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World

'Bloodline' Author On The Failures Of U.S. Counter-Insurgency Strategy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Military forces in Iraq began the battle to retake Mosul this past week. It's the second-largest city in Iraq, and ISIS has controlled it for the past two years. The fact that a terrorist group like ISIS was ever allowed to get a foothold in that country is a blow to the tens of thousands of U.S. troops and military personnel who tried to bring stability to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

David Kilcullen is one of them. He was a senior counterterrorism adviser to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General David Petraeus when he was overseeing that war. Kilcullen argues in his book, "Blood Year," that the U.S. had a window of opportunity to make its counterinsurgency in Iraq work. But that window, he says, is now closed.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Counterinsurgency itself isn't actually a strategy. It's just a set of techniques. And it has to be embedded within a broader political or military strategy. And that's where we really struggled. In Afghanistan, we went into one of the least developed, most damaged countries on the planet. We articulated an incredibly ambitious nation-building reconstruction program but then failed to put in the attention or the resources that would have been needed to meet the goals that were laid out.

Having committed ourselves to this giant effort in Afghanistan, we then turned away within a year and invaded a completely different country that was, you know, not close to Afghanistan and required many of the same resources that we would have needed to do Afghanistan properly. And I think in the case of Iraq, it wasn't so much a lack of resources. It was that we didn't put the effort into coming up with a workable political strategy to bring the different elements of Iraqi society together.

MARTIN: So if we can boil this down, are you suggesting that we wouldn't be in the place we are in today, that ISIS wouldn't be the threat that it is today had the U.S. employed a counterinsurgency set of tactics, as you outlined them, in the way that they should've?

KILCULLEN: No, I think it's more complicated than that. I mean, you know, there is no doubt in my mind that there would not be an ISIS today if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003. At the same time, though, there also wouldn't be one if we hadn't left Iraq in the way that we did in 2011. And I should point out that that's not a partisan political statement. It was both the Obama and the Bush administrations that were involved in both of those decisions - well, in the decision to leave.

MARTIN: But the U.S. conducted a robust counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan for at least six years, spent tens of billions of dollars on that effort. I understand you're saying if the U.S. hadn't taken its eye off Afghanistan and moved to Iraq that that situation could've turned out better. But what is the time horizon for a successful counterinsurgency campaign? How many years does it take?

KILCULLEN: That's actually very well understood, how many years it takes. It takes between 10 and 15 to be successful. Counterinsurgency is not a long-term solution. What it is is like taking antibiotics so that you can buy time for that political reconciliation and transition that's needed to resolve the problem.

MARTIN: Barack Obama has used drone warfare more than any other American president. It's been a central piece of his military strategy against al-Qaida and ISIS. And the administration has looked at it as really a key way to keep U.S. troops out of harm's way while keeping the threat at bay. Do you think that has been effective?

KILCULLEN: I think I would put drones in the same category as counterinsurgency, right? It's a technique, not a strategy. And using it instead of a strategy is not, you know, viable. That said, it's been a very effective technique in damaging senior leadership of terrorist groups, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen. It's been quite effective, as you mentioned, in keeping U.S. military forces out of the environment on the ground. Where I think it's been lacking is that we have tended to rely on it rather than focusing on addressing the - you know, the issues that make drone strikes necessary in the first place.

MARTIN: So if counterinsurgency is a tactic that can be used against terrorist groups, if drones are an effective tactic, what is the overarching strategy that you believe is lacking right now?

KILCULLEN: Well, I think that's the great question, right? I mean, I - and I think there's actually a very strong degree of continuity in U.S. counterterrorism strategy going back to about the end of 2004. And it basically involves three elements. One is to break up and to destroy the leadership of current terrorist groups. The second one is to prevent the emergence of new terrorist groups to take their place. And then the third is to work with partners to remedy the conditions that give rise to those terrorist groups in the first place.

We've done extraordinarily well on the first element. We've done pretty poorly on the second two. And what I recommend we do is we start with defeating the Islamic State.

To do that, I think you have to recognize that the Islamic State is not - it's really not one thing. It's three things. It's a state-like entity. It's a series of guerrilla movements across about 20 countries. And then it's this sort of largely online network of supporters. Each of those requires quite a different set of approaches.

MARTIN: David Kilcullen, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General David Petraeus. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KILCULLEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.