blood year

David Kilcullen’s insider account of the war on terror should be a warning to us all, writes Chris Nineham


David Kilcullen, Blood year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror (Hurst 2016), xiv, 258pp.

Kilcullen was an insider, a senior US policy advisor, in the management of the war on terror. The most striking thing about this book is his bleak assessment of what he calls the ‘enormous, slow-motion train wreck’ of the war (p.x):

‘As I write, western countries (several, particularly the United States, now with severely reduced international credibility) face a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy, in a less stable, more fragmented region, with a far higher level of geopolitical competition, and a much more severe risk of great power conflict than at any time since 9/11’ (p.197).

And, on the Middle East:

‘We’re watching an escalating Sunni-Shi’a proxy conflict – once a cold war but getting hotter by the day – in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and increasingly Turkey, a conflict that is drawing battle lines between Iran and its allies on one hand, and a fractious coalition of Sunni states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other.’

What all this represents for Kilcullen’s is ‘nothing less than the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we’ve known it since 2001.’ His assessment is that ‘we’re worse off than before 9/11’ (p.198).

The partial view

Something has gone horribly wrong and this book is Kilcullen’s attempt to explain exactly what it was. In the process he provides some insights. There is an interesting explanation, for example, for why the Bush administration ignored repeated warnings that there that there would be massive popular opposition to an invasion. The problem was that the decision to go to war had already been made. ‘Intelligence,’ Kilcullen says, ‘was used as a basis not for launching a war but for selling it’ (p.18). He has a take too on why Rumsfeld’s plans for a relatively light footprint invasion of Iraq with no follow up plans wasn’t laughed out of court:

‘Afghanistan (which still looked like a success as Iraq was being planned in 2002) seemed to prove that the United States and its allies were effectively invincible when applying this new way of war: opposition to Rumsfeld’s light-footprint invasion plan thus seemed like old-think, especially when it emanated from the same Joint Staff whose caution had proved so unfounded in Afghanistan’ (p.19).

He has a thoughtful critique both of ‘aggregation’, the lumping together of disparate threats, that characterised the early days of neo-con strategy, and the lack of joined up thinking in the ‘disaggregation’ policy that followed it (which he championed). Kilcullen recognises too that in the whole period he describes, the Arab spring provided the best antidote to the development of terrorist organisations:

‘Ordinary populations, through civil disobedience, peaceful protest and democratic activism, had just overthrown regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and forced concessions from Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. In less than six months they had achieved vastly more than AQ had in two decades’ (p.61).

He senses too, that one of the great sources of global tension and danger, the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, has largely been a product of Western foreign policy. He quotes Russia expert Dmitri Trenin explaining that in his first term Putin had been ‘trying to restore and upgrade Russian–Western relations’. He had sought an alliance with the US before and after 9/11 ‘including membership in NATO and integration into Europe in the name of Russia’s European choice’ (p.193). Kilcullen goes on to note that hopes of rapprochement were dashed by NATO’s push for regime change in Libya and its eastward drive in Europe: ‘Any desire for cooperation was undercut through what Putin saw as Clinton’s betrayal over Libya and US interference in Russia’s near abroad’ (p.194).

But Kilcullen can’t bring himself to draw any profound conclusions about US foreign policy from these observations. In the end, he says, banally, ‘what Russia was doing was entirely Putin’s fault’ (p.195).

The bullet and the ballot

This is Kilcullen’s recurring problem. As an analyst and advisor with some independence from both military and politicians, and long experience on the ground in a number of combat zones, he is capable of insights that have eluded his masters. But he can’t integrate them into any overall analysis. To do so would be to question the whole mission of the West in the world.

So, he critiques both the absurd ambition of the originators of the war on terror and what he sees as the timidity of Obama. ‘If President Bush’s administration was a study in the perils of overreaction and maximalist foreign policy, then President Obama’s has been a lesson in the risks of passivity and under-reaction’ (p.200). He calls the invasion of Iraq ‘an almost indescribably massive strategic error’ (p.199), but he can’t bring himself to condemn the whole project. He falls back instead on the argument that the big problem was the lack of a plan for follow up: ‘An authority vacuum developed at the top of Iraqi politics, while resistance festered on the street and the country burned’ (p.20).

This has become the common sense of Bush’s critics who remain committed to intervention. Rumsfeld’s ‘decapitation’ policy was indeed based on fantasy and hubris. Elsewhere, however, Kilcullen admits that whatever the plans, the reality was a large-footprint approach which involved ‘invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, then committing to rebuild those countries from scratch at vast cost in time, troops, money and blood.’ As Kilcullen says, this amounted to a policy of ‘spreading democracy at the barrel of the gun’, and it was bound to cause massive resistance (p.199).

Grasping at straws

So where does this leave him? The last part of the book is an attempt to dream up what he calls an integrated strategy. Yet his sense of frustration is palpable. He wants the West to work closely with partners on the ground, but he gets that this will be more difficult after the experience of the last fifteen years and now that there are other big powers with influence in the Middle Eat and elsewhere. He knows drone warfare leads to an increase in civilian casualties, but he regards it also as an essential part of the toolkit of modern wars. He sees little choice but for the West to co-operate with Russia and Iran in Syria, while recognising the problems this would cause (and also that it will probably not happen).

With deep and troubling irony, this book, which starts out as a critique of a disastrous war policy, can find no endpoint but to call for more war. ‘I still think there is a reasoned, and humane case for a full scale conventional campaign to destroy ISIS.’ In fact, for all its intellectual restlessness, it finishes by eerily echoing the voluntarism of the neocon Hawks. ‘Decline’, insists Kilcullen, ‘is a choice we make’ (p.229). And right at the end:

‘We need leaders with the moral force and clarity of will to see the thing as it truly is: to look at it without flinching, and to actually fight it … the problem isn’t one of technology or intellect, but of character and will, and the harsh reality is that you can’t fight without fighting’ (p.232).

This is a book which is honest about failure but cannot comprehend it. It serves instead to illuminate the predicament of the US elites as their power declines, and it should be a warning to us all. Their strategic options are narrowing, their enemies are gaining strength, but in military terms they remain overwhelmingly dominant. The US has run out of ideas but not missiles.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.