Blood Year

In reply to David Kilcullen's Quarterly Essay, Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State.



Audrey Kurth Cronin

Dave Kilcullen and I met in late 2005, when I came to Washington briefly for meetings and he was working at the US Department of State for Ambassador Hank Crumpton, the Counterterrorism Coordinator. In those days I was Director of Studies for the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford University. In 2006–07, Dave occasionally stopped by Oxford on his way to or from Iraq. We’d test out ideas, debate or brainstorm about counterterrorism – in formal seminars or over beers at a local pub. I greatly respected Dave’s insight, dedication and experience. We agreed most of the time, and I always came away enriched.

Not having had the pleasure of his stimulating conversation lately, I read Dave’s essay with keen interest. It is a heartfelt piece, written with characteristic acumen. His distress at the 2014 rise of ISIS and effective dismantling of the state of Iraq comes through, as does his personal sense of duty. He argues that for ten years the United States has followed essentially the same counterterrorism strategy, which Dave calls “Disaggregation,” and that it has failed. He writes, “I know this strategy intimately, because I helped devise it. So its failure is in part my failure too.” I live in Washington now. It’s refreshing to hear such clear acceptance of responsibility. Bravo to a man of integrity.

But Dave is assuming too much burden. First, Disaggregation was a brilliant approach, but it was never an overarching logic for all US policy. If only it had been. The purpose of Disaggregation was to keep our enemies divided, manage down the problem and avoid strategic overreach. Thus, it sought to emphasise distinctions between groups, many of whom had local grievances predating al-Qaeda (and now the so-called Islamic State), so as to break connections, highlight in-fighting, confront local groups through local partners, and reduce terrorism to a manageable level. Tactically, we did a lot of those things – not least through the tireless work of Dave and Hank, who travelled all over the world building vital counterterrorism partnerships. But strategically, the “Global War on Terror” prevailed.

From the outset there was a contradiction at the heart of Disaggregation. Especially after the misguided invasion of Iraq, generalisations about the seamless, global jihadist movement predominated in the White House, Congress and even the Department of Defense. One of the things Dave and I debated a decade ago was the wisdom of using the related phrase “global insurgency” (for which he is even better known than Disaggregation) as a unifying strategic concept for the war. I worried that this framing would mash disparate groups together and hand the initiative to the jihadists. The United States would be forced into a reactive mode, compelled to respond directly to jihadists not just where there was an imminent threat or serious risk to our national interests, but everywhere – a classic recipe for overstretch. Dave’s connotation for the phrase was more nuanced, but in practice “global insurgency” became the opposite of Disaggregation. Beginning under the Bush administration and even more so under Obama, the United States built up Special Operations and CIA paramilitary forces, engaging directly in a shadow campaign against this “global insurgency,” frequently without the knowledge of local partners. 

In his essay, Dave argues that two factors undermined Disaggregation, and that but for these two problems it might have worked. “The first,” he writes, “was Iraq.” He calls the 2003 invasion of Iraq “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia” and argues it became “a hole in the heart of Western strategy: the cost, in human life, credibility, money and time, of extracting ourselves from the unforced error weakened the impact of Disaggregation.”

Dave is right about the blunder of invading Iraq. There was widespread opposition to the invasion at the time, including from eminent Americans such as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, retired marine general Anthony Zinni, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Crowe. Especially as Iraq became increasingly violent, the occupation sucked up US defence and foreign policy resources, distracting us from what we should have been doing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. 

I’m confused about the order of things here. The invasion of Iraq (in 2003) occurred more than two years before, according to Dave, Disaggregation became central to Western strategy (after 2005). Those of us pleading in 2002 that the invasion was a boneheaded counterterrorism move, that it would unite our enemies and alter the regional balance in favour of Iran, were basically stuck with it afterwards. A strategy must take current facts into account and proceed from there.

Having argued that Iraq undermined Disaggregation, Dave contends that we ended the occupation too soon: “you either leave well, or you leave quickly.” Perhaps the US occupation should have gone on longer: I didn’t take part in the status of forces agreement (SOFA) negotiations and cannot judge whether the Americans or the Iraqis bear the greater responsibility for precisely when and how the occupation ended.

But it was not “quick.” That’s a false dichotomy. If anything, we left slowly and badly. The occupation lasted almost nine years, and the costs were terrible. Almost 4500 Americans and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis died. Conservatively, it cost the United States about US$815 billion in direct costs, and a lot more if you include indirect costs (such as support for injured service members and interest on the debt). To put this into perspective, according to World Bank figures, that’s more than the annual GDP of most countries (all but seventeen countries have a GDP less than $815 billion). Indeed, it’s more than half the annual GDP of Australia. Remember, the Bush administration’s original request for war funding was US$21 billion, on the promise that the cost of rebuilding Iraq would be mainly borne by grateful Iraqis. That didn’t happen. We will be paying these costs for decades, some of them forever. Ultimately the occupation ended because the willingness of the American people to continue to support the costs of the war had ended.

It didn’t take long for simmering sectarian tensions in Iraq to re-emerge. Less than twenty-four hours after the United States pulled out of Iraq, the Shi’a-dominated Maliki government went after its Sunni rivals, methodically removing all trace of Sunni power and influence. Defying a 2008 statute, Maliki developed a federal police force with powers greatly exceeding those of local police. Death squads hunted down prominent Sunnis, killing them or forcing them into exile. Set off by threats of arrest against Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis came out in peaceful protests in 2012 and 2013. The Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government crushed them, killing at least forty unarmed protesters.

Dave argues that the Maliki government crushed Iraqi Sunnis because the United States had lost its leverage through lack of presidential engagement, the drawdown of troops, spending cuts and a flawed SOFA. “Maliki may have been acting defensively, protecting himself against threats from the military and the Sunnis as American influence waned. But his measures looked offensive to Sunnis, who began to protect themselves against the risk of Shi’a oppression.” At what point is a sovereign government responsible for its own policies?

The second factor Dave argues undermined Disaggregation was transformation of the Arab region, triggered by three events: “the death of bin Laden, the failure of the Arab Spring and the rebirth of ISIS.” Within that political tsunami, the bloody Syrian civil war both attracted and created Islamist extremists, who joined the most successful anti-Assad faction and gained power, leading directly to the military conquest of ISIS.

When ISIS swept across Iraq in summer 2014, most US military analysts predicted that the US-trained Iraqi security forces would contain it. The United States had spent US$26 billion on the Iraqi security forces alone during almost a decade of occupation. Iraq should have had an army able to turn back the advance of ISIS and a police force willing and able to protect the rights and interests of the Sunni minority. It did not.

Instead, the advance was met with mass desertions from the Iraqi Army. With the Maliki government carrying out brutal sectarian policies, the Sunnis had nowhere else to turn. Secular Iraqi military officers and Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who had formerly been aligned with the 2006 “Surge” abandoned the Iraqi state and aligned themselves with ISIS. Now ISIS’s military operations are led by capable former Iraqi military leaders who know US techniques and have US-supplied equipment, including American tanks, artillery, armoured humvees and mine-resistant vehicles. 

The rise of ISIS and the establishment of the “Islamic State” has been disastrous for Iraq, which no longer functions as a nation-state. Many indigenous Iraqis have fled, resulting in the worst displacement crisis since World War II. Meanwhile, some 1000 foreign fighters a month, including fighters from the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and Australia, have flocked to the Islamic State. And ISIS has developed global, 24-hour online operations and a cadre of trained social media recruiters, who draw vulnerable teenagers and disaffected Muslims to the “caliphate” or goad them to carry out terrorist attacks against “infidels” at home.

The Islamic State will be defeated, but not directly by the democratic powers using their own conventional forces. A core part of the myth of the Islamic State is its claim to be a caliphate. If we flood the region with troops, we will supply the pretext for the theological nonsense its spokespeople spout. They tell their followers the caliphate will soon face what they call the army of “Rome,” meaning Christian-majority states, who will confront them in towns like Dabiq in northern Syria and initiate a countdown to the apocalypse. It would be foolish to play into that narrative. They would use it to mobilise or inspire additional supporters in the region, and the threat of homegrown attacks would grow.

But that does not mean we should be passive. We must attack this threat with sustainable policies that can achieve our political objectives. These include bearing down with punishing airstrikes on ISIS targets, supporting the Iraqis and the Kurds as they fight, continuing arms embargos and sanctions, and choking off ISIS smuggling routes. While containing them militarily, we should greatly increase aid to civilians fleeing the fighting. Moreover, we must recognise that ISIS is not merely an American or Western coalition problem. The wars in Iraq and Syria involve not only regional players but also major global actors such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Dave fears that regional and world powers will be drawn in; I argue that they are already there.

The United States cannot single-handedly defend the region and the world from an aggressive, revisionist, theocratic state – nor should it. The major powers must develop a common diplomatic, economic and military approach to ensure that this pseudo-state is tightly contained and treated as a global pariah. In short, we should “aggregate.” The good news is that no government supports ISIS. It is an enemy of every state in the region – and indeed the world. To capitalise on this, Washington and its allies should pursue a more aggressive diplomatic agenda with major powers and regional players. NATO’s declaration of support for Turkey’s anti-ISIS campaign is a step in the right direction.

Dave ends his essay maintaining that the most important thing is “the centrality of political will.” I agree. But in Iraq, the political will of Western societies is secondary to the political will of the Iraqis. I sincerely hope that the new Iraqi government will be able to rally its inhabitants – Shi’a and Sunni alike – to support and fight for it, especially with the help of aggressive American and Australian air power. But no matter how much equipment or how many embedded advisers we provide, external powers will never be able to force them to do so. War is, and always has been, a matter of clashing wills. 

Audrey Kurth Cronin


This is a reply to David Kilcullen’s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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