March 06, 2009

Kilcullen on Bacevich on Kilcullen

Dave is ... not happy:

I was a little nonplussed by Andrew Bacevich’s review of my recent book, The Accidental Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, 2009). Mr Bacevich is a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man whose work I have admired over many years (in fact, I quote him at length in two places in the book). He also has an incandescent wit, which he applies like a blowtorch to my book and to my personal character. While I beg to differ on the assertion that I have been guilty of moral cowardice or benefited personally from the war, I actually agree with almost all the points he makes in his review – indeed his argument, though framed as a critique of my book, is actually precisely the same argument I make in the book. I wonder, in fact, whether he has actually read the book, or whether some evil fairy or publishing-industry gremlin slipped another, completely different, book, like a changeling, into my book’s dust-jacket before he read it.

To be fair, as normally happens, he probably reviewed a galley (or perhaps an early incomplete draft) of the book, and he therefore may not have had a chance to read it in full, read the later chapters or look at the theory chapter. Mr Bacevich’s review focuses on the Iraq and Afghanistan chapters, but of course the book also analyses five other conflicts at some length (West Java, East Timor, Pakistan, Southern Thailand and radicalization in Europe), and there are three theory chapters also. I understand Mr Bacevich may have been pressed for time or short of space, and so I can completely understand a desire to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever the reason, the fact is that the book Mr Bacevich criticizes so harshly is simply not the book I wrote.

Some examples. Mr Bacevich writes “the consummate counterinsurgency professional understands that the application of technique, however skillful, will not suffice to salvage the Long War. Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict, [Kilcullen] cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.”

I agree completely. I said so in the book, actually, in chapter 5. At the top of page 268, I write "counterinsurgency in general is a game we need to avoid wherever possible. If we we are forced to intervene, we now (through much hard experience) have a reasonably sound idea of how to do so. But we should avoid such interventions wherever possible, simply because the costs are so high and the benefits so doubtful."

He also writes, in one of the best parts of his review: “If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. That’s what I said in the book -- on the middle of page 269: “we should avoid any future large-scale, unilateral military intervention in the Islamic world, for all the reasons already discussed." A few pages earlier, in the middle of page 264, I write: “Our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called “war on terrorism” to date have largely played into the hands of this AQ exhaustion strategy, while creating tens of thousands of accidental guerrillas and tying us down in a costly (and potentially unsustainable) series of interventions.” I do, however, make the point (at the top of page 284) that “This will be a protracted conflict. Because the drivers of conflict in the current security environment…lie predominantly outside Western governments’ control, our ability to terminate this conflict on our own terms or within our preferred timeline is extremely limited.” In other words, I’m not saying we should seek to continue the Long War – far from it, I’m saying this is likely to be a long-term conflict, whether we seek it or not. This may seem a very subtle distinction, but it’s one that other reviewers have grasped easily.

This whole post is devastating, actually.