October 1, 2007  

Small wars, big ideas

Web site offers a forum to debate strategy and doctrine

As summer ended and Washington prepared for Gen. David Petraeus’ Iraq progress report, two pieces of conventional wisdom settled over the capital. First, the surge of troops and innovative tactics under Petraeus created a bubble of relative security in Baghdad, and had large¬ly pacified western al-Anbar province. Second, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had failed to take advantage of that bubble to meet such congressionally mandated “bench¬marks” for political progress as adopting a new hydrocarbons law or constitutional reform. The key question was how Petraeus would defend a military strategy that seemed to have achieved its immediate objectives but was being squandered by its intended beneficiaries.

On Aug. 29, a blog posting by Australian Army Col. Dave Kilcullen laid out a clear argument that the surge had produced success on the ground that overtook the con¬gressional benchmarks. In his contribution to the Small Wars Journal (http://www .smallwarsjournal.com) titled “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” Kilcullen detailed how trib¬al sheiks were working with American sol¬diers to break the power of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Kilcullen explained that the Iraqis and AQI had a history of tension over such issues as long-term political goals and the control of a range of criminal smuggling and legiti¬mate economic enterprises. The dike broke when foreign-born AQI leaders demanded the right to marry tribal chieftains’ daughters, raising fights in which “kinship trumps religion,” and a tribal-AQI conflict that spread through Anbar and Diyalah provinces, as well as the out¬skirts of Baghdad.

Though Kilcullen did not frame his essay around the bench¬marks debate, he captures the importance of the tribal revolt: “[B]ecause it occurred in ways that were neither expected nor accounted for in our “benchmarks” … the significance of this development has been overlooked to some extent.” He points out that the revolt has inspired other actors to band-wagon against AQI, as tribal, provincial government and even national political leaders saw the opportunity to break ties with radicals and pursue cooperation with coalition forces. If Kilcullen’s analysis survives the test of time, it means that there is an emerging, grass-roots force to end the civil war in Iraq and move toward a state of rela¬tive normalcy that may finally usher in political compromise.

A well-known counterinsurgency scholar and practitioner who spent most of his career in the Australian Army before being seconded to the U.S. government, Kilcullen spent the first half of 2007 as a member of Petraeus’ brain trust in Baghdad, a select group of warrior-scholars that also included Col. H.R. McMaster, Lt. Col. John Nagl and Col. Peter R. Mansoor. Demonstrating that brain power can be applied in the battlefield, Petraeus’ advisers have distinguished combat records — McMaster, for example, was in charge of the suc¬cessful 2005-2006 campaign in Tal Afar — and have written acclaimed articles on the conduct of counterinsurgency.

Kilcullen, for example, reportedly caught Petraeus’ eye with a 2006 essay providing guidance on how to organize and lead company-sized units in counterinsurgency operations. Then serv¬ing as the chief strategist for the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for counterter¬rorism in March 2006, Kilcullen wrote a field report after a tour through Iraq on the “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.” Intended as a primer for young command¬ers, the essay laid out fundamental princi¬ples for company-level leadership: “Rank is nothing — talent is everything”; “Train the squad leaders — then trust them”; “Fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces.” The essay first ran the e-mail circuit and then was posted to the Small War Journals blog in April 2006, where it earned national attention.

Kilcullen’s “Twenty-Eight Articles” has provided a template around which company commanders fighting in and return¬ing from Iraq compare their efforts, successes and failures. In a landmark accomplishment for the blogosphere, the essay also formed the basis for official military doctrine when it was expanded and included as Appendix A to the 2006 edition of U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.”

So, what is Kilcullen doing in the blogosphere? He’s been there for some time, contributing to the Small War Journal (SWJ) site through a series of postings on their general blog. Founded by a pair of Marines, Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, and named in homage to the Corps’ legendary “Small Wars Manual,” the SWJ provides a combination of blogs, discussion boards, and links to its readers. The SWJ is one of the finest resources on the Internet for the student of counterinsurgency, and has attracted leading experts to contribute to its balanced, informative blog.

The list of SWJ blog contributors reads as a who’s who of the debate on counterinsurgency theory, including Kilcullen, Nagl, Frank Hoffman, Malcom Nance, Bing West and Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. The addition of SWJ contributors in recent months is especially impressive. For example, following his controversial May 2007 Armed Forces Journal essay, “A failure in general¬ship,” Yingling joined the SWJ blog as a contributor to address some of the response his article had received.

The broader SWJ site amplifies the debates among its blog¬gers through a set of discussion boards where members of the “Small Wars Council” can join the fray with their own opinion. To take one particularly noteworthy example, Yingling’s essay inspired a thread with more than 200 postings, many of which were substantive arguments based on the merits of Yingling’s argument (a rare attribute for any blogosphere debate). The site also offers the digital SWJ Magazine, which principally pub¬lishes articles by the captains and majors who are fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and provides another excellent venue for expanding and enhancing the debate on the war.

After so many articles about how the milblogging phenome¬non has threatened chains of command, engendered violations of soldiers’ civil liberties and fueled a digital propaganda war, it is refreshing to note that the blogosphere can also serve as a virtual graduate seminar for the practitioners of war. If the blo¬gosphere provides a sustained venue for debating the strategies and doctrine of the American military, it appears that the Small Wars Journal will be a keystone to that success.