Viewing conflicts through the eye of Counterinsurgency COIN – Since 2007
David Kilcullen: It’s different in three major ways. Firstly, it is much bigger and more militarily capable than al-Qaida ever was. It has tanks, it has helicopters, it’s got very large numbers of artillery pieces, it’s got more than 30,000 fighters, so it’s significantly larger and more militarily capable. Secondly, it controls about a third of Iraq and about a third of Syria, including a network of very connected cities, economic installations that make it about between $2 million and $3 million a day in terms of revenue, and it’s really building a significant territorial state in the Middle East, which is something that al-Qaida was never able to do. Thirdly, and, actually, I think most importantly for people in Australia and New Zealand, it’s having a very significant reinvigorating effect on regional groups in South-east Asia, in Africa and the Middle East. That’s really taking us back almost to square one in terms of re-energizing a global jihad against the West. So I think all those three things adding up together, it’s really a very, very significant threat that’s somewhat larger than what we’ve really ever seen from al-Qaida.
Lisa Owen: Now, you were in Iraq with General Petraeus and helped to mastermind the troop surge there. That seemed to bring a level of stability, so why do you think we now find ourselves in this mess that we’re in?
Well, it’s actually very simple. There are two reasons, and you’re right, we did successfully stabilize Iraq, and we successfully destroyed al-Qaida in Iraq, which is the predecessor organization to ISIS, down to the point where it had less than 5 percent of its fighters left. But then the first reason is we pulled out too quickly. We essentially cut the cord and left at the end of 2011 and put the Iraqis in a position where a lot of the deals that were put in place as part of stabilizing Iraq between 2007 and 2010 just weren’t followed through on, and different parties in Iraq felt that the others weren’t acting in good faith, and the whole deal really fell apart, and that’s allowed the re-invigoration of ISIS. The second very significant reason is the Syrian civil war. So even though we had gotten ISIS down to a shadow of its former self, when the war broke out in Syria and lots of different groups turned against the Assad regime, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at that time the head of ISIS, sent a number of his fighters into Syria to join that fight. And by their success on the ground against the Syrians, they’ve generated a lot of support within Syria. So we’ve seen two big groups—
Can we now say looking at this that the West’s intervention in Iraq was a failure?
No, I think that if you do something and it works and then you stop doing and things go bad, that means that what you did was working, not not working. What I think it tells us is that our whole approach since 9/11, which has essentially been to pick the most dangerous military aspect of Islamic jihadism worldwide and focus military effort on that has been short-sighted. And I’m worried that we’re about to make the same mistake again by switching targets from al-Qaida to ISIS, which is the next, sort of, crocodile to the canoe, if you like, instead of sitting back a little bit and saying, ‘What is it about these groups that makes them so appealing to people in our own societies, and how can we deal with that threat without, in the process, turning our own countries into police states?’ I think that’s really the question that everyone needs to be engaging on now. The military bit is important, but it’s not the forefront.
Okay, I want to come to that a bit later, but I’m wondering – is it now time to start thinking about a radical rejig in Iraq? Do we need three separate states there – Sunni, Shiites? You know, do we need to be thinking about that direction?
I think actually that ship has sailed. We’re already looking at a de facto soft partition, if you like, of Iraq into a sort of south-eastern part of the country that’s really dominated heavily by Iran and is controlled by the Shia majority government in Baghdad and then a Kurdish regional government that now includes not only northern Iraq but significant parts of Syria, and then you’ve got this sort of vacuum in the western part of the country where ISIS is currently. And it’s still a little bit unclear what the future of that part of Iraq is going to be, but I think the chance that it’s ever going to be a one single unified country again is really a bit of a fantasy at this point.
Okay, so let’s go back to the first principle question, then – should we, the West, be getting involved in this at all now?
I do think we need to be getting involved, and the reason I say that is because the reason that a significant number of people are joining Islamic State from our own societies is because they want to be part of something that’s successful, that’s world historic, that seems to be making a significant difference. And one of the most important things we can do to limit that recruitment is to, sort of, take the shine off the Islamic State. Does that mean we should be invading and occupying and trying to restabilise Iraq? Absolutely not. So I think it’s a question of how much is enough in terms of military effort to really set back Islamic State as this attractive thing that people are turning to. But, you know, that’s only part of the issue, as I said. There’s a lot of other stuff that needs to happen in our own societies that, in my view, is actually more important.
Yeah, so looking at the military effort, then – what do we need to do? You’ve been critical, I think, of the air strikes – the level of air strikes. Do we need boots on the ground? What do you see as the way forward?
I think that the way forward has been relatively well set in terms of the tactics of it, which is that we’re going to provide advisers, probably a limited number of special forces for raiding and targeting of high-value targets and then people to designate air strikes and control air power. So it is boots on the ground, but it’s not independent combat units. The main Australia, New Zealand, UK effort here is going to be in training Iraqis and possibly Syrians to take the fight directly to ISIS, but that’s going to be a matter of months, possibly years before those guys are ready to do that. Then—
But who exactly are they training, though? Because there are a lot of commentators that are saying, say, for example, the Iraqi army is in complete disarray and has fallen apart. So who exactly are they training?
That’s not actually a good understanding of what’s going on with the Iraqi military. The Iraqi special operations forces and a number of the Iraqi combat units are actually in pretty good shape. The problem is that over the intervening period since 2011, a lot of the leadership were weeded out and replaced with in some cases corrupt, in other cases sort of politically connected people who were much more interested in the politics of Baghdad than in actually building a viable military force. There’s a lot of potential in the Iraqi military, and I think it won’t be too long before they are able to come back. The real challenge is in Syria, and this puts its finger on the heart of the problem, which is a lot of Syrians are not willing to back a US-led effort unless it’s going to result in the overthrow of Assad. And right now, we’re not focusing on that. We’re not striking the Syrian regime, and there’s a worry that, sure, you can strike ISIS, but all you’re going to do is create space that allows the Assad regime to expand.
I want to just in the time we’ve got left talk a little bit about New Zealand’s involvement in this. Our Prime Minister says that we’re going to be behind the wire – that’s the phrase he likes to use. So not in the front line, offering people to train troops on the ground. But should we prepare ourselves for the possibility of casualties, even though he likes to say we’re away from the main action?
It really depends where New Zealanders end up. If they are not in Iraq, if they’re training people in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, then I think that they are relatively safe from attack. It’s when you’re operating in Iraq or even in Syria that you’re going to find yourself in an environment where there really is not front line, and, sure, you can be inside the wire, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe. If I were advising Kiwis, I’d be saying, ‘Look, prepare yourselves for not only a significant military conflict but one that could last quite some time, and prepare yourself for a domestic threat within New Zealand.’ And that’s part of the challenge that we’re all facing, which is this is not just restricted to the Middle East. It is in our own societies, and it’s affecting public safety in big cities.
Well, when you mention the domestic threat, again, the Prime Minister has released figures publicly that says there are about 40 people who are on a watch list in New Zealand for supporting Islamic State, 40 more than need investigation and about five that have been fighting for Islamic State. Does that sound like realistic numbers to you?
I don’t have any better information than what you have, but it sounds about right when you compare it to what we’ve seen from the UK and Australia and Canada and the US. It’s about on par with that, and I think it’s worth pointing out that the number of foreign fighters who are going to join Islamic State is somewhere between 10 and 12 times the scale of what we saw during the Iraq War. It’s a very substantial number of people. I think the paradox again is the vast majority of Muslims are not involved in anything like this, but yet obviously 100 percent of people involved in the Islamic State are Muslims, so there’s a danger here that we’re going to tar everybody with the same brush and start looking at an entire subset of our own society as a threat. And I think that’s a really important fine line that we need to walk as we deal with the challenge.
But in saying that, how real is the threat on home turf? In New Zealand, say, that something could happen?
So again, back to your very original question – why is this more of a threat than al-Qaida? Al-Qaida’s style of operating was to generate teams of terrorists who would go in a pre-planned way to attack a target and so on. What we’re dealing with now is something that’s a lot, sort of, lower level but is actually rather more dangerous, which is this idea of remote radicalization so that individuals who have a social media connectivity with the Islamic State or they have friends over there becoming radicalized and essentially taking to the streets and carrying out more or less random acts of violence upon people in society. And the example that I point to is what happened in Woolwich in London last year, where two men of Nigerian descent ran down an off-duty British soldier on the street in a car—
And beheaded him in the street.
And then beheaded him in the street. Now, you can’t really protect against that in the same way you can protect against something like 9/11. The challenge for people—
So are you realistically saying, though, that that is something that could happen in New Zealand?
Absolutely. Absolutely. But I think what people need to say is how much surveillance, how much police protection are we prepared to tolerate before we turn our own societies into a police state? And you have to recognise that it’s a real risk and it could happen, but is it worth the sort of mass surveillance and police presence that governments may want to put in place to protect against it?
Well, it’s funny that—
And that’s something that every citizen needs to be involved in.
It’s funny that you raise that, because our government is saying that they would like to bring in 48 hours of warrantless surveillance so that they can watch people for 48 hours without going to the court for a warrant and that they would like to put cameras on private property. So how far or how much privacy should we be prepared to give up? And is privacy something that we have a right to now, or is that notion just gone?
Well, I think if you want to continue to live in a democracy that’s an open society, as New Zealand is, then it has to be something that’s open for debate, and we have to be looking very carefully at safeguards to the kinds of surveillance and security measures that people are putting in place. In Australia, for example, there’s been a debate where the Attorney General has said, ‘Well, look, it’s okay. We’re not planning to use these regulations in order to, for example, shut down journalists’, but once the regulations are on the books, some future government can use them to do whatever it wants. So I think we have to really be looking carefully at things like sunset clauses, where these regulations are up for review on a regular basis, and we have to be encouraging public debate and helping people see that it’s not choice between perfect security and risk at the hands of groups like ISIS. It’s about how much of your security or how much of your privacy and freedom are you willing to give up, and is it worth doing that in order to achieve security against this kind of risk? And, of course, the answer to that is different in every different country, and everyone needs to be part of the discussion, otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves looking back on this and saying, ‘It looked like a good idea at the time, but now we find ourselves living in a different society from how we were originally’.
Dr Kilcullen, thank you. So interesting to talk to you this morning. Thank you for your time and for joining us on The Nation.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
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