Chris's Reviews > The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One

The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen
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's review
Mar 27, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: military

The Accidental Guerrilla is indeed not an easy read, but is rich with the life experience and thoughtful analysis of one of the world's foremost counterinsurgency experts. Kilcullen meanders from Iraq to Afghanistan to Timor to Thailand, stuttering and stopping to share insights on counterinsurgency best (and worst) practices. He then moves on to Europe to explore how best to understand (and engage) disconnected Muslim communities. The US Army advisor does not limit himself to an assessment of counterinsurgency tactics, however. Bare with Kilcullen through his many stories -- sometimes entertaining, other times academic -- and you will find that The Accidental Guerrilla presents not only counterinsurgency best practices, grand military strategy, and the underpinnings of a new military doctrine, but also a 21st foreign policy agenda. Once again, depending on your background, you may get lost in the depths at some points. If so, skip ahead to the conclusion of that section and move on -- you can always come back to it. I have read a few of this genre and this is the best of breed in my opinion.

For those unaware, Kilcullen regards the initial invasion of Iraq as incredibly foolish and strategically unwise, and continually reiterates how difficult and resource-intensive counterinsurgency is, even when done well. As such, the author is interested in civilian rather than militaristic international engagement, whenever possible. Kilcullen recognizes an unhealthy imbalance in our current capabilities; for example, the size ratio of the US armed forces to US diplomatic/aid agencies (State Dept/USAID) is 210:1, while in most Western democracies the ratio is around 9:1.

Ultimately, Kilcullen aims to reorient the foreign policy discussion. Under the past administration, hunting down terrorists was portrayed as a decisive strategy. The author points out that: "Killing or capturing terrorists is a strictly secondary activity, because it is ultimately defensive (keeping today’s terrorists at bay) rather than decisive (preventing future terrorism). Conversely, programs that address the underlying conditions that terrorists exploit (thus preventing another crop of terrorists from simply replacing those we kill or capture today) are ultimately decisive."

Within military operations, COINdinistas like Kilcullen are interested in finding the most effective way to accomplish the mission of asphyxiating the insurgency. Kilcullen builds off his field knowledge and explains where counterinsurgency in particular and military operations more generally should fit into a greater foreign policy, which is proactive, yet fully cognizant of the costs (in terms of resources and secondary effects) of armed intervention.

There are too many worthwhile nuggets to catalog (e.g., US Special Forces sought to emulate the UK's OSS, yet "the OSS was an interagency body with a sizable civilian component," which obviously was lost in translation), so I will leave you with selections from the later chapters that condense some of Kilcullen's strategic takeaways:

"Planners should select the lightest, most indirect and least intrusive form of intervention that will achieve the necessary effect. Policy-makers should work by, with, and through partnerships with local government administrators, civil society leaders, and local security forces wherever possible. Wherever possible, civilian agencies are preferable to military intervention forces, local nationals to international forces, and long-term, low-profile engagement to short-term, high-profile intervention. If this approach is not feasible due to the scale of the problem, then policy-makers should carefully weigh the risks of nonintervention against the costs and benefits of intervention.
In the environment I have described, there are likely to be two key mission sets (or clusters of similar types of tasks) that both military and civilian agencies will need to be able to perform if they are to remain strategically relevant. One of these is defensive, the other offensive (or, perhaps, “decisive”). They are strategic disruption and military assistance. Strategic disruption aims to keep today’s enemy groups off balance, prevent the emergence of new terrorist threats, disrupt takfiri safe havens, and defeat enemy propaganda. This is defensive, not offensive. Superficially it looks offensive, because it involves direct action against terrorist targets, strikes against safe havens and the kill/capture of extremist and insurgent leaders. But it is actually strategically defensive, because it deals only with today’s threat and does not contribute to preventing the next crop of enemies from emerging. To paraphrase the Arab proverb, an approach to the takfiri threat that solely involved strategic disruption would be akin to sweeping the sand out of our house without first closing the door. Over the long term, therefore, strategic disruption is necessary but not decisive, and will probably only amount to 10–20 percent of the military’s role in countering terrorism, and perhaps will remain primarily a special operations forces task. It is of course critical, and the military has to be proficient at it, but it is not ultimately decisive. The ultimately decisive mission set is what we might call “military assistance.” This set of tasks aims to restructure the threat environment over the long term so that we hardwire the enemy out of it, deny them a role, reduce the recruiting base, and attack the conditions that generate the threat. This is the truly decisive activity, even though, as noted, we must clearly bear in mind the limits on our ability to shape events, and recognize that we will probably never be able to do more than give them a gentle nudge in our preferred direction."

For those that would like to read a solid formal review, see this article:
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06/05/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Trish Have the opportunity to begin this again, and am finding it terribly important to our thinking and our political choices now and in the future. It infuriates me that we are talking about our national impoverishment and don't critically examine the fact that we have been borrowing to pay for our wars. This period may well be recorded in history books as the beginning of America's end.

Trish The link you have on this review doesn't appear to work. Does one need to be subscribed to Current Intelligence to view the article? I notice the hyperlink says "occidental" rather than "accidental" when displayed.

message 3: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan Sirotkin Yup, I thought the book did an excellent job of capturing the idea that men we label as terrorists simply see themselves as soldiers fighting for a greater good:

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