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PacificEdge | November 24, 2017

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A new conflict, a multinational screw-up and, perhaps, a way forward

A new conflict, a multinational screw-up and, perhaps, a way forward
Russ Grayson


Originally written in 2015.


I PRODUCED this review in 2015 when the situation David Kilcullen describes in his Quarterly Essay was quite different to what we see in Syria and Iraq today. That’s the thing in writing about current events — they are constantly changing and as soon as something is published it can quickly be outdated.

David has now released his book, Blood Year ( that the Quarterly Essay article was based on. It updates and expands the essay reviewed here and includes analysis of the situation since the Russian intervention. Available in print and as an ebook, Blood Year is an insider’s story of Islamic State and the failures of the war on terror.


AS THINGS STAND in early 2015, Western countries (including a United States with severely reduced international credibility) face a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy in a less stable, more fragmented region.

So begins Australian ex-military strategist and global security adviser David Kilcullen in his latest publication on the deteriorating geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Every few months, it seems, the situation gets worse, whether that’s Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh or ISIS — Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) carving out a caliphate in what used to be those countries or whether it is the worsening sectarian conflict splitting Islam between its dominant, Iran-inspired Shiite and Sunni branches.

Blood Year is published by Quarterly Essay and can be purchased from bookstores or onlinw.

Blood Year was published by Quarterly Essay and can be purchased from bookstores or online. David’s book of the same title was released in Februry 2016 and expands on and updates the Quarterly Essay. It is available in print or as an ebook.

From his background in the Australian Army, Kilcullen went on to advise the US campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. He learned much from that and became something of a constructive critic of US and Australian foreign policy and military strategy in the region.

His 2015 publication — QE58: Blood Year — should be required reading for our politicians, military strategists and security services. So too should his previous book, Out Of The Mountains, which explores how population growth, urbanisation and the littoralisation of cities is leading to new approaches to conflict by non-state organisations and criminal gangs as well as to proxy conflict by states.

Blood Year refers to 2014, the year that saw the surge by IS and its siezing control of a third each of Iraq and Syria. It also saw IS fighters attack other resistance militias fighting against the government of Syria so as to gain ascendency.The IS surge led to it eclipsing Al Quada as the lead combatant in the region (although it has recently made a comeback in Afghanistan) and carve out a new state, a caliphate that, if it persists, would redraw the map of the Middle East and probably threaten regional nations as well as Europe and the West.

…We’re dealing with not one, but two global terrorist organisations, each with its own regional branches, plus a vastly larger radicalised population at home and a massive flow of foreign fighters…

“It isn’t just ISIS (Islamic State) — AQ (Al Quada) has emerged from its eclipse and is back in the game in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Syria and Yemen. We’re dealing with not one, but two global terrorist organisations, each with its own regional branches, plus a vastly larger radicalised population at home and a massive flow of foreign fighters”, writes Kilcullen in summing up the detoriorating situation.

A successful and persistent caliphate would have a destabilising effect far from its borders, he says, suggesting that it and the sectarian conflict between Islam’s Shi’a and Sunni states could “destabilise the world economy by massively disrupting global energy flows, shipping routes, air transportation and telecommunications systems, to create unprecedented refugee flows, to redraw the borders of half a dozen nation-states, to drag regional and world powers (Iran, Israel, Russia, Egypt, China, Pakistan, Turkey) into an escalating — potentially nuclear — conflict, to encourage radical violence in scores of countries worldwide, and to enable the aggressive expansion of the Islamic State by means of military conquest. Some of this is already happening… ”.

Yes, it is already happening. Since Kilcullen wrote:

  • those “unprecedented refugee flows” he mentions have become a crisis in Europe that is seeing some countries imposing controls on cross-border movement that had been removed after the creation of the EU
  • Russia has moved combat aircraft, support personnel and other combatants to Lakatia  airbase in Syria purportedly to fight IS but has also used its air power against other oppenents of Syria’s Assad government, some of which are supported by the US; the move enlarges the war, shores-up the Assad regime and introduces new uncertainties into a profoundly confusing and fluid situation
  • there is contact between IS and AQ with contradictory statements coming out, some indicating AQ hostility to IS and others more conciliatory; this brings in more uncertainty, especially in Afghanistan
  • recent reports that elements of the US military doctored reports on the situation on the ground and misled political leaders that the fight against the Caliphate was going well have surfaced and embarrassed the US military
  • in early 2016, Turkey started artilliary bombardment of Kurdish forces in Syria and Saudi Arabia has been reported as moving assault aircraft to Turkey with a view to intervention; by February, there were repeated hints that Turkish ground forces, and possibly Saudi, could cross the Syian border; Turkey is keen to crush any attempt to establish an independent Kurdish state in Syria, the countries are traditional enemies.

There are three fears that haunt Western strategic thinkers:

  1. Western passport holders travelling to Syria and Iraq to join IS as fighters, then returning home to take violent action there.
  2. The proven ability of IS propagandist and recruiters to use social media and other means to encourage disaffected men, women and, sometimes, families with children to leave the West (and Russia, Indonesia and North Africa) to migrate to the incipient Islamic State, sometimes to become fighters, sometimes to marry male fighters and sometimes to fill technical roles.
  3. The possibility of IS fighters entering Europe masquerading as refugees; IS has said publicly that they are infiltrating thousands of fighters this way.

…overzealous security measures by Western governments… could destroy the structure of the democratic societies they seek to protect. This would be self-defeating and would be to do the Islamists’ work for them.

Kilcullen writes that the fear of IS fighters returning home to Western nations and engaging in attacks there is somewhat overblown… it is a possibility, but it is overdone by politicians. It is the fear of it, combined with politicians sensing political advantage and their using that fear to grandstand, that gives rise to an alarmist rather than considered political rhetoric that plays to public fears and creates a moral panic to stimulate anti-terror legislation in the West.

While not downplaying the possibility of hostility by returning IS fighters, or IS supporters in the West or those purportedly coming into Europe disguised as refugees, we can apply the journalist’s maxim of ‘follow the money’ and to some extent we can see security agencies and military budgetary managers taking advantage of the global security climate to fill their coffers in a type of departmental empire building.

There is clearly a need for security agencies to prevent attacks, but there is also danger in their growth. In his most recent book, Out Of The Mountains, Kilcullen warns against overzealous security measures by Western governments. Again, in Blood Year, he raises the scenario where overzealous Western governments could destroy the structure of the democratic societies they seek to protect. This would be self-defeating and would be to do the Islamists’ work for them.

The great policy void

…We’re also facing a revival of great-power military confrontation in the Pacific and Eastern Europe, which, far from being coincidental, is a direct result of the way failures in Iraq…

In conflict, there is strategy and there are tactics. Strategy is the path followed to achieve a desired goal over time. Tactics are the variable and changeable means of moving along that path. When it comes to what the US and its allies should do to remove IS as a fighting force and to remove the caliphate as a political entity — its policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the region and that of its allies — it has to be recognised that its policies have contributed to more than just the debacle in the Middle East.

“We’re also facing a revival of great-power military confrontation in the Pacific and Eastern Europe, which, far from being coincidental, is a direct result of the way failures in Iraq and Afghanistan telegraphed the limits of Western power and showed adversaries exactly how to fight us”, writes Kilcullen.

The erroneous invasion of Iraq during the Bush administration, Obama’s too-hasty withdrawal from Iraq and Afaghanistan and over-reliance on war-fighting technology like armed drones and special forces — while not properly addressing Iraqi government sectarianism and corruption — have educated aspiring powers where the weak links in US military strategy and foreign policy lie.

Thus, China seems set on extending its sovereignty well out into the South China Sea and has built airstrips and docking facilities in the Spratley Islands. In February 2016 it was revieled that China has installed surface-to-air missiles on one of the Spratleys, some of which are also claimed by Vietnam, Philippines and other regional nations. Potentially, the move threatens freedom of air navigation through the region and is probably a move to counter US (and Australian) military flights designed to assert established freedom of navigation. On the borders of Europe, a resurgent Russia has annexed parts of Ukraine and is intervening in and supporting proxy forces elsewhere in the area. There are fears that it could try the same in the ex-Soviet and now independent states around the Baltic where there are large Russian-speaking populations.

Multinational screw-up

Kilcullen explores the political confusion, indecision and ineptitude that have worsened the regional situation since the Al Quada attacks in the New York and Washington that started the US on its hasty and ill-conceived intervention in the Middle East.

Writing on what he describes as a “a multi-sided, multi-national, bipartisan screw-up”, Kilcullen goes on to say that “…there’s plenty of blame to go around. President Bush conflated enemies, defaulted to attacking states rather than thinking about how to deal with non-state actors, and — mother of errors — invaded Iraq, and then botched the occupation.

…President Obama compounded Bush’s errors…

“He waited far too long to engage with the problem, and however good his performance during the Surge (President Bush’s 2007 boost to the number of American troops to provide security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province and to try to reconcile relations between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds) it came at a huge opportunity cost.

“President Obama compounded Bush’s errors — pulling out of Iraq without putting in enough effort to cement the gains of the Surge, indulging a dangerous addiction to drones and special ops, acting opportunistically in Libya, remaining passive in the face of massacre in Syria, calling his own bluff on Assad’s chemical weapons and failing to grasp the significance of ISIS, support secular rebels in Syria or address the fragility of Maliki’s Iraq until far too late.

“This isn’t a criticism of special ops or drones — on the contrary, these are outstanding, war-winning capabilities, which have contributed hugely to effective surveillance and targeting since the mid-1990s. Rather, it’s a criticism of decision-makers (usually, though not always, sitting in safety thousands of miles away, who’ve never heard a shot fired in anger) who succumb to the allure of Predator Porn, misusing these strategic assets — which should be applied sparingly as part of a broader plan — as tactical tools, to substitute for lack of strategic thought, or (worse) who send others into harm’s way in order to make themselves look tough.”

Perhaps what Kilcullen says about the misuse of drones could be applied to the current air war against IS. With the revelation of misleading military reports to the political wing of the US government in 2015, the efficacy of the air war is called into question. While it has made life difficult for IS, especially its ability to move around during the day and to focus large forces in an area, its strategic value must now be questioned.

“As journalist James Traub puts it, ‘America has abdicated it'”, Kilcullen writes.

Kilcullen’s allegation of the US government “failing to grasp the significance of ISIS” brings to mind the failure of US intelligence — the CIA, FBI and other agencies — to detect the coming of the Al Quada attacks of September 2001. There was knowledge then that something was in planning, but prevailing world views and erroneous assumptions led to a failure to grasp its meaning and to act to prevent it.

Redrawing the map of the Middle East

This year’s Saudi air campaign against Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen says heaps about the sectarian politics and power play in the region as well as about Islam’s major divide. This is an escalating Sunni–Shi’a conflict, a sectarian conflict that combatants make use of to appear to protect communities and so gain control. Kilcullen writes that this is “a conflict that’s drawing battle lines between Iran and its allies on the one hand, and a fractious coalition of Sunni states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the other”.

It is over a year now since Islamic State went on its own surge to claim something like a third of Syria and Iraq in which to carve out its caliphate (although Russian airpower and Kurdish victories and a resurgent Syrian military had, by early 2016, significantly dented that prospect). Setting up a state is what IS has been doing through a program of civil laws and civic support combined with the terror of executions, mass extermination of communities, kidnapping children to turn them into fighters and setting up a market for female slaves.

Despite the drone strikes and the air campaign, despite the advisers and trainers, Islamic State is still there more than a year later although the territory it controls has been reduced. Rather than the insurgency they started, their campaign is now one between states in which territory and economic assets — like the oilfields, refineries and industrial and transportation facilities IS now controls and which feed millions of dollars into the incipient state — are the economic prizes that underlie the formation of a government. Counterinsurgency is less appropriate as a strategy to wind back IS as it has carved something of a shaky caliphate out of parts of what used to be Syria and Iraq and made this a war of state entities.

Adding to the confusion in the region are the recent attacks by Turkey on both IS and Kurdish positions and organisations. Turkey’s attitude to IS has been questioned and observers are now saying that Turkey is using their assault on IS as a screen for their attack on armed Kurdish organisations, their traditional enemy. Attacking the same organisations that are working in loose conjunction with coalition forces to defeat IS presents the US with something of a conundrum. The region is becoming a quagmire of religious sectarianism, Islamic insurgency and political confusion that is sucking in the West as it tries to make sense of it all.

The present situation grew out of the Al Quada/Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and, before that, the US-supported campaign against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s — the last proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War — which saw the US supplying weapons to Islamist groups. Syria-Iraq and the fight against IS is not a hearts-and-minds campaign as we had during the US counterinsurgency in Vietnam in the 1960s-1970s.

Foreign policy and strategy thinkers in the US have written that, were its present besieged situation to change, a persistent caliphate could one day stabilise as a new state in the Middle East and even establish external relations. Despite the lack of US-led strategic thinking on how to defeat IS, given the Russian presence and Turkey’s intervention, the possibility is diminished.

The conflict

Those of us with longer memories will recall how the war in Vietnam created an anti-war movement in the West that became so strong that, combined with the realisation the war was going nowhere, Australia withdrew.

That a similar movement is largely absent from the political scene now is testament to how things have changed, to how threats are being perceived and to the general confusion among the political class and the public about what is going on in the Middle East and how it affects Australia.

There is opposition to Australia deepening its involvement in the campaign against IS that is not limited to the Left.The Left knows, though, that this is not a conflict between capitalism and socialism, between Left and Right as were earlier conflicts. They know that IS is as much a threat to them as it is to anyone else. Some liken IS to the Nazi SS and brand it as fascist.

A graphic likeling IS to the Nazi SS through the use the stylised SS runic letters and the colours of the Iraqi flag.

A graphic likening IS to the Nazi SS through the use the stylised SS runic letters and the colours of the Iraqi flag.

In a time of US bungling of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a time of presidential confusion, in a time when Western governments misunderstand the nature of the conflict currently redrawing the map of the Middle East, when politicians make bellicose statements and grandstand rather than apply themselves to the reality of the changes underway… Kilcullen comes across as a clear strategic thinker outside of the political echo chamber that brings Australia’s two main pitical parties together into a de facto alliance.

As for the situation, Kilcullen writes that: “I see this as a purely conventional threat — not a counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism problem — and one with which we need to deal quickly and decisively before it does even more damage… the hard fact is that we’re already in a full-on conventional war with ISIS — its fighters certainly believe we are — and the longer we refuse to recognise that fact, the worse things will become.”

The future is not what we thought it would be, Kilcullen seems to suggest in offering a number of realisations:

  1. We are now in an era of persistent conflict — “it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policy-makers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/11 ‘normal,’ is a fantasy”.
  2. Means of coping with the threat that are affordable and minimally intrusive need to be developed — “I see no alternative to a larger, more intense, conventional war against ISIS than the one currently being contemplated (though emphatically not an occupation or a counterinsurgency campaign)”.
  3. “… removing ISIS as a state-like entity would help slow the growth of the problem and buy time for the long-term approaches — security assistance, persistent engagement, governance reform — that we’ll need for the long haul. International engagement is the best of a bad set of choices — and the only thing that makes it remotely acceptable is the realisation that the alternative to Western-led intervention is not no intervention, but rather a regional conflict with potentially global consequences. If we don’t act, others will”.
  4. The West and its allies need a strategy that recognises the threat of global terrorism “but doesn’t treat it as if it’s our only security issue”.
  5. Political will to engage in a long-term program to defeat IS is the “scarcest resource” without which nothing else we do will work — “Preserving and strengthening the political will of our societies, the will to continue this struggle without giving in to a horrific adversary, but also without surrendering our civil liberties or betraying our ethics, is not an adjunct to the strategy — it is the strategy”.

“If we don’t act, others will”, says Kilcullen. Well, Obama vacillated and others acted, the Russian Air Force filling the niche left by US confusion and hesitation.

Kilcullen quotes Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, to emphasise how this affects all of us. “As Trotsky reputedly said, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Read review of David Kilcullen’s previous book: Out of the Mountains

Out of the mountains: new zones of conflict

Blood Year:

Kilcullen, David. “QE58: Blood Year.” Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd. iBooks. Quarterly Essay, 2015.

Blood Year (the book). Publisher: Black Inc. , 2016.


Image: Man with ISIS flag – Material from Voice of America.

Image: ss lookalike.
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