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The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen. Oxford University Press, 2009, 384 pp.

Despite some limitations, David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla is a valuable addition to counterinsurgency (COIN) literature. He offers an effective and relevant synthesis of theories of conflict in the contemporary security environment to explain how the takfiris (al-Qaeda and its Islamic jihadist terrorist allies and sympathizers) rely on what he terms the “accidental guerrilla syndrome” in fighting the United States (p. 28). Also fundamentally sound is Kilcullen’s argument that al-Qaeda and its ilk establish a base in a poorly administered or battle-torn area; incur the wrath of the United States and its allies by exporting terrorism and violence; and then provoke a response that angers the locals, thus producing more allies for the takfiri cause. He succinctly and accurately explains how these antagonists conduct a protracted fight, one centered on provoking a disproportionate military response that alienates the local population while al-Qaeda and its allies intimidate and isolate those people from America and its allies, with the goal of “bleeding the United States to exhaustion and bankruptcy” (p. 29). At the same time, his concept of a global takfiri threat as a new phenomenon in asymmetric warfare may be exaggerated. Rather, the author’s key intellectual contribution probably lies in assessing well-known and long-standing patterns of low-intensity conflict, arguing that a nation can find itself engaging multiple asymmetrical threats simultaneously. Given these attributes, one best sees Kilcullen’s work as an introduction to basic principles and a general guide to the conduct and implementation of a COIN strategy. For a more elaborate discussion of the operational specifics and tactical aspects of COIN, one should consider The Accidental Guerrilla a building block for additional sources.

The case studies offered by Kilcullen on Indonesia, Iraq, and Afghanistan are substantive and meaty, although the attempt to link local resistance movements to a global takfiri threat requires more development and explication. Inclusion of the Indonesian case helps break the limitations of an analysis restricted to the American experience in the Iraq war and Afghanistan. This case study shows Kilcullen at his best, featuring in-depth research as well as extensive practical and theoretical knowledge of and experience with the subject matter. Moreover, he masterfully connects his thesis of the accidental guerrilla to American experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The “quasi” case concerning terrorism in Europe, however, is misplaced and poorly executed, failing to make clear whether the subject matter is terrorism, insurgency, or a mixture of the two. It provides no credible explanation of how an insurgency could emerge in Western Europe, largely due to the absence of a discussion of the socioeconomic context, social history, demographic analysis, cultural conflict, and failure of European state institutions to meet a burgeoning Muslim immigrant population.

The conclusion offers sensible and prudent policy prescriptions, albeit none of them are particularly new. Of course the key is that when dealing with military establishments geared toward high-intensity interstate conflict, one often forgets the lessons of COIN and counterterrorism until the rude surprise of the next engagement. For this reason, his discussion of fostering, employing, and retaining time-tested COIN practices is laudable. Wisely, though, he emphasizes that “counterinsurgency in general is a game we need to avoid wherever possible” (p. 268). Indeed, the most successful COIN operations may very well be those of prevention or those in which states or governing bodies take the necessary political, economic, and institutional reforms prior to the emergence of conflict. The treatment of terrorism as a threat involving specific actors, as opposed to a grand global war against the phenomenon of terrorism, is skillful and sensible. Finally, of specific note and appreciation is his methodological section, which discusses the limits and potential shortcomings of his research, rooted as it is in Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” work in cultural anthropology (p. 304). For example, Kilcullen points out that he gleans much of his research from those natives able to speak English, who may have a very different view from those who do not, especially in an insular tribal society like Afghanistan or, for that matter, in some poor suburban Parisian arrondissements.

For the Air Force, extrapolations from his observations provide guidance on the potential for future technological development, as well as the promise and overall limits of the service in COIN operations. Central to the contribution of the Air Force in low-intensity operations is the movement toward precision that dates back to the Cold War. The stress on minimization of collateral damage as a best practice in low-intensity conflict places this service arm in an excellent position to neutralize threats without offending the local population or global audience that represents the enemy’s recruiting pools. That is, as an instrument for reducing the danger of creating accidental guerrillas, the Air Force offers an absolutely essential contribution to the exercise of counterterror and COIN operations, ranging from national technical means to the employment of precision-guided munitions in targeted “smart strikes.” However, because low-intensity conflicts involve counterterrorism and COIN, the Air Force will play a subsidiary role in these conflicts, with only a relatively small portion of the service participating at any given time. Even more, as evidenced by the sharp political backlash in Pakistan and the possible takfiri recruiting tool stemming from counterproductive drone strikes that went awry due to Clausewitzian friction and faulty intelligence, technical precision and proficiency can only partially mitigate the unintended consequences that produce what Kilcullen so accurately terms the accidental guerrilla.

Toby Lauterbach

Purdue University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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