THE OTHER, SMALLER Wars on Terror
In late 2001 the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, a sweeping military response to the attacks of 9/11. Both Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and postSaddam Iraq constituted primary battlefields for the Bush Administration’s “Global War on Terror.” Less well documented, however, are the U.S.-led efforts in a variety of ‘small wars’ since 2001, campaigns that have taken American soldiers from the Horn of Africa to the southern archipelago of the Philippines.
In proactively addressing the threat of global terror networks, the U.S. has often found itself as a participant in a set of smaller insurgencies. By denying extremists the sanctuaries they often find in these remote corners of the globe, Western forces have threatened the traditionalist norms that characterize many of these premodern societies. This has had the potential to bring democratic reform and — perhaps most critically — Western aid, but it has also repositioned the center of gravity from the international terrorist to the local population.
David Kilcullen, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Australian Regiment and one of the world’s foremost experts in counterinsurgency doctrine, sets out to describe U.S.-engagement in these “hybrid wars.” In a transformed amalgamation of traditional counter-terror and counterinsurgency efforts, wars are now being fought against two “discrete but often interconnected and loosely cooperating classes of nonstate opponent— terrorist and guerrilla, postmodern and premodern, nihilist and traditionalist, deliberate and accidental.” By taking the fight to the often implacable terrorists, the U.S.-led forces have alienated the local guerrillas who have granted extremists safe haven. These “accidental guerrillas” fight not for international jihad, but in small wars of resistance against the Western invader.
If there is an expert to tell this story, it is Kilcullen. From commanding military advisory teams in Indonesia to serving as a consultant in Iraq to General David Petraeus during the Surge, Kilcullen has consistently been on the front lines of counterinsurgency. “The Accidental Guerrilla” charts important trends in warfighting, drawing on Kilcullen’s theoretical analysis as well as his ground-level experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book then looks to other, smaller conflicts in East Timor, Southern Thailand and Pakistan, along with radicalization in European cities, examining the accidental guerrilla syndrome in practice.
It is Kilcullen’s eye for detail regarding these smaller conflicts, and his ability to place them in the greater context of U.S. efforts since 9/11, that separates this work from the host of other books on the U.S. ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. His case studies are carefully chosen, though others might be included in a more comprehensive account, most notably Somalia, North Africa, and the Philippines. The key strategic logic underlying these smaller wars is the indirect approach, limiting US involvement to training and supporting local forces in a largely advisory role.
U.S. operations in the Philippines have acted as a poster-child for the indirect approach. The mission there centers on a joint special operations task force launched in 2002 to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines root out Abu Sayyaf, Jema’ah Islamiyah and other Islamist elements that have taken refuge in the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, along with many of the low intensity counterinsurgency efforts Kilcullen documents, offers a different model from Iraq and Afghanistan. The status of forces agreement in place between the two allies limits the rules of engagement for US troops. The special operations forces spread across the southern islands of the country are stationed alongside their Philippine counterparts, with a mandate to aid in the fight against these predominantly domestic terror groups while not directly engaging in combat operations.
For the majority of U.S. special operators in the Philippines, conducting operations ‘by, with, and through’ the Philippine forces is no doubt frustrating. But as with any delicate political situation, support from the U.S. must come with a heavy dose of sensitivity to the sovereignty of the Philippine government.
The U.S. is able to provide invaluable support in the form of intelligence sharing, force training, and funding for civil-military operations. As Colonel Bill Coultrup, commander of the joint task force, explained, “The goal is to set conditions for good governance, and you do that by removing the safe havens of these terrorist groups and addressing the specific conditions that contribute to those safe havens.”
In this model there are fewer doors to kick down or enemy camps to strike. Progress is achieved by helping government and military forces become the face of law, order and development in hostile regions where poverty provides conditions conducive to terrorist sanctuaries. Network-based terror groups thrive on any heavy-handed government combat where collateral damage to the local population serves as an effective recruiting mechanism for what Kilcullen terms the “accidental guerrilla.”
Working “by, with, and through” other forces in these low-intensity conflicts is not appropriate in every case. On the success of operations in the Philippines, Major General Salvatore Cambria, Commander of Special Operations Forces in the Pacific, is quick to point out, “This is a model, not the model.” The indirect approach is also heavily dependent on the political viability and integrity of the partners we choose to support. Finding local solutions to local problems is essential to the future viability of Operation Enduring Freedom and corollary efforts around the globe.
With ambiguous terms like “terrorist,” “insurgent,” “guerrilla,” and “resistance” being thrown about haphazardly by many in the mainstream media, there has been an acute need for a timely, incisive work such as Kilcullen’s.
Perhaps one of the greatest dangers of conflating global terrorists with local insurgents is the way in which the United States has unintentionally made a false equivalency into an accurate—and deadly—threat. By mistaking guerrillas for extremists, the U.S. has often acted as a force-multiplier for the global terrorist network. One hopes Kilcullen’s critical distinction between terrorist and accidental guerrilla will help the United States disaggregate and distinguish between its enemies in the future wars it fights, both large and small.
Richard Bennet is a Research Associate in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.