5RAR Book Reviews Page


The Accidental Guerrilla;
Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One

Author: David Kilcullen

Review by David Wilkins:

Book Cover: The Accidental GuerillaThe author, David Kilcullen, is a former Australian infantry colonel who saw service in Indonesia, East Timor, Cyprus, Bougainville, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was “borrowed” by the US Defence Department where he worked in the US think-tank for the past 5 years studying and advising on counter terrorism and counterinsurgency. He was involved with General David Petraeus’ successful “surge” in Iraq in 2007 and is no doubt involved in the current 2010 “surge” in Afghanistan.

This book recommends a new approach to counterinsurgency strategy, not least against the al Qa’ida in Iraq, Afghanistan and the North West Frontier of Pakistan. His underlying thesis is that terrorist organisations such as al Qa’ida (AQ) and Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) (a South East Asian offshoot of AQ) rely upon gaining the support of the local populations in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, The Philippines, Somalia, Southern Thailand and many more. When Western nations like the USA pursue the terrorists into such countries the local population perceives that presence as an alien intrusion into their sovereign space. Not surprisingly they often react in opposition to such intrusion and so “by accident” become guerrillas who are then exploited and utilised by the true terrorist organisation.

The traditional Western approach (of the Americans at least) in recent years has been to focus predominantly on the enemy, that is, to pursue and kill him and destroy his network. This is the “enemy-centric” approach, a response that historically has not seen great success. Kilcullen suggests an alternative “population-centric” approach, akin to the counterinsurgency methods that emerged in places like Malaya in the 1950s and 60s where the British and Australians did see success. This “population-centric” approach focuses on the local population, seeking to protect it from the terrorist organisation by establishing close links with the locals and gaining their confidence, and thereby their support. This strategy requires more than a military “sweep” through a populated area to rid it of enemy who will simply side-step the push and return when the Western force has moved on. There is a need to stay, consolidate and provide on-going support for the locals, all the time building them up so they become self-sufficient in defending themselves. This concept of remaining and consolidating has the effect of excluding the insurgent who gradually becomes irrelevant to the local population. When he attacks he is seen as the bad guy and, providing the locals can protect themselves, the insurgent loses his power and control as well as the sympathy of the villagers.

In the words of an Afghan provincial governor:

“Ninety percent of the people you call “Taliban” are actually tribals. They’re fighting for loyalty or Pashtun honour, and to profit their tribe. They’re not extremists. But they’re terrorized by the other 10 percent: religious fanatics, terrorists, people allied to [the Taliban leadership in] Quetta. They’re afraid that if they try to reconcile, the crazies will kill them. To win them over, first you have to protect their people, and prove that the extremists can’t hurt them if they come to your side.”

This is a very brief and simplistic summary of a most complicated subject, which the author analyses in an academic way but from a practical veteran’s perspective. He illustrates his thesis with many colourful battlefield experiences from around the Globe, ranging from the jungles and highlands of South-East Asia and the mountains of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the dusty towns of the Middle East. It is however, a book of strategy not of tactics.

The author cautions that there is no fixed rule for counterinsurgency as the circumstances are forever changing and shifting, necessitating dynamic responses.

David Kilcullen has become one of the world's most influential analysts of counterinsurgency and modern warfare. I consider his book to be an important text describing a fresh approach, and should be required reading for every modern strategist and soldier, not just the decision-makers but also those involved at the grassroots level.