This article originally appeared in The Nation on October 14, 2009.
Let us say, hypothetically, that American forces kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, enabling President Obama to declare victory and bring our troops home. Would he? Not according to the Pentagon's plan for a fifty-year "Long War" of counterinsurgency spanning Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines and beyond.
Military intellectuals envision a prolonged cold war against Al Qaeda, with hot wars along the way. It happens that the Long War is over Muslim lands rich with oil, natural gas and planned pipelines. The Pentagon identifies them as hostile terrain where Al Qaeda and its affiliates are hidden.
Among the top experts responsible for this fifty-year war plan, concocted in 2005 in windowless offices in the Pentagon, is Dr. David Kilcullen, a former Australian soldier, an anthropologist, former top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and current aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Kilcullen is a media favorite, the subject of a long New Yorker profile by George Packer, glowing columns by David Ignatius in the Washington Post and weighty late-night conversations with Charlie Rose.
Kilcullen's recent book, The Accidental Guerrilla, presents the case for a Long War of fifty or even 100 years' duration, with chapters on Iraq (a mistake he believes was salvaged by the military surge he promoted in 2007-08), Afghanistan (where he recommends at least a five-to-ten-year campaign), Pakistan (whose tribal areas he sees as the center of the terrorist threat) and even Europe (where, he says, human rights laws create legislative "safe havens" for urban Muslim undergrounds).
Kilcullen testified recently before the Senate that Afghanistan and Pakistan will require two more years of "significant combat," plus another decade of nation building at an additional cost of $2 billion per month. Given the current military cost of $4 billion per month, that could mean more than $80 billion annually for Afghanistan alone, or $1 trillion if Obama serves two terms, not counting long-term costs like veterans' healthcare.
"Significant combat" and "hard fighting" (the phrase of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) are euphemisms for the highest American casualty rates in the war's eight-year history, about fifty per month since Obama's surge began in July. Another two years of this hard fighting could mean 1,200 American dead beyond the approximately 630 who were killed in Afghanistan during the Bush years. (American mercenaries working for private security companies are not included in the body count.) Unless he changes course, Obama will have to justify 2,000 American deaths, thousands more wounded and $500 billion in budget expenditures for Afghanistan going into his 2012 re-election campaign. Continuing costs for Iraq and rising costs for Pakistan will inflate those numbers considerably.
Civilian casualties strewn across these battlefields have been obscured by the fog of war, but hundreds of thousands of people, mainly civilians, could ultimately die in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, each of them leaving a legacy of vengeful violence.
These projections reveal a staggering audacity--not Obama's audacity of hope but an audacity of martial commitment. A fifty- to 100-year military campaign--the subtitle of Kilcullen's book is Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One--will span thirteen presidential terms and twenty-five Congressional sessions, casting a long shadow over generations of politicians not yet running for office. The Long War assumes either perpetual democratic approval by many voters not yet alive or that democracy will simply be circumvented by the national security state. Bin Laden will be dead of natural causes or otherwise long before it's over.
The audacity becomes ever more dangerous without checks and balances. Without his acknowledging it, Kilcullen's plan plays directly into what he believes is Al Qaeda's strategy of exhausting the United States militarily and economically. And yet he thinks the Long War is inevitable.
There has been little public discussion of the Long War. The term is attributed to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command from 2003 to 2007; it is endorsed by counterinsurgency theorist John Nagl, who heads the Center for a New American Security; and it has been critically reviewed only in a collection, The Long War, edited by Andrew Bacevich.
The world counterterrorism community that is planning the Long War, Kilcullen has said, is "small and tightly knit." This is precisely Bacevich's complaint. In the preface to his book he writes, "National security policy has long been the province of a small, self-perpetuating, self-anointed group of specialists...dedicated to the proposition of excluding democratic influences from the making of national security policy. To the extent that members of the national security apparatus have taken public opinion into consideration, they have viewed it as something to manipulate." The fraternity of counterinsurgency specialists is an even smaller bubble insulated from civic society. They bear a distinct resemblance to the Vietnam-era elite described by David Halberstam as "the best and the brightest," the New Frontiersmen who were propelled to the "dizzying heights of antiguerrilla activity and discussion," revived the Green Berets and ultimately crashed in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Today's special operatives may track down and kill Osama bin Laden, as they did Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. But the process of revolutionary nationalism will go on under the Taliban or its successors, as it did in Latin America, resulting in Evo Morales's 2005 election amid banners extolling Che's memory. Kilcullen's counterinsurgency model, while giving lip service to winning hearts and minds, ultimately relies on exterminating revolutionaries, whether they are known as outside agitators, conspiratorial communists or, to use Kilcullen's label, takfiris (Muslim terrorists).
The counterinsurgency doctrine is promoted as being "population-centric" as opposed to "enemy-centric," leading some to think it means a combination of Peace Corps-style development and community-based policing. Indeed, counterinsurgency differs sharply from "kinetic" war, which is based on conventional use of combat troops and bombardment. This is why Kilcullen disapproved of the ground invasion of Iraq and is critical of the current use of Predator strikes from the air, which alienate the very civilian populations whose hearts and minds must be won.
The central flaw in Kilcullen's model is his belief in the "accidental guerrilla" syndrome. Drawing partly on a public-health analogy, he defines Al Qaeda as a dangerous virus that grows into a contagion when its Muslim hosts face foreign intervention. The real enemy, he thinks, is the global network of hard-core Al Qaeda revolutionaries who want to bring down the West, overthrow Arab regimes and restore a centuries-old Islamic caliphate. Like Obama, Kilcullen hopes to "disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda" without provoking the contagion of resistance from the broader Muslim world. The "accidental guerrillas" who fight us, he writes,
do so not because they hate the West and seek our overthrow but because we have invaded their space to deal with a small extremist element that has manipulated and exploited local grievances to gain power in their societies. They fight us not because they seek our destruction but because they believe we seek theirs.
But of course, these accidental guerrillas are no accident at all. They inevitably and predictably emerge as a nationalist force against foreign invaders. Their resistance to imperialism stretches back far before Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda was born with US resources, as a byproduct of resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and earlier oppression of hundreds of Islamic radicals in Egyptian prisons.
Kilcullen would like to believe that the "accidental guerrilla" syndrome can be avoided by a surgical counterinsurgency combined with Western liberal reform, as opposed to a ham-fisted, knock-down-the-doors combat approach. But he admits that imposing law and order American-style in Afghanistan is a "temporary" form of neocolonialism that will produce violent popular resistance.
The strategic dilemma is created when this neocolonialism fosters a corrupt regime of warlords, drug lords and landlords, as it has in Kabul. The first priority of Kilcullen's counterinsurgency doctrine is "a political strategy that builds government effectiveness and legitimacy while marginalizing insurgents, winning over their sympathizers, and coopting local allies." Obama's recent surge in Afghanistan, whose purpose was to protect Afghanistan's presidential election process, had the opposite result: sending Americans to fight for an unpopular Kabul machine that committed fraud on a massive scale.
The counterinsurgency in Pakistan, while killing a score of Taliban leaders, has contributed to an even worse public reaction. America's client president, Asif Ali Zardari, has a 25 percent approval rating, against his opponent's 67 percent. Fully 80 percent of Pakistanis polled in July and August were opposed to US assistance to their government's fight against terrorism and Al Qaeda; 76 percent opposed Pakistani cooperation with US drone strikes. The polling excluded the country's tribal areas, where the opposition would be even greater.
When faced with massive popular opposition, does the counterinsurgency model call for strategic retreat? Apparently not. Instead, the fallback military option is ratcheted up in hopes of either defeating the guerrillas or dissuading the accidental guerrillas from growing in number. That is why 95 percent of this year's budget for Afghanistan is still devoted to the military campaign, the exact opposite of the ratio that Kilcullen recommends as the best practice for counterinsurgency. Instead of pulling the plug, he favors soldiering on until the Taliban and Al Qaeda are defeated in the "hard fighting" and a decade of "nation building" can commence in the rubble. This is a faith-based doctrine if there ever was one.
Adherence to the model also forces Kilcullen and other counterinsurgency devotees to downplay the secretive and violent underside of their approach. The cult of clandestinity is symbolized by General McChrystal, whose entire career in Iraq remains a classified secret. What we do know about McChrystal comes from the leading mainstream narrator of the Iraq War, Bob Woodward, in his book The War Within. Woodward writes that the key to the Iraq surge, in addition to buying off the Sunni insurgency, was a top-secret program of extrajudicial executions run by McChrystal, which was "possibly the biggest factor in reducing" Baghdad's violence during that election year. One US adviser in charge of tracking down and killing insurgents, according to Woodward, said the efficiency of the program gave him "orgasms." This secret program may have been what Kilcullen had in mind when he described the surge as "a truly decisive action" to "comb out the insurgent sleeper cells," as if they were lice. Kilcullen later told the Post's admiring Ignatius that America needs "black" as well as "white" special-ops to implement his strategy of "overt de-escalation; covert disruption." So much for hearts and minds.
That Kilcullen may be the true progeny of the "best and brightest" is evident from his attempt--in 2004 writings--to salvage the US Phoenix program from its discredited image in histories of the Vietnam War. Kilcullen has written that he favors a "global Phoenix program" against insurgents today. "Contrary to popular mythology," he believes that the "maligned" Phoenix program was "highly effective" in disrupting the Vietcong infrastructure. Under Phoenix, according to the 1971 Congressional testimony of William Colby, the former pacification director in South Vietnam, more than 20,000 Vietcong suspects--many of them the civilian infrastructure in Vietcong-controlled areas--were killed from 1968 to 1971. Run by the CIA through South Vietnamese police units, the program employed methods of torture including electric shocks to testicles and vaginas, and truncheons to the ears. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese villagers were uprooted and resettled in fortified "strategic hamlets," in accordance with the counterinsurgency doctrine of protecting the civilian population. Thirty years later the Iraq surge seems to have included another version of the Phoenix program, directed by McChrystal. Countless Iraqis were targeted and killed, while others were rounded up and surrounded in concertina wire under watchtowers in what the Pentagon and Kilcullen call "gated communities."
This may be the part where an inbred secrecy ultimately leads to a brilliant but delusional Apocalypse Now sensibility, expressed in the Joseph Conrad character Kurtz's exclamation "Exterminate all the brutes!" The further tragedy of counterinsurgency is that it does not stop in the face of failure but starts all over again from its own ashes. In the end, its secrets will not be kept from its victims in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who suspect and know all too well who is killing them, but from well-meaning Americans living in our own gated communities amid democratic structures that seem unable to save us from a remote-controlled, engineered ignorance.
To his credit, President Obama and his White House advisers see the quagmire ahead, with the majority of Democrats opposing escalation in Afghanistan, with Iraq teetering and Pakistan sliding over the edge, and with no funding for a Long War. There is no short-term way to repair the self-inflicted dysfunctions of the Kabul regime, nor is there any plan likely to win public approval in Pakistan. The military and the Republicans will accuse Obama of failure if he tries to withdraw, and of a quagmire if he stays. Instead of treating counterinsurgency as a holy text, he needs to study the hardest maneuver of all, strategic retreat (like John F. Kennedy in Laos, Ronald Reagan in Lebanon or Bill Clinton in Mogadishu), in order to avoid greater losses that threaten the very promise of his presidency.