David Kilcullen on the US habit of going to war

The following is an extract of a conversation between ABC presenter Kerry O’Brien and Australian military strategist David Kilcullen, broadcast on the ABC program Four Corners, on the evening of Monday 25 March. Like the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, Kilcullen thinks we should think very carefully before we follow the US into a new war:

KERRY O’BRIEN: Just listening to you talk then about Karzai’s – the position that Karzai was put in essentially by Western forces, had just another eerie echo to me of Vietnam – almost an exact replica of Vietnam despite the fact that so many people in justifying going into Afghanistan said there was no parallel.

Do you see that parallel today?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Yeah, I actually testified in front of the US Senate about five years ago and said that we have to be very careful to ensure that President Karzai doesn’t turn into President Diem. Diem was the first president of independent South Vietnam, who remained in power the first period of the international intervention in Vietnam.

And in fact, the Kennedy administration connived at a coup that lead to his overthrow and assassination, and a lot of people were, I guess, disappointed to see how much worse it got after he was no longer in power.

Although there are some strong similarities with – you know, between all different kinds of counter-insurgency engagements like this one, one of the big differences here is, in Vietnam there were about five international partners who played a big role in the conflict. Here we’ve got 50 countries engaged, and the United Nations very heavily engaged, and a lot of other organisations all pulling together to try to make the environment better than it was in 2001.

One of the big lessons that I would take from this whole series of events is if there’s a possible alternative to getting into a counter-insurgency fight, you should avoid it. I mean, the most important lesson of counter-insurgency is – don’t do it.

And I think both Vietnam and Afghanistan, and even more so Iraq, underline that important lesson.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Well of course the lessons don’t seem to have been learned in the past, you can only hope that they may be learned in the future but I’m not quite sure what the basis is for that.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Well I don’t think there is a basis for it. In fact, it’s quite interesting that you mention that. If you look at American military history in particular, and you take – you start the clock running around the Mexican War in 1846, there’s a very consistent pattern in US military history of the US getting into a large or long counter-insurgency or stabilisation operation about once every 20 to 30 years for that whole period since the middle of the 19th Century – not just Vietnam but a whole bunch of stuff that happened in the Caribbean, the Philippines, the frontier.

There’s this very consistent pattern of about once a generation they get into a conflict like Vietnam. Last year President Obama issued directives to the Defence Department to say ‘We’re going to get out of the business of doing large scale counter-insurgency and stabilisation operations’.

By my count, he’s about the seventh president to make that precise statement, and it seems that this pattern of continuous engagement in counter-insurgency, presidential preferences have absolutely no detectable effect on that pattern.

So I think there’s something that’s deeply hidden in the way that the United States relates to the rest of the world that tends to lead Americans and their Western allies into these kinds of operations on a regular basis.

I don’t think it’s going to go away and it would be great if Afghanistan were the basis for people sitting up and thinking ‘Hey, we should think very carefully before we do this again’, but I’m afraid the historical pattern suggests that that’s just not the case.

See full transcript on the ABC website here.

by AWPR

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