Counterterrorist expert David Kilcullen

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Tavis talks with counterinsurgency specialist and one of the architects of the U.S. surge in Iraq.

Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen was raised in Australia, where he rose in the ranks of the Australian Army before working for the U.S. State Department. He was an advisor to Gen. McChrystal and served in Iraq on the civilian staff of Gen. Petraeus before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in '08. Kilcullen is the author of two books, The Accidental Guerilla and Counterinsurgency, and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He holds a doctorate in politics.


Tavis: David Kilcullen is a former counterinsurgency adviser for General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who now serves as a fellow at the Center for New American Security. His new text is called “Counterinsurgency.” David Kilcullen, good to have you on the program.
David Kilcullen: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, before I get too much into the text, about two individuals whose names have been in the news a lot of late – Petraeus and McChrystal. We all know that General McChrystal was removed from being our top leader in Afghanistan, has since announced he’s going to retire from the military.
You have advised in the past both McChrystal and Petraeus directly, so you’ve been in their inner circle of advisers. Talk to me about your sense of what happened to General McChrystal.
Kilcullen: Look, I think it was a very tragic series of events. I think the president had absolutely no choice but to fire General McChrystal. But if we were having this conversation a few weeks ago and you said, “What are the problems in Afghanistan,” I would have given you a whole list of problems to worry about.
One of them would not have been General McChrystal. He was a great operator who was doing a great job, but I guess the way things shook out it just was impossible for him to continue in command.
I was very worried when he was fired. I was thinking, who can possibly replace him and do an equally good or even perhaps a better job, and really the only person I can think of that would have made me feel confident was General Petraeus. So I guess it worked out. It was tragic, but the way it worked out was okay.
Tavis: It’s a great compliment on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s a bit disturbing to consider all the generals that we have, and to your mind you think he was the only person in that vast military who could do as good a job or better than McChrystal. What’s that say about our military or about how you’re assessing our generals?
Kilcullen: It’s not so much about any talent or lack of talent or anything like that. It’s about experience and one of the critical issues in Afghanistan right now is dealing with an Afghan government that is very corrupt, it’s abusive of its own population in some ways, and needs to change, needs to be reformed, and General Petraeus has a lot of experience in exactly that in Iraq.
There’s a lot of other generals, I think, who could do a good job, but I think he’s really the one at this point.
Tavis: If to your mind the government in Afghanistan is so corrupt, why, since you’ve been advising these folk in the inner circle, if we think that the government is so corrupt, at least you do, why, then, do we keep tiptoeing, walking on eggshells?
One day we love him, the next day we spank him – President Karzai. What do you make of that relationship if the government, again, is as corrupt as you say it is?
Kilcullen: Well, I think the evidence suggests that it’s got a lot more corrupt over the last five or six years. It’s now one of the bottom two or three countries in the world, according to Transparency International, which were the guys who do the annual governmental corruption survey, and that data is based on some pretty detailed field research.
Even my experience on the ground in Afghanistan and most of the Afghans I talked to will tell you that the main problem, the main driver of instability is actually government bad behavior and corruption, and a lot of that, of course, also comes from the aid programs that we sponsor and international assistance.
So it’s a complex set of reasons, it isn’t just President Karzai. But I think one of the reasons we haven’t been as firm with him as one might like is it’s hard to see an alternative. Who’s the guy who would step in if President Karzai wasn’t in charge?
Tavis: Alternative or not, if part of the problem is, not just a part of it, to your point, and I’m paraphrasing here, if a major part of the problem in Afghanistan, this complex situation, I understand.
But if a major part of it is the corrupt nature of the government, then how do we ever win? What do we define as victory if what you’re talking about ain’t got nothing to do with us; it’s a corrupt government inside that country?
Kilcullen: Well, it does have something to do with us, because this is the government we set up.
Tavis:Okay. (Laughs)
Kilcullen: This is the bond agreement, this is the – we didn’t have the district elections we were supposed to have; we didn’t hold these guys to account. These are our Afghans; this is our Afghan government that the international community set up.
I don’t mean the United States, I mean everybody. There’s 42 different countries involved in the effort. So we need to look at our souls in the mirror and say, “How are we going to work with Afghans at the local level to try and resolve this?” I’m not sure if we can, frankly. I think we had a really good partnership with them in 2001 which has, over time, evaporated, and to get that back requires a real willingness on their part to trust us.
Tavis: I’m not asking you to violate confidences, not that you would anyway when you’re talking to people as high up as McChrystal and Petraeus, but when you’re in these private conversations and you say to them as you’ve said now to a national TV audience, “I’m not sure we can do this,” what do these generals say back to you?
Kilcullen: Well, you’re not the first person I’ve said it to. I’ve worked for Secretary Rice as her adviser and we were having conversations like this within the government generally and in the think tank community for a number of years past.
As General Petraeus said when he took over in Iraq, it’s hard, the outcome is not certain, but “hard is not impossible.” I’m a rugby player, and in rugby we have a term for this. We call it a hospital pass, where someone throws you a ball right as the other guy’s coming to tackle you.
I think the other guy coming to tackle us right now is the deadline, and the July 2011 deadline turns a lot of problems in Afghanistan into crises because we’re got to solve them all by this time next year. I think one of the things we need to be thinking about carefully as we go into this review process that’s going to happen towards the end of the year is how are we tracking against these objectives in terms of time, and do we need to revisit that to some extent.
Tavis: I was going to ask whether or not you are suggesting to me that you think that time ought to be more fluid, but I’m not sure I want to ask that in part because it may already be fluid enough if you listen to what Secretary Clinton says, what President Obama says, everybody says, “depending on conditions on the ground.”
So we have a deadline, but it’s so arbitrary if you connect it to that particular statement they keep making.
Kilcullen: This is one of these issues where it’s partly what they said and it’s partly what the Afghans heard that matters. If you listen to what President Obama said in the speech, and very much so what Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden have all said, it is very clear that it’s going to be conditions-based, it’s going to depend what’s going on on the ground, and to some extent it’s going to be driven by how stable the environment is.
But I was in Afghanistan just after the speech was made, and that’s not what Afghans heard. A lot of Afghans heard, “Americans are leaving,” and the very day after the speech the Taliban came out and they said, “Ah, the Americans are leaving this summer. We’re going to still be here. Which side are you backing?”
So now a lot of Afghans are kind of on the fence about that. A lot of foreign investors who had been contributing to the reconstruction are wary about what the environment’s going to be like next year. A lot of people are concerned about how is it going to track?
I think it’s partly a matter of recovering public confidence that we are going to stick around to get the job done, and it is going to be conditions based.
Tavis: That’s part of the argument that McCain made against Obama during the campaign, that he and others have continued to make, which is that if you set a date certain time to get out, this is exactly what’s going to happen. The Taliban’s going to wait it out, say, “The Americans are leaving, hold tight. Whose side you going to be on once they leave?” Does that argument have merit?
Kilcullen: I think in terms of what goes on on the ground it’s certainly true that if the enemy knows what your specific deadline is, that they’re able to game that. But again, that’s not what President Obama said, right?
So I think the president understands, and all the national security team understand that it’s a matter of transition based on conditions. It’s a matter of taking that understanding and making sure the Afghans understand that as well, and communicating that in a way that makes them have confidence.
That’s not just a matter of communications and media; it’s a matter of actual performance on the ground.
Tavis: This comment has been – this statement has been uttered so many times, we couldn’t begin to count them. Most recently, I suspect, by the chairman of the Republican party, how much longer, I do not know, Michael Steele, when he suggested Afghanistan is the cemetery of empires, that’s been said many times before, but is it still the case, do you think?
Kilcullen: Well, there’s been a lot of empires go into Afghanistan and not a lot of them have come out intact. Probably the most successful in history was Alexander the Great, and he got there by marrying into the tribes and working really closely with tribal allies and setting up an indigenous, locally based, tribally acceptable governance structure that worked.
This argument about graveyard of empires I think is overapplied in the sense that a lot of Afghans have supported us, up to 65 percent supporting us even a couple of years ago. The Russians or the British never had anything close to that level of popular support to what the international community has in Afghanistan.
But I think there’s a truism there, which is it’s a lot easier to get into Afghanistan than to stabilize it and ultimately get out, and that’s where we’re at now.
Tavis:To your text here, define for me in today’s world “counterinsurgency.”
Kilcullen: There’s two meanings to it which I bring out in the book. One is sort of small C counterinsurgency; the activity that pretty much every government in history has gone through, which is dealing with internal opposition and armed rebellion and all those uprisings that go back to the Romans or the Persian empire or whatever.
There’s another very specific meaning to it and it was invented here in the United States in 1958, and it’s a concept where you take best practice social science, best practice behavioral science, economics, all the sort of modern academic understanding of how traditional societies work, and you try to apply that to the problems of how you solve these kinds of rebellions and uprisings.
Just by saying it like that, you can see why it’s such a controversial issue, because it’s complex and because a lot of people in the social science community aren’t real comfortable about what we know about tribal populations being used in that way.
Tavis:Your best example of where counterinsurgency on the part of our government has worked? Your best example of that, what’s worked well, and the worst example, where our efforts at counterinsurgency has backfired on us?
Kilcullen: Well, in the book I go through about 386 instances of counterinsurgency since the end of the Napoleonic wars, and one of the interesting things that comes out of that is that there are two really big factors for success in counterinsurgency.
The first one is be fighting in your own country. Be able to understand the environment intuitively because you’re from there. The second one is be willing to negotiate. If you look at it, in about 80 percent of cases the government tends to win the counterinsurgency, but if you’re in your own country and you’re willing to negotiate, you’ve got about an 80 percent chance.
If you’re in somebody else’s country and you’re not willing to negotiate, your chance of success drops to like 20 percent. So for us in Afghanistan or in Iraq, the lesson is work closely with locals who are from there, who understand the environment, build a partnership and figure out how to actually come to some kind of position where you’re negotiating from a position of strength and the enemy are willing to deal and resolve their grievances.
The most powerful recent example of that working obviously was the (unintelligible) in Iraq under General Petraeus, but that war isn’t over yet. There’s been a lot of other good examples around the world recently, but I think the Iraq example is the most recent powerful example in the American model.
I think people talk about Vietnam like it’s the bad example. Actually, in technical terms, counterinsurgency techniques succeeded in Vietnam. The problem was it took too long, it took too many people and too much money, and the American people lost confidence in the effort, rightly so, and we pulled out and eventually, South Vietnam fell to a conventional military invasion by tanks and so on from the North Vietnamese.
That points to another issue, which is it’s a regional issue. It was in Vietnam, it’s going to be in Afghanistan as well.
Tavis: I asked that question for a particular reason, because I thought, I thought, having gone through the text, that we’d end up right back where we began. I thought when I asked that question of your best and worst examples that you were going to give me Iraq, particularly given that you supported the surge.
I figured your answer to that question would be Iraq as the best example. I also figured that you would go to Vietnam as the conventional worst example. But to your own point, since you don’t buy the argument that Vietnam is the worst answer to that question, it almost sounds like Afghanistan by default might end up being the answer, if not now, somewhere down the road.
Kilcullen: I would say if you look at American history, the U.S. has done some kind of counterinsurgency about 200 times in the last 200 years. I reckon one of the most complex and problematic examples in U.S. history is Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War.
You look at what happened down there and you look at how things played out over a 10-year period and how that was ultimately resolved, but then it took another century for a lot of those issues to be dealt with.
That’s one of those examples where I think we can look at a domestic counterinsurgency probably and how it was resolved and ask some hard questions about performance.
Tavis: It’s a fascinating conversation. The book is called “Counterinsurgency,” written by David Kilcullen. David, good to have you on the program.
Kilcullen: Thank you so much.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm