Commentary Magazine


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Kilcullen on Afghanistan

David Kilcullen — a former Australian army officer who has advised General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — is one of the world’s top counterinsurgency strategists. So it is no surprise that his thoughts on the course of the Afghanistan war are worth a read. In this Q&A
with the New Yorker’s George Packer, he makes a number of valuable suggestions, above all the need to apply classic counterinsurgency doctrine by switching from targeting insurgents to controlling population centers. To wit:

There has been an emphasis on fighting the Taliban, which has led us into operations (both air and ground-based) that do a lot of damage but do not make people feel safer. Similarly, we have a lot of troops in rural areas-small outposts-positioned there because it’s easier to bring firepower to bear on the enemy out in these areas. Meanwhile, the population in major towns and villages is vulnerable because we are off elsewhere chasing the enemy main-force guerrillas, allowing terrorist and insurgent cells based in the populated areas to intimidate people where they live. As an example, eighty per cent of people in the southern half of Afghanistan live in one of two places: Kandahar city, or Lashkar Gah city. If we were to focus on living amongst these people and protecting them, on an intimate basis 24/7, just in those two areas, we would not need markedly more ground troops than we have now (in fact, we could probably do it with current force levels). We could use Afghan National Army and police, with mentors and support from us, as well as Special Forces teams, to secure the other major population centers. That, rather than chasing the enemy, is the key.

He also pours some cold water on the dream of negotiating with an undefeated Taliban-that “is totally not in the cards,” as he puts it. As an alternative he suggests “community engagement” to win over local areas that are “tacitly supporting the Taliban by default (because of lack of an alternative).”

Read, as they say, the whole thing.