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July 2009

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The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One
Review by J. R. Bullington
Text Box:

David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press, 2009, 346 pp, $27.95

This book is likely to emerge as one of the seminal works in the growing field of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, along with the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (a 2007 publication whose production was overseen by General David Petraeus) and books and articles by other warrior-intellectuals such as John Nagl, H. R. McMaster, Peter Mansoor, and T. X. Hammes.

In it, David Kilcullen shares experiences and insights gained from his 20 years as an Australian Army officer with “small war” combat experience in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; as an astute student of such wars (his Ph.D. thesis was on the political effects of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and terrorism in traditional societies); as a  special advisor on counterterrorism strategy to Secretary of State Rice; and as one of the architects of the new U.S. strategy that accompanied the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, where he was senior advisor on counterinsurgency to General Petraeus.

A principal thesis of the book is that although the global “neo-Salafi jihadists” are implacable fanatics with whom there is no room for compromise, most of the people they recruit and exploit have limited aims and sometimes legitimate grievances, and are fighting us because we are in their space, not because they wish to invade ours. U.S. policymakers, Kilcullen maintains, have tended to conflate these “accidental guerrillas” with the jihadi religious terrorists.

The book covers both the global challenge of Islamist extremism and current and recent wars involving insurgency:

  • Chapter one lays out a conceptual framework and patterns of conflict.
  • Chapters two and three examine Afghanistan and Iraq in detail, adding context to the concepts and patterns as well as several case studies and anecdotes.
  • Chapter four looks briefly at three other conflicts – East Timor, southern Thailand, and Pakistan – to identify variants in the overall framework.
  • Chapter five explores strategies and practical solutions for dealing with both the global terrorists and the “accidental guerrillas.”

Kilcullen’s broad policy prescription is to disentangle the real global threat from local conflicts, deal with the former, and avoid the latter whenever possible but win them if necessary. He recommends a full-spectrum approach to counterinsurgency, encompassing political, security, economic, intelligence, and information (“hearts and minds”) tracks. He approvingly quotes Vietnam War historian and counterinsurgency theorist Bernard Fall that “a government that is losing to an insurgency is not being outfought, it is being outgoverned.” He points out that the new strategy associated with the 2007 surge in Iraq:

…finally began to reflect counterinsurgency best practice as demonstrated over dozens of campaigns in the last several decades. In essence, enemy-centric approaches…, assuming that killing insurgents is the key task, rarely succeed. Population-centric approaches that center on protecting local people and gaining their support succeed more often.

Kilcullen concludes that “if we must engage in large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns, then there are certain techniques that can work when properly applied in support of a well-considered political strategy…. It is possible to distill a set of principles for effective counterinsurgency.” These principles are:

  • A political strategy to build host government effectiveness
  • A comprehensive, integrated civil-military approach
  • Continuity of key personnel and policies
  • Population-centric security
  • Synchronization of security and development
  • Putting the host nation in the lead
  • Building effective local security forces
  • A region-wide approach that disrupts insurgent safe havens and controls borders

In assessing the Iraq War, Kilcullen makes clear his opinion that launching it was a huge mistake:

In my view the war, in grand-strategic terms, was a deeply misguided and counterproductive undertaking, an extremely severe strategic error, and a model of exactly how not to do business.

While he considers that with the surge and new strategy we seem “to have saved ourselves from some of the more egregious consequences of a bad decision to invade Iraq,” he points out that serious issues remain:

If we were to draw historical analogies, we might say that operations in Iraq are like trying to defeat the Viet Cong (insurgency) while simultaneously rebuilding Germany (nation-building following war and dictatorship), keeping peace in the Balkans (communal and sectarian conflict), and defeating the IRA (domestic terrorism)….the interaction of these multiple problems means that improvements in counterinsurgency technique and capability, while important in addressing the insurgency part of the problem, are not enough to deal with the broader strategic issue in Iraq.

On Afghanistan, Kilcullen concludes that:

…the Afghan campaign is at a strategic crossroads….the conflict remains winnable, but the overall trend is extremely negative, and a concerted, long-term effort is needed – lasting 5-10 years at least – if we are to have any chance of building a resilient Afghan state and civil society that can defeat the threat from a resurgent Taliban…


Ambassador (ret.) J. R. Bullington was a career FSO and served in several posts in Africa and Southeast Asia, including wartime Vietnam. Following retirement from the State Department, he was Peace Corps director in Niger. He was editor of American Diplomacy, 2007-2009, and is currently a senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.

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