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.”

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