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COIN: David Kilcullen in Blogger Roundtable

Dr. David Kilcullen, well known to readers of this page (see especially here), was the guest in the DefendAmerica.mil Blogger's Roundtable this morning.  Audio and a transcript will be (but as of this writing are not yet) available here.

I was invited to participate in the Roundtable (which, I found out when I got there, is being run by an old friend of mine -- a military contractor named Tim Killbride, who has recently done some writing of his own on the topic). 

I got to ask the first question, and I asked about Dr. Kilcullen's assertion of the importance of "the Rule of Law" in securing Baghdad and Iraq.  How close were we to seeing an judicial/police structure that could be effective in a COIN role, as the US Marshals were in putting down the insurgent/terrorist groups like the KKK during Reconstruction?

Dr. Kilcullen answered that he thought we had a "fair way to go" before we'd see really effective law enforcement/judicial systems like that, 'months or years.'  Right now, the existing police/judicial systems can't be trusted either to (a) not mistreat prisoners turned over to them, nor (b) not just turn loose dangerous prisoners with whom the locals are allied.  Kilcullen made sure to emphasize that he thought we'd get there, but that it was still a long way off.

This is consistent with what I've heard from deployed Marines since 2004 -- that the Iraqi Army shaped up fast, but that the police lagged behind both in effectiveness and trustworthiness.  It's an important piece of the puzzle, though:  the rule of law is really what finally can end an insurgency.  (See the debate here, starting with the comment posted at 6:21 and following down).

Dr. Kilcullen also added that we should not expect to see anything looking quite like the US system; the Iraqi system that finally develops will be their own.  There's nothing wrong (and quite a bit right) with that -- I mentioned the Reconstruction experience only to give the doctor a clearer idea of what kind of COIN assistance I was asking after.  The Iraqi model in evidence in Michael Totten's Kirkuk trip is demonstrative of what we can expect to see in Iraq -- and also just how important that will be when we do see it.

In the extended entry, I've posted my full notes from the discussion.  That will be of use to any of you military men (or interested civilians) who are trying to track the discussion.  I've also added links to background information or deeper analysis on the subjects mentioned in the podcast, as well as some additional thoughts on COIN, Iraq, and the war.

Part I:  Notes on Dr. Kilcullen's remarks

Dr. Kilcullen began by describing the military's view of the "vicious circle" of sectarian violence in Baghdad, and proceeded to describe the military's steps to address each of the stages of the circle.  The circle looks like this:

I.  Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) and other terrorists/insurgent groups establish strongholds, largely through intimidation, especially in Sunni areas.

II.  They use those bases to carry out murderous attacks on Shi'ites.

III.  Shi'ite militias retaliate against Sunni civilians, since they are unable to target the terrorist groups directly.

IV.  The sectarian attacks polarize the Sunnis from the Shi'ites, making reconciliation and governing harder while offering the terrorists increased cover.

Dr. Kilcullen added that other groups besides AQI, including some Shi'ite groups and Ansar al-Sunnah, had also adopted this method of fighting during 2006.  Iranian and other regional government infiltration seemed intent on accelerating the violence; and the chaos was allowing criminal activity that both increased the difficulty of governing for the Iraqi ministries, as well as funding some of the terrorist organs.

The Coalition and Iraqi forces are addressing each aspect of the problem.

I:  Combatting infiltration in Sunni areas

A.  To combat the first stage, our operations are trying to make Sunni neighborhoods harder to infiltrate.  This means Joint Security Stations (JSS) staffed by US and Iraqi forces, which are often based on Iraqi police stations.  These are located out in the communities.

B.  The Surge, once fully staffed, will be taking the fight to the "Belts," suburban areas around Baghdad that are where many car bombs seem to be constructed.  Dr. Kilcullen described groups in this area as "communter insurgents," who make trips into the main city to kill, and then withdraw to their relatively secure suburbs.  (See Bill Roggio's article on the subject.)

C.  Civil programs by the Iraqi government are attempting to provide increased stability, economic and otherwise, within Sunni areas.

II:  Preventing AQI and others from attacking civilians

A.  The "gated communities" in Baghdad have had a positive effect on the city, Dr. Kilcullen said.  His estimate was that 5,000-8,000 Iraqi civilians have been saved by the program so far, versus the number who would have died if the level of violence before the program had continued.  (Dr. Kilcullen wrote about this program here).

B.  The other part of the solution has been "hardening society" against the attacks, for example by building markets that are not as easy to target with car bombs.  This also includes JSS activities, to help make sure that there are government and Coalition forces available to respond in short order.

III.  Stopping retaliation

A.  The gated communities approach has also been useful in cutting down on the frequency and severity of retaliatory attacks.  Because the neighborhoods are cut off by checkpoints, death squads have a lessened ability to access their targets.

B.  The JSS provide 24/7 security to the community.  Retaliatory murders have normally been at night, so this is an important step.

IV:  Preventing alienation and encouraging reconciliation

A.  The goal here is to reduce the sense of intimidation felt by Sunnis, both from the insurgents and from the Shi'ite militias.  JSS provide an ability to connect with the community, and give them the sense of personally knowing their Iraqi government and Coalition defenders.

B.  Dr. Kilcullen noted that the other major element was the "Rule of Law."  This means continuing police recruitment and training, and ensuring competent and less corrupt government.

Part II:  Questions for Dr. Kilcullen

My question was described above.

Austin Bay went next.  He has posted a description of the exchange here.

RedState went after this.  I don't see a description there yet, so I'll note that the question was on the importance of controlling the insurgents' access to cash (given that each car bombing costs tens of thousands of dollars to execute).  Dr. Kilcullen replied that the Islamic system of transferring cash in a way that isn't trackable by Western banks, while important in Afghanistan, plays little role in Iraq.  More important are criminal rackets, including protection rackets, gouging on propane and other necessities, smuggling (particularly smuggling cheap Iraqi fuel to other nations) and so forth.

Mark Finklestein of NewsBusters went next, and asked for more information about the barriers/gated communities approach in Baghdad.  I've folded Kilcullen's remarks into my notes on the subject, above.

A writer from the San Antonio Express went next, with a question about Iran helping not just Shi'ite but Sunni insurgents.  Dr. Kilcullen pointed out that the Shi'a/Sunni split is confusing if you forget that every Iraqi has at least two identities -- who he is now, and who he was during Saddam's day.  A lot of insurgents therefore know each other, and though they are on 'opposite sides' now, they have personal relationships that allow them to work together toward goals that both of them desire.  This is particularly true in efforts to establish a sort of oligarchy within Iraq, to the political benefit of extremists on both sides.

As for Iran, he said, it was a mistake to think of their motivations as primarily being about religion.  They were playing for geopolitical stakes:  moving to tie America's hands by increasing the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the hope of winning freedom to maneuver themselves.

The last question was asked by a writer whose name I didn't catch [UPDATE:  it was Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, who was kind enough to email me to correct the record].  He asked about the role of airpower in COIN.  There is, you may be aware, an interservice dispute ongoing on the subject (see this post at the Small Wars Journal Blog for background on the argument).  Dr. Kilcullen said he was sad to see the services bickering about the issue, as air power was extremely important for modern COIN, particularly in the following ways: 

a)  Recon,

b) Surveillance,

c) Targeting

d) Interdiction/area denial during battles,

e) and air transport/mobility.

Dr. Kilcullen noted that airstrikes were a factor in COIN, though they were less of one than in other forms of warfare.  Still, he felt that those other factors meant that airpower was critical to our pursuit of successful COIN operations.

Finally, the doctor concluded by stating that he felt the most important thing was to make sure that we helped people understand what was really going on in Iraq and elsewhere.  More than anything else, he said, bloggers could help by ensuring that there was an informed political debate.