Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War

Part VII of a series about America’s new Long War

By Fabius Maximus

October 6, 2007


Occasionally an expert writes something that perfectly captures the spirit of an endeavor, on multiple levels. The Iraq War has as yet no master chronicler, as TE Lawrence captured the WWI Arab Revolt or David Halberstam the Vietnam War. Until then the best we have is this new presentation by David Kilcullen (Ph.D., LTC Australian Army Reserve):

Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice, 2007 ( 2.6 MB PPT on the Small Wars Journal site)
A seminar at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia.
September 26, 2007 

He explains not only how we have fought the war, but also (implicitly, perhaps inadvertently) why we are losing. Reading it evokes memories of Vietnam, our first 4GW (also run by our best and brightest).

These are preliminary comments, made in advance of Dave Dilegge’s notes to be posted soon at the Small Wars Council, and later production of a DVD providing a full video. I urge you to look at the slides of Kilcullen’s presentation; I found them very enlightening.

What are the Coalition forces doing in Iraq? Why are we there?

While it (freedom) remains a burden to sedulously avoid, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led us, inexorably, here.

The Architect, discussing the Iraq War in the movie The Matrix Reloaded

A trained anthropologist, Kilcullen starts with this: “Everyone sees Iraq differently, depending on when they served there, what they did, and where they worked.” Applying that insight to his slides, how would the people of Iraq react were they translated and broadcast in Iraq – and to a wider Islamic audience via al Jazeera?

For example, what might they think when seeing slide eleven?

Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency:

  • Establish, Consolidate, Transfer

  • Security - Political -- Economic

  • Effectiveness x Legitimacy 

This might evoke strong feelings for the people of Iraq. They might wonder if we feel more strongly about the “establish” and “consolidate” phases than the “transfer” phase. They might remember events since March 2003 more clearly than most Americans:

  • Our early attempts to manipulate their national elections, eventually held only at the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

  • The Coalition’s consistent history of disregarding the wishes of often not even consulting their national government.

  • The extra-territorial immunity of Coalition personnel, including our military and mercenary soldiers.

  • The “enduring bases” we have built in the Iraq, at the cost of many billions of dollars.

  • The US Senate’s vote to divide the supposedly sovereign land of Iraq.

  • America’s leading Presidential candidates’ commitment to long-term occupation of Iraq, without reference to the wishes of its people. 

Which do we value more highly: effectiveness of our control, or the legitimacy of Iraq’s government? Considering our behavior of the past four years, of which this is only a partial list of ominous incidents, Iraq’s people might consider us to have a possessive attitude to Iraq. These slides certainly demonstrate a colonial mindset.

The fundamental problem is CONTROL – of people, terrain and information. (Slide 14)

Control over the population (through a combination of coercion and consent) is the goal of both government and insurgent – “The Population is the Prize” (FM 3-24 / Galula) (Slide 19)

War is armed politics, and COIN is an armed variant of domestic politics in which numerous challengers compete for control over the population.” (Slide 26)

The neo-colonialist’s burden

Kilcullen shows some awareness of this problem.

Rule of Law is fundamental to government legitimacy. Incidents like Abu Ghraib, escalation of force, wrongful arrest or catch-and-release all directly undermine our political position. (slide 23)

On Slide 26 he goes to the heart of the matter:

Therefore, there is a fundamental difference between conducting COIN in:

  • your own country

  • a territory you seek to control permanently (e.g. a colony or separatist province)

  • a friendly foreign country, or

  • a hostile or occupied foreign country

Which of these choices do the Iraq people believe applies to our COIN programs? President Bush advocates the “Korean model” for a permanent garrison in Iraq. How is this seen in Iraq?

Our actions provide the answer, speaking more honestly than our words. Here is one vignette told by David Oliver, the CPA’s first Director of Management and Budget someone present at the creation of the new Iraq order.

What happened to the $8.8 billion of Iraq’s money spent by the Coalition Provisional Authority?

"I have no idea, I can't tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn't - nor do I actually think it is important. … Billions of dollars of their money disappeared, yes I understand, I'm saying what difference does it make?"

BBC interview, broadcast 9 November 2006

[For more on this sordid story, see this article in the October 2007 Vanity Fair.]

For an Iraq audience, these slides become even more interesting from this point. However well-intended, Kilcullen describes how COIN operations use force to shape the subject people, in a way fundamentally incompatible with their sovereignty. This inescapable contradiction explains the consistent defeat of foreign occupiers by local insurgencies since Mao developed 4GW to a mature form [DNI Editor’s note: A process described in detail by TX Hammes in The Sling and the Stone, Chapter 5].

A well-intended but colonial attitude might be unavoidable in these wars. In Vietnam we spoke highly of our loyal South Vietnamese allies, our “little brown brothers.” Forty years later we treat the Iraq government with a similar friendly contempt, which its own people see and imitate. Their rebellion to foreign occupiers (like us) is a natural, if counter-productive result.

He describes a “Kiss of Death” syndrome” on slide 22. This powerful label also applies to our relationship with local governments under current COIN doctrine when we get too helpful. We take control, which diminishes the government’s legitimacy, which strengthens the insurgency, which incites us to try harder, which starts another cycle.

The government becomes seen by many of its own people as lackeys or even quislings, only regaining legitimacy by opposing us as they do today over symbolic issues like the role of Blackwater, or passive aggressive behavior (e.g., failure to pass the oil exploitation legislation we require).

Kilcullen mentions legitimacy several times, but never grapples with the conflict of effectiveness – a foreigner-led COIN – with legitimacy. Failure to grapple with this, let alone resolve it, suggests why even our best COIN programs have had so little effect in Iraq, and why the final outcome will probably do so little for America.

It does not need to be this way

Kilcullen quotes from TE Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles” (The Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917). It is a powerful quotation, perhaps the conceptual center of his presentation, embedding several levels of meaning.

Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. (article 15) 

What would Lawrence think of Kilcullen’s presentation? Likely he would enjoy the irony of Kilcullen quoting him with approval. Kilcullen, an advisor to a COIN program almost the exact opposite of Lawrence’s execution of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence would appreciate the hidden nuances involved.

  • Lawrence was an advisor and helper who by consent of the locals became a leader (not the leader) of the forces fighting an anti-colonial war. We are leaders pretending to be advisors and helpers.

  • While helping to lead the Arab Revolt, Lawrence was part of a similar colonial enterprise. Helping them to throw off a brutal oppression, he led them to milder bondage under another foreign power. He would appreciate the ambiguities of American’s COIN programs, fighting Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arab insurgents while laying the foundation for an extended occupation of Iraq.

Lawrence might appreciate the ironies of Kilcullen’s presentation, perhaps having given similar ones to General Allenby.

This slide quoting Lawrence might evoke different emotions to an audience of Iraq Arabs. They might remember that the Arab Revolt ultimately failed because they were splintered and hence weak. This might explain that amidst the internecine slaughter, polls still show strong desire among Iraq’s Arabs for a united Iraq, least they become splintered – pawns of other stronger nations.

Notes like this make one wonder if Kilcullen is laughing at his audience. He must be aware of these ironies. Perhaps he's just going with the flow, colonial madness and war fever that have infected us. Like a sensible man, perhaps Kilcullen rides these winds  but by these small touches shows us that he has kept his soul.

At this point I see that my earlier advice was wrong. Instead of Kilcullen we should read Lawrence’s work. Not just the “Twenty-Seven Articles” referenced above, but his great work “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” COIN by foreign occupiers does not need to be done as we have in Iraq; there are other ways.

An alternative mode of counter-insurgency

Choice. The problem is choice.

Neo, discussing the Iraq War in the movie The Matrix Reloaded 

Legitimacy must trump effectiveness in our COIN calculus. That would not guarantee victory, but might make it possible.

For a start, we can acknowledge that it’s their country. Weak as the Iraq government is, we can still take direction from it. If that does not work, let’s find legitimate local governments. Rather than sign them up as our satraps, let’s learn what they want us to do.

It’s possible that this will mean leaving Iraq. Iraq, or parts of it, might become allies of Iran. Kurdistan might become an enemy of Turkey and Iran. There will probably be much ethnic cleansing.

These things would be bad. But it is their land. As I said in Part IV, no matter what we do they will eventually build their version of Iraq, for good or ill.


Are the things reported here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.

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Who was Fabius Maximus?

Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.

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Read the past articles by Fabius Maximus. A work of intellectual analysis stands on its own logic, supported by the author’s track record.