Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror
by David Kilcullen
Black Inc, 2016, 304 pages, $29.99
The United States will remain in a kind of purgatory until it unlocks the full meaning of 9/11. Without the right understanding of what that terrorist attack signified, there cannot be an effective response to it. David Kilcullen’s Blood Year makes the case that the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have badly misjudged the nature of the challenge to America and the wider world in general. As a direct consequence of this, asserts Kilcullen, the power and reach of militant jihadism appear much stronger now than when President Bush first launched the Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) in 2001.
The Australian David Kilcullen has been, amongst other things, senior adviser to General David Petraeus during the Surge (2007-08) and chief strategist in the Counter-Terrorism Bureau of the US State Department. He currently runs a private agency that has advised everyone from the UK and Australian governments to Nato. Blood Year is that rare thing, an insider’s knowledge of Western policy-making in the twenty-first century combined with the frankness of an independent-minded questioner. Yet even Kilcullen—a veritable expert on counter-terrorism—appears, at times, not to grasp in its entirety the genesis of Islamic militancy and the comprehensive nature of its war against modernity.
Kilcullen contrasts George W. Bush’s second term in office (2005 to 2009) with his first (2001 to 2005). Stung into action by the destruction of the Twin Towers and the strike on the Pentagon, the forty-third President launched “Operation Enduring Freedom—Afghanistan”. On the hundredth day of his GWOT—some time after the initial success in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and more than a year before the commencement of the Iraq War—President Bush could not unreasonably make the claim: “We are supported by the collective will of the world.”
It was a very different story by the time Bush left office in January 2009; his successor, Obama, swept into power on an anti-Bush agenda. In the opinion of American voters, at least, the GWOT had—thanks largely to the Iraq War—become a quagmire. Kilcullen does not hold back on his criticism of President Bush’s foreign policy during his first four years in the Oval Office:
I thought the War on Terror had been mishandled from the outset: through aggregating threats, through the diversion in Iraq, then through failure to manage the occupation properly while other theatres languished.
Nevertheless, Kilcullen goes on to praise President Bush’s commitment to and engagement with the Surge: “I found myself impressed by the man’s leadership, willpower and grasp of detail.” None of this, from the perspective of David Kilcullen, disaffirms the fact that America and its allies, including Australia, “should never have been there” in the first place.
Blood Year makes the case that there was less of a continuation in policy between first- and second-term Bush than between the latter years of his presidency and Barack Obama’s administration. The concept of “Disaggregation”, as developed by Kilcullen and other counter-terrorist experts, signified reaction to the “aggregation” of threats fuelled by President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the “axis of evil speech” and declarations such as, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. Despite the apparent success of the Surge, the George W. Bush who left office in January 2009 cut a very different figure from the feisty character who delivered the famous Bullhorn Speech on September 14, 2001: “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
This review appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
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Aggregation, wrote Kilcullen as early as 2003, had the disastrous effect of encouraging “dozens of local movements, grievances and issues” to coalesce “through regional and global players into a global jihad against the West”. Disaggregation, then, is the policy of relegating overseas military initiatives to the status of simply policing disparate criminal or “extremist” acts. Here we see one explanation for the Obama administration rebadging the whole GWOT enterprise as “Overseas Contingency Operations”. The era of a grand campaign against the existentialist enemies of civilisation had been abandoned in the name of Disaggregation, the catchword of policy wonks in the aftermath of Iraq. If Western leaders played down the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric and compartmentalised military actions, or so the fantasy narrative went, Salafi jihadists would no longer be able to indoctrinate locals into believing the West is waging a Global War on Islam.
Kilcullen cites the conquest of Mosul by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014—a key moment in the Blood Year of 2014-15—as incontrovertible proof that America’s counter-terrorist strategy had come undone. Disaggregation failed, according to Kilcullen, because it is a formula that requires a local partner, in this case the hopelessly corrupt and partisan government of Nouri al-Maliki (2006 to 2014), to work with Western military and police assistance. The “neglect and arrogance” of the Iraqi authorities were only matched by the “complacency” on the part of Obama’s administration. The “reckless” Bush doctrine, which created the circumstances for the advent of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), had been superseded by the “feckless” Obama doctrine, under which AQI was regenerated as IS.
Blood Year is scathing of Barack Obama’s “light footprint” mantra and his “deer-in-the-headlights response” to the rise and rise of the IS group. The last thing Vladimir Putin had to fear, on the eve of his bold intervention in the Syrian civil war on September 30, 2015, was defying the wishes of Barack Obama—that had become, by this stage, self-evidently “risk free”. Russia’s intercession in the Middle East, contends Kilcullen, constitutes a paradigm shift, including a rewriting of the end of the Cold War, with Moscow doing better this time around. Though no apologist for Putin, Kilcullen concedes that at least Moscow has a strategic vision with regards to combatting Islamic terrorism—that is, supporting “incumbents anywhere against insurgents everywhere, regardless of human rights or the treatment of civilian populations”. Kilcullen compares the “strategic unity of thought and action in the Russian-Iranian approach”, however ruthless, with the absence of a cohesive Western perspective since Washington scrapped “the problematic but unifying concept of a War on Terrorism”.
The best chapter in Blood Year comes towards the end and is titled “Age of Conflict”. Kilcullen makes the strong point that it is no longer “particularly controversial or original” to argue that the Iraq War was “an indescribably massive strategic error” that bogged the United States and its allies down “in a decade-plus counterinsurgency fight” and progressively “eroded the legitimacy of a cause that, at the outset, enjoyed huge global support”. Even Jeb Bush, when campaigning to be the Republican candidate for the presidency, admitted that—with the benefit of hindsight—he would not have committed American forces to Iraq in 2003 as his brother did: “Knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.” But policies are made in real time, insists Kilcullen, and not with the benefit of hindsight. The harder question is this: “Knowing what you knew then, what would you have done?”
The conundrum, as outlined in Blood Year, is that if President Bush’s remedy for dealing with global terrorism was flawed, then President Obama’s “incremental retreat from onerous overseas commitments and leadership responsibilities” has proved no less inadequate. Kilcullen’s “Age of Conflict” chapter affirms that the events of 9/11 signified a crucial break with the past, and that all the signs of “the new normal” were dire and ominous. President Bush, operating in real time, might have made “a big fat mistake” as Donald Trump put it, but at least he did not delude himself—as Barack Obama did—that a round of Muslim outreach tours through the Middle East and terminating Osama bin Laden with extreme prejudice would magically usher in a golden age of world peace.
Having discarded his Disaggregation prescription for dealing with militant jihadism, David Kilcullen gives the impression of hankering after a new over-arching concept to make sense of “the new normal”, a GWOT (Mark II) perhaps. Blood Year delivers no such conception. Instead, Kilcullen provides a number of insights and tactics to contain the apocalyptic millennialism of Islamic revivalism: get beyond the appeasement inherent in the Obama doctrine because the Islamic State and Salafi jihadism per se are bigger than Iraq; cultivate overseas “active containment” rather than relying on domestic surveillance to address the nexus of militant jihadism and drug smuggling-indoctrination-technology-terrorism; provide prudent military assistance to governments under pressure from IS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the like; and advance international co-operation amongst a range of countries, not excluding Putin’s Russia.
David Kilcullen’s recommendations are not unhelpful, although a sense of “he-who-must-not-be-named” pervades Blood Year. Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s motivations are characterised by Kilcullen as “geo-political” when surely the Turkish president’s Muslim Brotherhood-fuelled ideology is just as important in understanding his meddling in the Syrian civil war. Similarly, there is a strong case to be made that the genesis of IS ideology is Saudi-style Wahhabism (quietist Salafism) and that, shockingly enough, Wahhabi texts are today a part of the Islamic State’s school curriculum. Why is Saudi money allowed to shape Islamic teaching in the West? Meanwhile, too many of those sympathetic to activist Salafi organisations (the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance) continue to be spokespersons in the Western media about so-called Islamophobia and all matters Muslim. We continue to play a crude game of checkers against chess masters.
Kilcullen’s preparedness to speak of an Age of Conflict and acknowledge that we are currently embroiled in a civilisational clash called The Long War is welcome. Nevertheless, in some ways the general public remains as clueless about our mortal enemy, and what we should do about it, as we were on the morning of 9/11. Our experts, Kilcullen included, are going to have dig deeper.
Daryl McCann, a frequent contributor, has a blog at http:darylmccann.blogspot.com.au