Too much fighting, not enough talking?

May 12, 2009

David Kilcullen knows a thing or two about counter-insurgency.

A former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian army and a senior adviser to U.S. General David Petraeus, he helped shape the “surge” policy that is widely credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink of chaos. He has just written a book entitled “The Accidental Guerrilla: fighting small wars in the midst of a big one” which closely examines insurgencies from Thailand and Indonesia to Afghanistan and Iraq, including what it takes to contain and quell them.

Far from being gung-ho or militaristic, Kilcullen takes an analytical approach, putting a heavy emphasis on the need for cultural and linguistic understanding. Without a deep appreciation of history, politics and anthropology, defeat is all but guaranteed  in complex foreign lands even for the world’s mightiest of armies, he argues.

 Which is why it was particularly notable what he said at a book launch in London this week.

The U.S. military has about 1.6 million personnel all told, from frontline troops to cooks and drivers. But there are just 6,000 foreign service officers in the U.S. State Department, he said. That’s about 260 soldiers to each diplomat, a far higher ratio than in any other major military in the world, according to Kilcullen.

“There are more members of U.S. military marching bands then there are foreign service officers,” he said. “In fact, there are about ten times as many accountants in the U.S. military as there are foreign service officers in the U.S. State Department.”

His point hardly needed reinforcing. The U.S. military spends vast amounts — forecast to be $650 billion in 2009 — on ensuring its armed forces are able to fight whatever threat may emerge anywhere in the world at any given time, but a tiny fraction of that amount on diplomatic and cultural liaison work that might help understand a conflict better or even prevent it.

While it’s true that military officers have received a great deal of intensive training in recent years in understanding customs and culture in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the relevant languages, the amount spent is still miniscule alongside that dedicated to arms and weaponry.

Of course, a war is not won by words and diplomacy alone; Kilcullen was not saying that the United States should ditch its tanks and fighter jets and just sit down to talk things through. But what he did say was this:

“The U.S. military is fabulously well developed but is ready to fight the wrong kind of conflict… It is good at fighting state actors but not so good at fighting non-state actors.” 

And in conclusion on Afghanistan he added: “I fear that in Afghanistan we are getting to the worst of both worlds. In the next year or two, we still won’t have enough troops there to keep everyone safe, but we will have just enough to keep everyone pissed off. It’s the opposite of a sweet spot. It’s a sour spot.”


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Carving out smaller countries on the lines of former yugoslovia is a feasible option.Its that much easier to enrich these countries which will focus on their economy and not fundamentalism. Afghan govt did not recognise the Durand line as a legitimate international border and rather claim the part of northwest as its own.

The international community should seriously entertain feasible and practical options rather trying failed policies and contributing to the carnage in the area.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

One thing this article cannot explain is the wars between India-Pakistan, Turkey-Armenia, Persian-Arab etc. These cultures are mostly next to each other and know each other for centuries. Yet they are always in conflict. It is very difficult to change their antagonisms from outside. So when outside powers get involved, total confusion results. It is not as easy as understanding the local culture, language, traditions etc, respecting them and winning the trust of the locals. The locals will exploit the good will to fight each other. Either they wait for the outside power to leave so that they can continue with their conflicts or try to manipulate the outsider to work on their side. The British approached their colonies by doing what the author prescribes. But they simply ruled and turned the locals into their puppets. When they left, the old conflicts began to surface again. It is better not to get involved in local conflicts far removed from home land. Even hitech weapons and money will not help. The only way for things to improve is by making the world flat – allowing for communications, trade interdependency, mutual respect, non-interference, understanding of each others’ values and so on. Wars will never solve problems. They multiply them. Yugoslavia split up due to centuries old enmity. And one never knows, they may fight each other again at a different time.

In the case of Af-Pak, like Azad has suggested, it is better to help redraw the borders of the region – Split them into smaller nations along ethnic lines. This way there will be mutual respect and less dominance of one group over the others. Religion is never a binding force. Culture is much stronger and religion itself changes and takes a different shape according to local cultures.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

excellent points by the commentator and even the other comments, even mauryan who i often disagree with. we’ve been making bigger and badder weapons over the last few decades to fight wars that may never come. the era of state to state wars is nearly over, unless of course israel starts one with iran which would start WW# or india and paksitan continue their feud again. although their is still hostility and animosity amongst nations, the price of going to war is to great now. the U.S wars are a proof of that. the rise in these small wars/insurgency, and ethnic conflicts is rising due to the oppresion of religious or ethnic minorites.(palestinian and kashmiri occupations just an example. those could be resolved if the states who are illegally occupying those territories would just get out. perhaps one day those conflicts can be resolved, but the future on that looks bleak.

Posted by Hassan | Report as abusive

@ethnic conflicts is rising due to the oppresion of religious or ethnic minorites.(palestinian and kashmiri occupations just an example. those could be resolved if the states who are illegally occupying those territories would just get out. perhaps one day those conflicts can be resolved, but the future on that looks bleak.

Hassan: palestinian and kashmiri occupations are different and the response to these occupations is different. Palestine are fighting using their men and foreign money. In Kashmir, it is foreign men and foreign money. Men fighting in Kashmir are Pakistani Punjabis and money is US/IMF through Pakistan.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

All in the name of Peace:
WASHINGTON, May 18: A special death squad assassinated Pakistans former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on the orders of former US vice-president Dick Cheney, claims an American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

Mr Hersh, a Washington-based journalist who writes for the New Yorker magazine and other prominent media outlets, also claims that the former vice-president was running an “executive assassination ring” throughout the Bush years. The cell reported directly to Mr Cheney.

In an interview to an Arab television channel, Mr Hersh indicated that the same unit killed Ms Bhutto because in an interview with Al Jazeera TV on Nov 2, 2007, she had said she believed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was already dead. She said she believed Omar Saeed Sheikh, an Al Qaeda activist imprisoned in Pakistan for killing US journalist Daniel Pearl had murdered Bin Laden.

But the interviewer, veteran British journalist David Frost, deleted her claim from the interview, Mr Hersh said.

The controversial US journalist told Gulf News on May 12 he believed Ms Bhutto was assassinated because the US leadership did not want Bin Laden to be declared dead.The Bush administration wanted to keep Bin Laden alive to justify the presence of US army in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban, Mr Hersh said.

The Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist claimed that the unit also killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafique Al Hariri and the army chief of that country.

Mr Hariri and the Lebanese army chief were murdered for not safeguarding US interests and refusing to allow US to set up military bases in Lebanon. Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel, was also a key man in the plot, Mr Hersh said.

According to Mr Hersh, Lt-Gen Stanley McChrystal who was last week named the new commander in charge of US forces in Afghanistan, ran the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence.

Gen McChrystal, a West Point graduate and a Green Beret, is currently director of Staff at the Pentagon, the executive to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A media report noted that most of what Gen. McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the JSOC.

On July 22, 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled ‘No blood, no foul’ about American torture practices at three facilities in Iraq. One of them was Camp Nama, which was operated by JSOC, under the direction of then Major Gen. McChrystal.

Gen McChrystal was officially based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but he was a frequent visitor to Camp Nama and other Special Forces bases in Iraq and Afghanistan where forces under his command were based.

An interrogator at Camp Nama known as Jeff described locking prisoners in shipping containers for 24 hours at a time in extreme heat; exposing them to extreme cold with periodic soaking in cold water; bombardment with bright lights and loud music; sleep deprivation; and severe beatings.

When he and other interrogators went to the colonel in charge and expressed concern that this kind of treatment was not legal, and that they might be investigated by the military’s Criminal Investigation Division or the International Committee of the Red Cross, the colonel told them he had “this directly from Gen McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in”.

On March 11, Mr Hersh told a seminar at the University of Minnesota that the unit Mr Cheney headed was very deeply involved in extra-legal operations.

“It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently,” he explained. “They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office … Congress has no oversight of it … It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on.”

Mr Hersh said: “Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.”

Although Mr Cheney had ignored such allegations in the past, recently he began responding to these charges, making counter-allegations against the Obama administration.

Last week in particular, Mr Cheney appeared almost daily on popular talk shows and also delivered a formal address at the American Enterprise Institute on the importance of interrogation techniques widely considered to be torture. Once known for his reticence and low profile, Mr Cheney has now become his party’s most audible voice.

Media commentators, however, attribute his sudden exuberance to the fear that if he did not defend himself, he might be prosecuted for authorising torture.

“Mr Cheney knew, when he began his media assault, that the worst of the horrors inflicted upon detainees at his specific command are not yet widely known,” said one commentator. “If the real stuff comes into full public light, he feared the general outrage will be so furious and all-encompassing that the Obama administration will have no choice but to … seek prosecutions of those Bush-era officials who specifically demanded those barbaric acts be inflicted upon prisoners.”

One blogger wrote that Mr Cheney not only authorised water-boarding, putting prisoners in confined spaces, pushing them, slapping them, putting bugs on them or demeaning them and their religious faith.

He quoted former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as telling a congressional panel in July of 2004 that if pictures of such acts were “released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse”.

Mr Hersh recently gave a speech to the American Civil Liberties Union making the charge that children were sodomised in front of women in the prison, and the Pentagon had tape of it.

Posted by Peace | Report as abusive


The struggle in Kashmir has always been indigenous, with help from Pakistan. Indians lie when they claim all the trouble in Kashmir is imported.

Posted by Aamir Ali | Report as abusive