Snap­ping the ter­ror ten­ta­cles

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Abat­tle-weary West must sum­mon the po­lit­i­cal will to de­feat Is­lamic State and con­tinue the fight against global ter­ror­ism. That is the cen­tral mes­sage of David Kil­cullen’s ex­pan­sive and am­bi­tious Blood Year: Ter­ror and the Is­lamic State. Kil­cullen, a for­mer Aus­tralian Army of­fi­cer, de­vel­ops his the­sis by weav­ing to­gether two dis­tinct but re­lated ac­counts: an anal­y­sis of the pol­icy fail­ures in Iraq that led to the rise of Is­lamic State and a broader eval­u­a­tion of the global war on ter­ror­ism.

Kil­cullen, in ad­di­tion to his con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence as a counter-ter­ror­ism strate­gist and for­mer ad­viser to US gen­eral David Pe­traeus and sec­re­tary of state Con­doleezza Rice, is a deft sto­ry­teller. The art­ful com­bi­na­tion of his pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence, in­sight­ful anal­y­sis and strate­gic rec­om­men­da­tions makes for en­thralling read­ing.

The story of Is­lamic State be­gins in Iraq. Kil­cullen is a se­vere critic of the de­ci­sion to open a sec­ond front in the war on ter­ror­ism by in­vad­ing Iraq be­fore the con­flict in Afghanistan and com­plex sit­u­a­tion in Pak­istan were re­solved. By 2006, Iraq was mired in a sec­tar­ian civil war, led there by the “mind­less ob­sti­nacy” of US de­fence sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld, who “in­sisted on leav­ing the ab­so­lute min­i­mum force in Iraq” fol­low­ing the de­feat of Sad­dam Hus­sein. Am­bas­sador Paul Bre­mer’s “dis­as­trous de-Ba’athi­fi­ca­tion edict and the dis­band­ing of the Iraqi army” only com­pounded the folly. (Later, one US of­fi­cer wrote to Kil­cullen, “Note to self: con­sider re­nam­ing Camp Victory.”)

In 2007, with Rums­feld gone, the most suc­cess­ful phase of the war — the so-called surge — be­gan. US troop num­bers in­creased and coali­tion forces shifted to an ex­plicit counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy. The surge co­in­cided with the An­bar Awak­en­ing, dur­ing which Sunni tribes joined the fight against al-Qa’ida. The re­sult was a more sta­ble and less vi­o­lent Iraq. How­ever, Kil­cullen says this cre­ated a false op­ti­mism that (in light of trong US public opin­ion against the war) pro­vided a fig leaf for the pre­ma­ture de­par­ture of Amer­i­can troops in 2011.

In counter-in­sur­gency, ‘‘you can leave early, or you can leave well”. The coali­tion, in Kil­cullen’s view, left early. The sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity achieved in Iraq was quickly lost. With­out US pres­sure, then Iraqi prime min­is­ter Nouri alMa­liki, lead­ing a coali­tion of Shia par­ties with sec­tar­ian ten­den­cies, re­verted to type. Pow­er­shar­ing agree­ments were ripped up and per- se­cu­tion of Sunni Iraqis rose. Ma­liki gut­ted the army by re­plac­ing “com­pe­tent tech­nocrats with loyal func­tionar­ies” who proved in­com­pe­tent and cor­rupt. He also be­gan to draw greater sup­port from Iran. In short, Ma­liki cre­ated the con­di­tions for the rise of Is­lamic State.

Left un­stated in the anal­y­sis is the ques­tion of how long (and at what lev­els) coali­tion forces would have needed to re­main de­ployed to en­sure the sta­bil­ity and longevity of a fed­eral Iraq. Given the forces un­leashed by the in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion, it is a dif­fi­cult one to an­swer.

The sec­ond strand of Kil­cullen’s es­say con­cerns the broader fight against ter­ror­ism. He was an au­thor of the “dis­ag­gre­ga­tion” strat­egy that sought to “dis­man­tle, or break up, the links that al­low the ji­had to func­tion as a global en­tity”. Thus iso­lated, ji­hadists could be fought by as­sist­ing gov­ern­ments to deal with lo­calised threats, counter ex­treme ide­olo­gies, and ad­dress the con­di­tions that fo­ment rad­i­cal­ism.

Kil­cullen’s sense of frus­tra­tion with the ex- ecu­tion of this strat­egy is pal­pa­ble: “This twofront dy­namic be­came a hole in the heart of West­ern strat­egy: the cost, in hu­man life, cred­i­bil­ity, money and time, of ex­tract­ing our­selves from the un­forced er­ror of Iraq fa­tally weak­ened the im­pact of dis­ag­gre­ga­tion.” Even af­ter Iraq, he ar­gues, lead­ers ne­glected the more dif­fi­cult el­e­ments of dis­ag­gre­ga­tion — de­vel­op­ing part­ner­ships with gov­ern­ments and build­ing lo­cal ca­pac­i­ties to fight the roots of ter­ror­ism — in favour of high-pro­file ef­forts to cap­ture or kill in­di­vid­ual lead­ers. It is a com­pelling cri­tique.

The two strands of Blood Year co­a­lesce around the rise of the Is­lamic State. A pro­to­state with “Ba’athist lin­eage and ji­hadist fa­cade”, it com­bines the re­gional ap­peal of fun­da­men­tal­ist Sunni Is­lam with the mar­tial dis­ci­pline and ex­pe­ri­ence of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s army, in­tel­li­gence and spe­cial op­er­a­tions ap­pa­ra­tus. Its ranks have been swelled by lo­cal griev­ances against the re­pres­sive gov­ern­ments of Iraq and Syria. Is­lamic State is a di­verse co- ali­tion with sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tions. But it is also a po­tent mil­i­tary force.

Kil­cullen con­vinc­ingly ar­gues for more de­ci­sive ac­tion against it. Unchecked, Is­lamic State could desta­bilise the en­tire Mid­dle East and en­mesh the re­gion in broader sec­tar­ian con­flict. Sub­stan­tial dis­rup­tion of global en­ergy sup­plies and trade routes would re­sult. The in­sta­bil­ity may also of­fer opportunistic ji­hadist groups the chance to ex­pand their in­flu­ence.

In ad­di­tion, Is­lamic State at­tracts young vol­un­teers from across the world, and many re­gional ji­hadist or­gan­i­sa­tions in the Mid­dle East, Africa and Asia have al­ready sworn al­le­giance. It has also spurred a danger­ous com­pet­i­tive dy­namic among other global ji­hadist groups.

Kil­cullen says the group fights like a state and can be de­feated con­ven­tion­ally, through sig­nif­i­cantly more airstrikes and ex­panded rules of en­gage­ment in Syria and Iraq. It is less ob­vi­ous how, fol­low­ing this de­feat, the re­gion can be sta­bilised for the long term. Iraq’s prob­lems re­main deeply rooted and Syria’s may be “in­tractable”, as Kil­cullen notes. Se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of the po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment fol­low­ing Is­lamic State’s de­feat is re­quired, not only to build sup­port for any fur­ther in­ter­ven­tion but to en­sure the mis­takes of the Iraq war are not re­peated.

In the end, Kil­cullen’s over­whelm­ing con­cern is that a re­ver­sion to iso­la­tion­ism will al­low ji­hadist move­ments to grow. Ab­sent an in­ter­na­tional strat­egy, we will be left try­ing to se­cure our so­ci­eties through heavy polic­ing and ex­ces­sive sur­veil­lance. He concludes his anal­y­sis point­edly: “Pre­serv­ing and strength­en­ing the po­lit­i­cal will of our so­ci­eties, the will to con­tinue this strug­gle with­out giv­ing in to a hor­rific ad­ver­sary, but also with­out sur­ren­der­ing our civil lib­er­ties or be­tray­ing our ethics, is not an ad­junct to the strat­egy — it is the strat­egy.”

David Kil­cullen, be­low; Is­lamist fighters in the north­ern Syr­ian city of Aleppo, left

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