Former Australian army officer David Kilcullen has become a widely cited establishment expert on counter-terrorism.
A hired gun for western imperialism, Kilcullen likes to present himself as the thinking person’s warmonger.
He has worked in the inner sanctum of the US state, at the State Department under Condoleezza Rice and as a counter-insurgency adviser to General Petraeus, as he implemented the troop surge in Iraq in 2007.
Kilcullen thinks the US war against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria is not going well. His new Quarterly Essay is an argument to escalate. He calls for more troops, in combat instead of just training roles, and a “radically increased” bombing campaign.
Kilcullen presents himself as a sophisticated defender of US power and the “war on terror”. He thinks the 2003 Iraq invasion was a mistake, he tells us. But, hundreds of thousands of deaths later, Kilcullen wholeheartedly backs US power.
The surge saw the US set things right in Iraq, playing the role of honest broker, he believes, where, “it was the presence of international troops, money, pressure and advisers that compelled Baghdad to act more inclusively”.
Once the US left, the Shia-dominated regime led by Nouri al-Maliki had a free hand to exclude Iraq’s Sunnis from political power, denying them government funding for basic services and beginning an authoritarian crackdown.
This drove Sunnis into renewed rebellion against the Iraqi government, so that IS is in essence, “one party in a conventional civil war between a breakaway territory and a weak central state”.
But this ignores the fact that the US itself that set the sectarian bloodbath in motion, as it desperately looked for a way to maintain its control of the country.
In 2004 resistance to the US occupation threatened to combine Sunni and Shia in a challenge that could have thrown the US out of the country. Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army mobilised Shias in Najaf and Baghdad, while a popular Sunni insurgency in places like Fallujah defied the US. Opinion polls showed the overwhelming majority of Iraqis wanted the US out.
The US’s brutality, like the torture exposed in Abu Ghraib prison, turned Iraqis against US control.
So the US parcelled out political power to sectarian parties, each with their own militia, in an effort at divide and rule. This worked in enabling the US to stabilise the occupation, but also created divisions it could not control.
This shows that the US has never been an honest broker in Iraq. The occupation, just like the 2003 invasion, was about controlling Iraq and boosting US power. Its motives in Iraq today are just the same.
Kilcullen argues that the consequences of refusing to beat IS could be catastrophic, “disrupting global energy flows, shipping routes, air transportation and telecommunications systems”. But the US does not just have economic interests at stake. Kilcullen believes the refusal to escalate the war will see other regional and world powers drawn into the conflict. This threatens US influence and control of the Middle East.
He argues for a military operation on the scale of Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011.
Backing sectarian militias
The Iraq surge in 2007 was a counter-insurgency operation, where the US both took the fight militarily to the precursor of IS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as set out to win hearts and minds in the Sunni community through offering them grants of money for local projects and a share in political power.
But it will be much harder to repeat this, after the promises that Sunnis would be drawn back into the political process have already failed once.
The key problem in Iraq is sectarian politics pitting Sunni against Shia. The major parties the US supported and left in control are all sectarian groups.
The current US war in Iraq sees it fighting on the side of a Shia sectarian government. Shia militias, rather than regular Iraqi army units, are doing much of the fighting.
Human Rights Watch has documented a reign of terror against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured by the Shia militias. In Amerli, recaptured from IS last year, they raided Sunni areas, abducted at least 11 men, looted property of civilians who had fled the fighting, and burned and demolished Sunni businesses and homes. A similar rampage took place after the recapture of Salah al-Din province in March and April this year.
This makes a mockery of the US claims that new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi can run a more inclusive government.
The US and Australian troops should get out of Iraq now.
The solution to Iraq’s nightmare cannot come from the US or Australia backing one side in a sectarian conflict. It can only come from within Iraqi society. Most importantly, anti-sectarian political forces must emerge from within the Shia and Sunni communities.
In recent weeks Baghdad has seen protests against electricity shortages during the crippling summer heat, blaming corruption for the failure to fix the problem. Iraq has a history of revolt uniting working class people across ethnic and sectarian divides. These are the forces that can bring real change.
By James Supple
Blood year: Terror and Islamic State
By David Kilcullen
Quarterly Essay 58, $22.99