David Kilcullen

Dr. David Kilcullen spoke at Georgetown last week on the subject of counter-insurgency in Iraq in 2007. A friend of mine from the SSP and my Arabic class told me about it this morning. Otherwise I wouldn’t even have known about it! Paul Pillar was sitting next to Kilcullen — Pillar is an ex-CIA analyst who’s very smart on the subject of counter-terrorism.

Kilcullen is one of General Petraeus’s advisors. He’s an Aussie intelligence officer [edit: my error, I said he was in intel but it looks like he was in infantry — I thought I heard him or someone else say intel] trained in anthropology.


Very informative lecture, addresses a lot of issues and clears up a lot of misconceptions I had. He verbalized the things I saw when I was in Iraq and how different it is now. One of the smartest guys I’ve heard speak on the subject.

I shook his hand afterwards. I was behind a bunch of people asking him to show at their organization, respond to prompts for their research paper, and one guy from Boeing who mentioned some crap about equipment being marketed towards Aussie intel agencies (a shallow sales pitch). I just thanked Kilcullen for restoring competency to the effort over there. It’s hard to gauge his reaction but I think he disagreed with my assessment of there having been a lack of competency. Either that or he was flattered and didn’t want to speak about something politically sensitive. I just wanted to thank him after having seen the idiocy that took place in 2005-2006.

Interesting points:

-Specifically stated that their strategy did not include arming the Sunnis to encourage the Sunni Awakening. Says it’s a media myth. Not sure about that since I keep reading about a lot of money transfers to the Sunnis from the US.

-The Awakening groups did not turn to the national group when they started working with us — they turned to coalition forces. He also pointed out that the Iraqis initiated these movements, not us. Which calls into question how much of a real influence the US is having in terms of productive solutions.

-Kilcullen smirked when he mentioned the first government we installed in Iraq with Paul Bremer, the transitional government.

-He points out that all the ground-level gains made in 2007 are all easily reversible and that the main complaint, that gains have not been made politically, is valid.

-Says the surge did not work as originally planned, but has offered other benefits — attributes extra troops as necessary to being able to do what has been done.

-Says the US is actually very good at counter-insurgency, despite what is said critically about it. Counter-insurgency used to be just something Special Forces knew but now it is being conducted at small-squad levels in the infantry in big Army.

-Says that if you argue the Iraqis need to take responsibility for their own country, then what you are saying is that the guys in the Iraqi government failed politically. And since they are the guys the US put in artificially, then it’s our fault.

-Sectarianism in the government is currently the biggest obstacle towards progress.

-Syria and Iran have done good jobs with their borders. Kurdistan is a bit of a wild card, especially with the interplay with Turkey, which is becoming a more worrying influence in the region.

-Iraqi Special Operations Forces are very good at kicking down doors for counter-terrorism missions (as a result of the training in 2005 which I observed) but have not been trained in counter-insurgency until recently.

-Police reform takes about a decade in counter-insurgency based on past histories.

-If you send in 2,000 new US troops, the actually number on the ground is far less because those troops are composed of support elements and staff. If you send in 10,000 new Iraqi soldiers, you are also depriving the enemy of 10,000 recruits, in a counter-insurgency.

-Hard to apply Iraqi models to Afghanistan because Pashtuns don’t do whatever their sheik says like in Iraq.

-Addresses usefulness of human terrain/anthropologists. Says it’s not proven practically yet. Says 90% of talk in media about the new anthropological elements should be discounted. Says most anthropology confused with demographics (knowing the cultural makeup of the society) and census-data (developing network diagrams).