraq right up until the end of 2006, and in some places into 2007. It’s only by changing that dynamic I believe that we’re ever going to be able to get ahead of the curve and get to a position where we’re essentially fighting this war on terrorism as a global counterinsurgency. Instead of chasing the bad guys, we’re partnering with the population which makes the bad guys very visible, isolates them and makes it possible to ruthlessly hunt them down, kill them and capture them. Don’t get me wrong, that is required, but it’s not the primary element of what we’re trying to do here. Let me stop there, I know there’s a lot of specifics you guys want to talk about. We’ll throw it open to question and answer, and hopefully develop those ideas a little bit more.
Thank you, David Kilcullen. If that’s the dull bit, I look forward to the questions.
Q. The arrival of the Obama Administration has brought a significant change of atmosphere regarding Afghanistan and a feeling of movement. Now it’s also brought a significant offensive in the south of the country, it’s brought a lot of journalists into the country. There covering the offences, they’ve been embedded, people covering the elections. One of the things that has come out strongly is a more detailed sense of the level of corruption in Afghanistan, ranging from abuses from local police – and the police are being retrained, we accept that – through to some laws that are appalling being passed in the Afghan Parliament, and this is being increasingly linked to the increase in casualties from Western nations and a feeling is, I’m sure, taking hold that we are losing young men and women to support a corrupt regime. So basically my question is, how corrupt is the Afghan Government and is that fixable?
A. It’s very corrupt, it is fixable, that doesn’t mean we’re going to fix it. Let me tell you in a little bit more detail. Two this yearal points first. One of your problems in counterinsurgency is you have to maintain a rapport with the local population, but political support from the home country and that becomes difficult when the values of the local population are very different from the values of the home country, and that’s one of the things we’ve seen in some of the legislation that’s been passed by the Afghan Parliament, particularly relating to women’s rights, where things that you can get through the Afghan Parliament that are supported by the majority of them in the country aren’t necessarily the sort of things that we want to be sending our young men and women off to die for, and I think that is a fairly universal consideration in most counterinsurgency environments. It’s not unique to Afghanistan, but it’s one that we really need to get a grip of. The second issue, though, is of corruption and I often hear people say “Afghanistan’s always been very corrupt”. I’m not sure that’s actually true. Most Afghans I’ve spoken to don’t think the level of corruption that we have now is anything that’s previously existed in Afghanistan. You know, it’s really mushroomed and grown. There were about 60,000 local civil servants in Afghanistan at the time of the western intervention in 2001. Most of those people work as drivers, translators and fixes for NGOs and international community organisations and there’s a lot of corruption involved in that, because people traditionally capable of doing the local administration in a lot of areas have been sucked out of those jobs into other things, supporting the international presence and so there’s a bit of a vacuum at the local level and one of the things we’ve seen happening in Afghanistan is the Taliban coming in and filling that vacuum and most of the international community assistance that’s gone into Afghanistan since 9/11 has focussed on top-down institutions of the central States. Let me give you two examples, judiciary and police. After the Bonn agreement in 2001, the Italian Government got responsibility for judiciary and the German Government got responsibility for policing and they both took basically the same approach of a centre out, top-down approach. So the Germans built a Police Academy in Kabul, creating police institutions and they were like “Yeah, we’ll eventually get down to the local level”. The Italians started building a Supreme Court, training judges, writing a legal code, training attorneys and so on and were “Eventually, we’ll get down to the local level”. The Taliban have come in at that very local level and not only have they been as it were eating our lunch and taking over that part of the process, they’ve also been posing a direct governance challenge to the Afghan Government. So right now the Taliban have about 15 Sharia law courts operating across the south of Afghanistan. You think of women being stoned for adultery, and that does happen. But if you look at the work of these courts about 95% is what we would call civil or commercial law. They do stuff like title deeds and land disputes. They sort out grazing and water, they handle inheritances and divorces and stuff like that. So they’re actually delivering dispute resolution and mediation services at the local level. I ask Afghans, if somebody stole your boat or bicycle who would you go to? They never say the police. They laugh, they say the police would beat you up for bothering them. If you go to the Taliban, it might have blood on it, but you’ll get it back. The Taliban have given this impression of harsh but local law. There are Taliban tax assessments who do tax assessment around Kandahar. It’s not just appropriation, they actually do an assessment and the big crop is around Kandahar’s grapes. They’ll come back at the end of the season, you harvested 75% of what you predict sod your taxes are reduced. They go around doing fair taxation administration which again is a direct governance challenge to the Afghan Government which doesn’t really collect taxes. In fact, the biggest source of revenue for the Afghan Government is the drugs trade, and the other thing that the Taliban have just reintroduced in the last few months is an ombudsman office up just north-east of Kandahar which is a direct challenge to the International Security Force. They published in 2006, and again this year, a code of conduct for Taliban commanders which lays out how they’re to treat the population and it’s published, the population can read it, and if the Taliban does something that offends you, you go to the ombudsman and you complain and they hear the case and they sometimes fire, or even execute Taliban commanders for breaking the code of conduct. Again, that’s a direct challenge to us in terms of civil casualties, in terms of administration and so on. Bernard Fall, the famous counterinsurgency theorists of the 1960s said a government losing to a counterinsurgency isn’t being outfought, it’s being outgoverned and that’s what’s happening in Afghanistan. So a lot of our strategy to date has been about expanding the reach of the Afghan Government. If you’re expanding the reach of a corrupt Government that oppresses its own people… what a lot of us are doing and this process of reviewing the strategy and coming up with a new strategy, is focusing very heavily on anti-corruption, governance and the rule of law at the local level. What we’re trying to do is put in place – you’ve got to change the government before it can expand its reach. That’s a lot of what we’re going to be focusing on I think you’ll find in the next months to years in Afghanistan trying to fix those local level issues that have actually created this dynamic where the Taliban are basically eating our lunch.
Q. Can I confuse the issue, by asking, it sounds like from the description of the Taliban that at least at some levels they’re running a fairly effective administration, is that not who we should be supporting there?
A. The Taliban are running a more effective local administration at some levels than some parts of the country. But I think you only have to look at Afghan public opinion to see that most Afghans don’t want the Taliban back. It fluctuates between 4% – 8% of the population want them back. I think — 8%. I think the lesson is that when people are given a choice between oppressive but effective administration and anarchy and corruption, they tend to go to the effective administration, and I think what this tells us is that Afghans don’t necessarily want us to leave, they just don’t think we’re doing a very good job and I think that’s… the same goes for Western public opinion. There’s been a lot made of the fact that now 51% of people in the States are opposed to the conduct of war and say ” we don’t think it’s worth fighting”. People don’t tend to support the war, unless they can see progress being made. I’ve seen the US attitude to the Iraq war turn around completely in the last few years because of a perception we fixed a bunch of problems. I don’t think we should expect Americans to support the war until we demonstrate we can fight it properly. The same is true of Afghans. This isn’t a problem with opinion, but the conduct of the war, and we need to get it right.
Q. Just want to ask, you mentioned the very significant improvement in Iraq in 2006, 2007 which stemmed from the awakening. First of all, it’s never been adequately explained to my understanding how you realised the game had changed so very significantly? Secondly, is there any prospect of an awakening in Afghanistan?
A. It was not the only thing that happened in 2007 and I think it’s important to realise that the awakening of 2006, 2007 was actually the fourth or fifth time that the tribes in that area had tried to throw al-Qaeda off and every preceding time they’d been slaughtered. General Vines who worked there at the end of ’05 start of 06 had a process of engaging the tribes and winning them over, and at that time relations had already started two or three rebellions against al-Qaeda. In that 2 or 3-month timeframe every single one of Vine’s tribal contacts were killed by al-Qaeda and the reason was we didn’t have enough troops on the ground to protect people. We had enough troops to p*ss everybody off, but not enough to make people feel safe and we could have gone down or up, and I think the choice to go up to a higher level was the right one, because when we were finally able to protect people on the ground and make ’em feel safe they began to turn against al-Qaeda in large numbers and that’s when we really started to get a break. Let me just explain the counterinsurgency theory. We talk about gnaw mattive systems of sanctions and rules and the way the insurgent groups gains control of a population is the way as a government does. There are rules you’ve got to follow and if you step outside of the rules there are punishments associated with stepping outside of them. It’s like speeding on the road, you know what the speed limit is and you’ll get fined if you drive outside that. In al-Qaeda’s case, you’re going to get your head cut off if you smoke on the street, for example. So the rules are a little different, but people understood the rules, and al-Qaeda I think, in my observation of a lot of different terrorist groups, al-Qaeda falls at one end of the spectrum. It has a very narrow band of very tough control. It basically is a toggle switch. It had cut your head off or not cut your head off, that’s all it can basically do. And it intimidates people and gains control almost entirely through intimidation. At the other end of the spectrum there are groups like Hezbollah. Hezbollah in Lebanon has a terrorist organisation, it has an insurgency group, but it also has a parliamentary faction, it runs schools and hospitals. It can build your house, it can get you a job, educate your children, treat you if you get sick. It has a wider span of this gnaw mattive system. It’s harder, more flexible, resilient and less brittle than al-Qaeda. Now the Taliban are somewhere in between and I think they’re closer to the Hezbollah end than to al-Qaeda. They’re much more politically savvy than al-Qaeda. They can do a hell of a lot more for people than just intimidating them. Rule of law we’ve already talked about, the economy… I mean, the Taliban basically have the world’s best cash crop ever in the form of the poppy. When you think about it from the standpoint of the Afghan farmer, the customer pace you upfront for the entire cost of not only growing the thing, but the entire cost of the crop. They pick it up from the farm gate so you don’t have to worry about transportation or taking it to market or selling it. You don’t have to accept any of those risks. It’s a winter crop, it doesn’t clash with food crops and in some parts of the country you can get four crops a year with limited irrigation and it takes a lot of man power, which is a good thing because there’s money and jobs that get spread around. They bring in economic benefit in the form of the cash crop of the poppy. They bring in governance, they bring in a political argument where they say the very same warlords that exploited you before we took over in ’96, those very same people are the running mates in the election. Those same people are Cabinet members, so whose side are you on? They’ve got the political appeal and the appeal to nationalism, the Pashtun orientation. So the Taliban are really a much more sophisticated organisation than al-Qaeda and Iraq, which gets back to the question. I don’t think we will see an awakening in the same way that we saw in Iraq. We’re not going to see tribes say “This is crazy, we’re throwing these bastards out” which is what we saw in the case of al-Qaeda. We may see local guys turning away from the central Taliban leadership and we may see some factions breaking away and joining on a localised district basis rather than a tribal basis. It’s going to look very different from the awakening.
Q. If you look back at human history, it seems that we’re sort of wired in to look at the local thing, above the national thing, above the global thing and also that we seem very keen as a species on earth to resort to violence to solve our problems. Given those factors, do you really think that our defence budgets are appropriately balanced in this day and age when the problems seem to be one of battles for resources, whether it be water, oil, overpopulation or whatever. Should we be reorganising our defence budget to make a more sustainable future for civilisation? If so, how the hell do you persuade the politicians to do that?
A. This is a process going on right now in the States as part of the QDR and Secretary Gates came out before the start and said we can’t continue to fight the wars we want to fight, we have to fight the wars we’re actually in and he talked about focusing on the types of conflict we’re trying to deal with now. I guess the big strategic question which we’re yet to answer effectively, is are these wars we’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, are they a temporary aberration, or the face of future warfare? There’s still debate about that, it’s kind of like global warming, there’s people who believe in it, and people who question – people haven’t really got to a position of agreement on it. Because there are so many jobs involved and so much money, it’s another similarity with the whole global warming debate, there’s a lot of impetus to stick with things kind of as they are and hedge around the edges. We are starting to see some movement. Like the US Air Force is training more pilots for uninhabited air vehicles than for piloted systems. We’re starting to see a real growth in the creation of troops that are capable at stabilisation operations, counterinsurgency and so on. The budget’s been getting bigger since 9/11. We are starting to see shifts. It’s taking money out of old capability that I think will really be an indicator of a shift in mindset. We haven’t really seen that yet.
Q. I think you said there that targeting individual terrorists was not the way to go with combatting al-Qaeda, but I wonder if you still think capturing Osama bin Laden should be a priority? What would it mean in this day and age if we did? Also I’ve seen you quoted, or I think you’ve disputed this quote that you said the invasion of Iraq was an f’*ng mistake.
A. I disputed the swear word.
Q. Would you describe the invasion of Afghanistan in similar terms.
A. A lot of questions there, what was the first one.
Q. About Osama.
A. If you look again over the broad sweep of history of insurgencies, most insurgency, or most counterinsurgency campaigns won by the Government, the government usually wins by negotiation, not by destroying all the terrorists or the insurgents and in most cases, a successful negotiation runs something like the good Friday accord in Northern Ireland where insurgents agreed to put weapons down and rejoin the normal political process in return for concessions, like allowing them to have a seat at the table or something like that. Most successful cases where the government wins it ends up being something like that. It’s rare to find an example of a government succeeding just by killing every last terrorist. If you accept the idea you’re going to eventually… backing up, if you accept the idea that al-Qaeda is an insurgency, then it follows probably the way this thing will be resolved will bear some relationship to how insurgencies normally end and if most insurgencies normally end with a negotiated solution, you might ask yourself why we’re trying to kill the people who can negotiate an end to this thing? Maybe it’s because we think they’re not open to negotiation and that would be a legitimate case that you could argue. But if we’re just trying to kill ’em because they’re there, then I think we need to do some more thinking about that. I think there’s also a qualitative difference between let’s say an ap American unmanned aircraft killing Osama bin Laden or a tribe oppressed by al-Qaeda, coming across, capturing him, putting him on trail saying, ” This guy a traitor to Islam, he’s brought the wrath of the Americans and the Pashtun nation, we’re going to pass sentence on this guy in accordance with our laws” that would be a different end from us killing the guy. It matters, but it’s not necessarily the be all and end all to go kill Osama bin Laden. And then your other question was? Everyone knows that, I think, it was a mistake to go into Iraq. Not only in general, but when we did before we finished what we were trying to do in Afghanistan. Olive Carer who wrote a famous history of the Pashtuns said Afghan wars only become dangerous when they’re over, it’s easy to get in there, it’s really hard to maintain yourself and you think about the Soviets. The Soviets captured the whole territory of Afghanistan in six weeks. Took us seven, you know. So getting in there is not the hard thing, it’s dealing with the unrest and all the stuff that comes afterwards and we really left at the end of the first quarter before the game had even really fully warmed up and I think that’s a problem. Do I think it was a mistake to invade Afghanistan? No, I don’t. I think that any world government, any government in the world would have had to do something fairly dramatic in the aftermath of an event like 9/11. I’d remind you that Australia activated the ANZUS Treaty two days after 9/11. NATO enacted Article 5. It was the international community responding as a body, including a bunch of countries that didn’t support the invasion of Iraq, responding to what was seen to be a threat to the health of the whole international community. And I think that was a valid thing to do. I think that the mistake was to not deal with al-Qaeda in Pakistan effectively. We simply pushed them across the frontier where they festered and are still festering in a country that’s actually much more important because of its access to nuclear weapons and its size, than Afghanistan. And we failed to follow through. We didn’t bring the reconstruction, the development, the aid money, the governance, the anti-corruption programs, all those things we’ve been talking to back up that quick military victory in 2001.
Q. I think I saw you being quoted a couple of months ago saying you saw in Afghanistan there was about three to five years of major combat still ahead and maybe four to five years of stabilisation program before the place would be in a position to hand over to the Afghans, ten years potentially. Do you think the logic of our alliance responsibilities means Australia will be in that for that full period, and the logic of the facts on the ground are going to mean that our commitments are going to have to increase over that period of time?
A. Two points. Firstly, in terms of the timeline, what I’ve said is the Taliban have come into this thing with a long-term plan. We have been fighting the war in 6-9 month blocks since 9/11. You can look back and see a series of statements by Western leaders saying, ” This is the year, we’ve got to fix it this year, this fighting season , this 6-month block” and we focussed on a series of short-term deliverables, rather than focusing on a long-term timeframe, thinking how do we get it to where we need it to be in the next four or five years? We have to start thinking in a 10-year timeframe and General McChrystal believes. Unless we do that, we don’t have a game. Once we get them to that point, that’s the start of a whole phase which is probably going to take three years of transitioning to effective Afghan State and local structures. Even once we get that done, it’s five years from now, we would have to be looking at another 5-year period where we are in an overwatch role where we bail them out. So you’re looking at a 10-year commitment. Only a 2-year heavy fighting commitment but about a 10-year national commitment. In terms of Australia’s role in that, the historical record of Australia sticking with these kind of long-term interventions is pretty good. I think the indications just looking at all the different countries in the Coalition, to my mind, I don’t think there’s an indication at this stage that Australia’s likely to pull out or as likely to pull out as some other countries. We’re starting to see a real understanding in the countries that are committing to Afghanistan – and there’s 42 of them – that this is going to be a much longer term thing that some of them might have hoped. I think some people are tapped out. Some of the European countries are not in a position to do more. We’re still not seeing those countries talk about pulling out soon. And David Miliband the UK Foreign Minister said we have to avoid a strategic defeat for NATO, it could be the end of the alliance. So I think a lot of European countries are going to stick with it. That’s the general comment. The final point I’d make is that’s all very well and good, but if you don’t have a legitimate local Afghan Government to support, then you don’t have a counterinsurgency campaign and that to my mind is what is the critical thing in the campaign right now, it’s how this election plays out and if we don’t end up with a legitimate government that most Afghans believe was fairly elected – and yes it has problems. We already talked about corruption and stuff. But if we’re working on corruption problems to fix a government that people think is legitimate, that’s one thing. If we’re trying to make an illegitimate government better at oppressing the population, that’s a different ball game. I’ve talked in the past about Frankenstein’s monster. Legitimacy is a spark of life, it comes from inside a society. You can artificially inject it, it’ll walk and talk for a period of time but sooner or later it will rot and go rogue and you’ve got to find that local legitimacy in order to get that spark alive to make the thing sustainable. There are very legitimate local power structures in Afghanistan, but we’ve failed to connect them to a legitimate State and that’s really the critical thing we’ve got to do in the six months or so, along with all that corruption stuff we talked about.