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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, 346 pp.

In The Accidental Guerrilla, Dr. David Kilcullen examines the context and composition of what has been commonly dubbed the “Global War on Terrorism” from a new and unique perspective. A former special advisor for counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a senior advisor to Gen David Petraeus during the 2007 surge of forces in Iraq, Dr. Kilcullen draws on the modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as smaller scale events in places like East Timor, Indonesia, Pakistan, and even Europe, to demonstrate that today’s conflicts cannot easily be treated as the work of transnational terrorism. Through a series of case studies, Kilcullen demonstrates that the majority of modern “terrorist” activities are in fact localized events that, through a complex series of events and misinterpretations, are inadvertently pulled into the sphere of the relatively few global terrorist organizations.

Kilcullen begins by quickly establishing his bona fides, both as an academic and as an experienced operator that has immersed himself in many of these cultures, clearly showing him to be uniquely suited for a work of this nature. Rather than simply repackaging a series of lessons previously discussed by the magnitude of modern scholars researching the subject of terrorism, he has developed a new and exciting frame of reference with a great deal of practical application at both the operational and strategic level. Preferring the term “hybrid war” to what he considers the oft misunderstood and misused term “war on terrorism,” he first seeks to reframe the reader’s mindset towards the problem at hand. Kilcullen takes what on its face appears to be a relatively simple premise and clearly demonstrates the actual complexity of this view, while also providing clear advice on how the lessons can be applied. Using examples from his extensive travels, he advances the idea that the majority of adversaries the Western world has been fighting are in fact what he terms “accidental guerillas.” They do not fight out of hatred for the West or in an attempt to overthrow the existing world order. Rather, they fight because the United States and its partners have invaded their homes in order to deal with small extremist elements that also happen to occupy that space.

Subsequent chapters deal with Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008 and Iraq during the 2007 surge, with an additional chapter examining a smattering of conflicts such as East Timor, Pakistan, and Thailand where he discusses similarities and differences from the first two conflicts. In what he calls the Kunar model, Kilcullen demonstrates how projects as simple as road construction can deny true terrorists the ability to use the population when projects are carried out in a way that is positive for the local populace. During his analysis of the Iraq surge, he demonstrates how a change in tactics arguably turned around a war that many believed was already lost by protecting the populace and forging true partnerships, thus co-opting the “accidentals.”

His final chapter, “Turning an Elephant into a Mouse,” provides a well thought out analysis of the implications from the previous chapters and offers a number of clear suggestions for how Western democracies can better deal with issue of global terrorism. He clearly states that the West has been manipulated by al-Qaeda, the instigator in chief, granting them greater prestige and political influence. In short, the West has turned the “Takfiri” terrorists from the proverbial mouse into an elephant. In order to reverse this trend, Kilcullen provides a series of steps that can be taken, the bulk of which can fit within existing plans with only a small degree of change. However, the key to executing these changes involves first changing mindsets. As he states as early as chapter 2, nothing here is particularly new or controversial in conceptual term, implementing the ideas effectively is what would be.

While the sheer volume of literature on the subjects of terrorism and counterinsurgency ensure there are plentiful works dealing with each of the areas Kilcullen discusses in far greater detail, this text provides a truly unique new lens through which to view the topic. However, the nature of the text being drawn exclusively from his personal experiences also creates a distinct limitation. Several of the ideas Kilcullen suggests as ways to respond to current threats have been attempted to some degree in other locations, such as Greece, El Salvador, and the Philippines. However, no comparative analysis is provided. This limit notwithstanding, Kilcullen provides a clear and expertly written perspective that, combined with insightful suggestions for application, make this book a must read for anyone dealing with the threats described.

Maj Raymond J. Fortner, USAF

"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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