I saw Dr. David Kilcullen speak last night at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago.
The full presentation is available as a video, here.
He talked about his new book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. I think it is the best book I have read so far about the current wars the USA is engaged in, why they went wrong, and what to do about it. The phrase “must read” is over-used. I try not to over-use it. “Accidental Guerilla” is a must read.
It is very much worth listening to, and I won’t summarize the talk here, which is itself a summary of the book.
Dr. Kilcullen chatted with members of the library beforehand. I actually joined the Library so I could get in on that. It was my first time at the PML, though I have been getting their emails since it opened. I have been planning on going to one thing or another, yet never got over there before. Having seen the place, which is very nice and very professionally run, I would now like to get back to hear some other speakers.
The chitchat beforehand was interesting, but nothing terribly noteworthy. One thing I asked him about was whether the USA had even had a Pashtun phrasebook for the troops when it invaded Afghanistan. I had read somewhere that we did not, and even made that claim in a comment on this blog. I was wrong. Dr. Kilcullen said, “Oh, yeah, we had a Pashtun phrasebook for the Army back in the 1990s, when we were in Afghanistan helping them clear mines.” So, there ya go. If you did not know it already, remember this: Don’t take anything on any blog as gospel, even if it is on ChicagoBoyz, and even if it is from me. Trust but verify, dammit.
Waiting in line to get my book autographed, after the talk, the guy in front of me asked Dr. Kilcullen, “could you recommend three books on counterinsurgency?” Kilcullen started to hedge, “well, I can’t really … .” I intervened, “c’mon, your on the spot, go ahead and name three.” He smiled and sat back and said, “well, OK, I’d say Seven Pillars, and Galula on Counterinsurgency, you know Galula? And also one, by an Al Qaeda theorist, called the Management of Savagery”.
You have to imagine all that in an Australian accent.
An interesting top three. Galula is pretty much the Bible, though there are dissenters, who dismiss Mao-era counter-insurgency as outdated. Obviously, Kilcullen does not think so. And T.E. Lawrence seems to have a more mixed reputation, but Kilcullen came up with his book first. And I am a fairly obsessive amateur, yet I had never heard of the Management of Savagery.
So, put those three near the top of the pile.
(Dr. Kilcullen may have said that The Management of Savagery was “by al-Suri”, but I may not have caught precisely what he said. I wrote about Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a/k/a “al-Suri”, here and here. But the pdf says it is by a guy named Abu Bakr Naji. Same guy? A quick search on the Internet does not say so. Al-Suri used a lot of psuedonyms. So, maybe Kilcullen knows that Abu Bakr Naji is really al-Suri? If anyone can clarify this arcane point, please leave a comment.)
(As a further aside, see this excellent post from the Insurgency Research Group, linking to this article, Dissidents in al-Qaida: Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri’s Critique of bin Ladin and the Salafi-Jihadi Current. I will read that one on the train … .)
I asked Dr. Kilcullen if he had paid any attention to the debate about whether there is a “Kilcullen doctrine” and whether an operational and tactical doctrine for counterinsurgency can be the basis for a strategy or a national grand strategy. (See, e.g. this Zenpundit post, and links at the bottom, and this CB post by SmittenEagle.)
Dr. Kilcullen’s response, a shrug, and: “I don’t generally pay any attention to the critics”.
So, a firm “no comment” on that debate from Dr. Kilcullen. At least for now.
Dr. Kilcullen also posts on the Small Wars Journal Blog. His collected posts are here.
Dr. Kilcullen wrote a widely cited article entitled Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency, which seems to be a modern classic.
Some interesting reviews of The Accidental Guerilla here, and here, and here, and here.
(On a personal note, I had to get from the Loop over to the PML, and anyone who was in Chicago yesterday can attest that we had a soaking, torrential rain. Of course, rain like that at 5:00 P.m. = no cabs. So I just walked over. Poor planning on my part: no umbrella, no boots, no rubber totes for the shoes. I was absolutely saturated. And, yeah, it was worth it!)
(I also enjoyed meeting our stalwart commenter ElamBend at the PML, as well.)
UPDATE: How embarrassing. It came to me in a flash that I had heard of The Management of Savagery, in fact, I had an excerpt on my own bookshelf. It is excerpted in The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy for Defeating America, which excerpts several major documents in “jihadi” thought. I have not yet read this book. I did start reading TMOS, however, and it is interesting so far. (I better get focused on finishing my first pass through Xenophon, though, pretty soon … .)
7 thoughts on “David Kilcullen at the Pritzker Military Library”
I RSVP’ed but I got caught up at work – finishing paperwork! Also, ugh, the rain.
I listened to the podcast: it was interesting and the question and answer session was good, I’m glad to learn about the pritzker website, I’m catching up on older podcasts.
I was there the prior week for a presentation on LeMay. That place is awesome. I will have to get this book
The podcasts of their events are great. I subscribed to the RSS feed of them. You guys in Chicago are lucky.
Good news for those of us who do not live in Chicago. The PML records its presentations. Here is the link to a video of the Killcullen talk. If you follow the links on that page you can download a podcast of the talk, which I am doing as I type this comment. Lots of Goodies on their web-site. I hope Jim Rummel sees this.
It was a great event. I had to go to an industry fund-raising party right afterward, and I’m afraid that I was a bit of a bore there because I was still thinking about Kilcullen’s talk.
A couple of observations:
I’m only half-way through the book right now, but it’s obvious from listening to him speak that Dr. Kilcullen poured the whole of his knowledge into it. What that we could all create some distillation of what we know in our lives. (Or have something as interesting to write about).
He pointed out one glaring, but not often stated fact: the true intelligence failure was not anticipating or detecting the Hussein regime’s preparations for guerilla warfare. The preparations failed the Husseins because we captured or killed them, but left a lot of that infrastructure in place (after all where is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri?). It’s a blindingly obvious fact, but it is rarely aired; either by those who supported the war, like yours truly, or those who were against it, like Kilcullen, who normallly focus on WMD and who called the failure to find WMD a policy failure.
In the pre-speach soiree, Dr, Kilcullen said that many of the insurgents he had interviewed expressed embarrassment at what they had done and were reluctant to talk about it. They explained it as a kind of temporary madness.
He pointed out that a lot of the original anti-Soviet feelings stemmed by the Russian attempt to give women more rights. This was part of his answer to a question in which he highlighted the problems of fighting against and allying with people who have extremely different worldviews.
Although he didn’t address it in the speach, in the book he says that he originally though that Counter Narcotic operations were a sideshow at best and counter-productive at worse. However, he says that he has changed his opinion to that because a) the majority of Afghans are actually against Opium production and b) the actual areas of maximum production are small and in the heart of Taliban support areas (and thus CN work isn’t affecting anyone ‘on the fence’). He also thinks CN efforts are a good way of pointing out the hypocrisy of the current Taliban who were once anti-drugs.
This leads me into a question that came to me afterward. At the event and in his book Dr. Kilcullen said that extremest almost always eventually wear out their welcome. I wonder if the Dr. has any suggestions of how to speed up that process, to get inside that loop. I think exploiting the Taliban’s hypocrisy on Opium would be one of his suggestions, but I’d love to hear what else he’d suggest.
In general the crowd at the event was a mixture of older regulars and some younger folks who’d obviously come for this particular event. There were also active and recently active members of the armed forces there. It was a privilege to be in the presence of a real intellectual guru.
It was also a pleasure to meet Lex. He came in looking like he’d walked through a waterfall, but didn’t lose any time in joining a conversation with Dr. Kilcullen and asking him questions.
Abu bakr Naji and Abu-Mus’ab al-Suri are two different theorists. Yet, they are the most cited in the West because their works are widely available in English.
Both al-Suri and Naji have some great things to say about what global jihad’s strategy should be. Their conclusions, while related, diverge on some very serious issues (centralization of movement, control of territory, etc.)
Bob W., thanks.
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