The David Kilcullen Interview: An Afghan and Iraq War Retrospective

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David Kilcullen is Professor of International and Political Studies at UNSW Canberra, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and CEO of the research firm Cordillera Applications Group. His expertise is future warfare, guerrilla and unconventional warfare, special operations, and counterterrorism. Over a 25-year career with the Australian and U.S. governments as a soldier, intelligence officer and diplomat, he served in Iraq as senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus, as advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Colombia. He has worked extensively for NATO and other international organisations, helping to analyse and predict the nature of future threats and conflicts, and has written five prize-winning books and numerous scholarly articles on terrorism, insurgency, urbanisation, and future warfare. 

Many of the Australian Defence Force’s current cohort of junior leaders have only ever observed the non-kinetic, tail-end of the Afghanistan war from a distance. Now after 20-years of coalition military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban have achieved military victories in large swathes of the country in-step with the drawdown. The strategic centres of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar are under attack. American intelligence agencies predict Kabul won’t last six months and China and Iran have already met with the Taliban in anticipation of their ascendancy. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani blames the coalition “cut and run” for the worsening violence.

We’re seeing the previous generation’s war come to an ignominious and acrimonious end.

The Afghan and Iraq wars were significant chapters in David Kilcullen’s career, and Kilcullen—one of the Australian Army’s most famous sons—looks back on these years with mixed feelings. “People in Washington are acting like the current state of affairs in Afghanistan is a natural outcome, an act of God about which we can do nothing, but none of that is true. Australia hasn’t lost a combat casualty in Afghanistan since 2013, and the United States [U.S.] hasn’t lost one since 2020. In the preceding 3 years, they only lost 8-10 soldiers per year. That’s tragic for the families and individuals involved but is in no way an unsustainable cost for a professional military.”

The U.S. forces in Japan and Europe lost more people in traffic accidents than people were dying in combat in Afghanistan.

“Yes, the U.S. was spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that only sounds like a lot of money if you don’t know how much money the U.S. spends elsewhere,” says Kilcullen.

“Saying ‘we’ve got to leave because we’ve been there for 20 years’ ignores the comparison in South Korea. America intervened in Korea in 1950, and 20 years after that South Korea was still a complete basket case. It was a military dictatorship with a per capita income lower than the Democratic Republic of Congo— but look where it is now. The U.S. has kept 28,500 troops in Korea for generations because they recognised the value of doing that outweighed the cost.”

“So, as military professionals we need to distinguish the public discourse from the military reality; there’s no reason we couldn’t keep our presence going in Afghanistan, we just didn’t want to do it anymore”, says Kilcullen. “We learned this in Vietnam. The winning or losing of a long-term counterinsurgency [COIN] campaign is mental, rather than physical, and centres on the exhaustion of political will in the home country, rather than the exhaustion of combat will by troops on the ground. I assess that American and Australian troops on the ground were more than willing to continue doing their job in-country, while populations at home were not.”

Dr. David Kilcullen (left) asks a question of LTCOL Michael Infanti, commander of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

Kilcullen once wrote, “the situation in Afghanistan is dire. But the war is winnable”. He now reflects that he got more wrong than right- including this. “When 9/11 happened, we committed quickly to Afghanistan and it was obvious to Australia, but not necessarily the U.S., that it was going to be a long conflict.”

“I remember going to an ABCANZ [American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies] briefing in June 2002- I was working in Army Headquarters at the time- and I delivered a brief on Afghanistan. I spoke about how we might transition from the end of phase 1 operations to addressing the developing insurgency. The Americans in the briefing challenged me and said, ‘what are you talking about, the war’s over?’. To which I replied, ‘the invasion is over, but the war isn’t over. The war hasn’t really started yet’. This anecdote shows the American mindset; they believed that they had achieved victory in 7 weeks, and they had moved on. In June 2002 they were already thinking about Iraq, well before the dust had settled in Afghanistan.”

“This was our biggest mistake (which is possibly an irrecoverable mistake): going into Iraq. Going in, the way we went in, and the way we left, has made a lot of things much worse. But we also turned away from Afghanistan in a moment when we had the opportunity to cement a better position than we have now. We gave up on Afghanistan and ignored it until 2006, because we became bogged down in Iraq, and by then it was already going so badly there was little we could do,” says Kilcullen.

“Wrongly, we believed our own propaganda about COIN after the surge in Iraq. Those on the ground recognised that COIN was part of the solution, but it wasn’t the decisive element. Frankly, the decisive thing was ‘the awakening’; where the tribes turned against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and one of the reasons why they were willing to do that was the COIN strategy. Another reason was that we had an extra 30,000 troops in Iraq, so we had enough people in-country to support them. The final reason was that the tribes had been alienated and finally lost patience with the terrorists.”

“The coalition came out of that experience and believed no one could conduct COIN operations like we could. However, it’s nowhere in the COIN doctrine that you should have a 96% reduction in violence in a 3-month period. There had to be something else going on— the awakening. But we took that false and distorted set of lessons from Iraq and tried to do the same thing in Afghanistan.”

Kilcullen says, “we tried the surge in Afghanistan, but it didn’t work because it was missing the other factors which were present in Iraq. We also helpfully told the Taliban exactly when we were planning to leave. So, they waited until International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] left and then took Kunduz just a few months later. We put ourselves in the position of fighting a two-front war, which was an unforced error, and goes back to the very beginning of the War on Terror.”

“In terms of what I personally got wrong— when I conducted counter-terrorism intelligence work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Assessments [now the Office of National Intelligence], and also for the American government, myself and a few other analysts pushed the notion of ‘disaggregation’.”

“This challenged the practice of lumping all threats into one category and making the problem bigger than it needed to be. We advocated disaggregating Al-Qaeda from all the local franchises so then we could assist local nations to handle that threat. We won the policy debate, and this was the policy which was adopted from about 2005. This worked very well for Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., in that it prevented another 9/11, but for the rest of the world it localised the threat and the assistance programs didn’t go particularly well (with a few exceptions),” says Kilcullen.

It was like stamping on a puddle; we spread the problem around so that everyone had to deal with it.

“This led to a second and third wave of terrorism. We went from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, and from ISIS to terrorism in a nebulous, cell-based structure which is both ‘everywhere and nowhere’. A lot of the techniques we put in place after 9/11 are not suited to combatting that threat.”

“We as a group, and I personally, can look back on a couple of qualified successes, but most of what we’ve done since 9/11 tended to make the problem worse”, says Kilcullen. “Now we’re in a position where we’re dealing with state and non-state threats at the same time, and we need to be thinking differently.”

Despite this, Kilcullen not disheartened to look back on his life’s work and draw such morose conclusions. “I was blown up a few times in Iraq and ambushed a few times in Afghanistan; the experience certainly wasn’t pleasant, but I felt I was part of trying to solve a big, tough problem. It’s cold comfort for the Afghans, but ‘you win some, you lose some’. I felt like I was lucky to be there at a focal point of history and be part of it.”

“Australia went to Afghanistan to support the Americans and demonstrate that we were a good ally willing to contribute to a coalition effort. We achieved our aims very quickly; we were one of the only countries that supported the U.S. upfront. We got those ‘coalition credibility points’ that we were looking for.”

“But we were stuck; if you go in with your major ally to demonstrate willingness, at what point can you leave? You don’t want to be the first person to stop clapping at the ‘Stalin speech’. We would have lost all the credibility points by backing out. In fact, we did lose some of those points by leaving Iraq early. But our major ally didn’t have a plan. Everybody was there to support the Americans, but the Americans didn’t know how to win the war so everybody else ended up being stuck for 20 years,” Kilcullen says.  

“This is partly why I ended up working in the U.S.; I recognised that the solution to getting Canberra out of Afghanistan in feasible strategic terms lay in Washington. The Americans had to figure out how to end this or we were never going to get out of there. Now we’ve gotten to the point where they’ve decided to declare victory and leave. It doesn’t look good, and it’s only going to look dramatically worse in about 6 months. I think it’s going to come back to bite us in the same way leaving Iraq did in 2010. Afghanistan is in an urgent and dangerous situation; what Afghanistan is experiencing right now isn’t a tragedy, it’s a crime.”

Find Part II of the Kilcullen interview here

About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. Find him on Twitter.

Cover Image Credit: CPL Sagi Biderman, Defence Image Gallery