Best Defense

David Kilcullen speaks on how to think about ISIS — and what to do about it

During the summer, David Kilcullen spoke at New America about the state of the campaign against ISIS. Here are some of his more striking comments.

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During the summer, David Kilcullen spoke at New America about the state of the campaign against ISIS. Here are some of his more striking comments:

–“This is something that hasn’t really been heavily noted in the media, but there’s a huge amount of Baathist structural and military DNA if you like, within ISIS.”

–“One of my lessons from fighting in Iraq during the surge is the more Islamic sounding the name, the more likely it is to be a Baath organization’s secular institution. It’s like if you have to put the word ‘democratic’ in the title of the country, you’re probably not a democracy.”

–“ There would be no ISIS if we hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place. There would also be no ISIS if Maliki hadn’t applied incredibly sectarian, Shia authoritarian policies after we spent many lives and much treasure to stabilize the country for him. There also would not be an ISIS if we hadn’t withdrawn from Iraq and just left the environment to hang for a few years. So I think you can blame President Obama, you can blame President Bush; you can certainly blame Prime Minister Maliki.”

–“It’s not just a state, right? It’s a totalitarian, revolutionary state that’s trying to completely erase the Sykes-Picot Agreement boundaries that define the modern Middle East and has a world revolutionary agenda.”

–“I’m certainly not recommending that we recognize them as a state or that we start acknowledging them as having the legitimacy of a state. I’m just saying we should treat them as a state for targeting purposes.”

–“In the five years after 9/11, al-Qaeda killed or wounded — counting the 9/11 attacks — killed or wounded 10,000 Westerners in Western countries. By comparison, if you start the clock at the Fort Hood attack in 2009, the total number of Westerners killed by ISIS or al-Qaeda in the last 6 years is 50 in Western countries — 54 if you count the perpetrators. So, we’ve actually dealt with the terrorism threat very effectively since 9/11. We could crank up mass surveillance, we could shut down civil liberties in many Western countries; it’s not going to make much difference to that threat because it’s already fairly well dealt with. What we haven’t dealt with is this threat of ISIS as a state. . . . Ok, if it’s a state, what we need to do is destroy it as a state.”

–“I’m a COIN guy, right. I spent ten years doing counterinsurgency. This is not a counterinsurgency campaign. And we spent ten years whining about how why won’t the enemy come out in the open and fight us. We finally have a state that has tanks and holds cities and wants to fight us and we’re carefully trying to turn it back into a counterterrorism fight. I mean we don’t need to do that. What we’re trying to do is strike individual weapons systems, and individual high value targets. And so, those pop up very rarely because they’re not stupid.”

–“ISIS is extraordinarily professional in the way that they’re operating. And in fact, that’s not an accident because a lot of them are actual professional soldiers — either from the Syrian side or from the Baath in Iraq. But even groups that are not professional like Shabab have ended up in a similar place. And I think it’s sort of — it’s an adaptive approach . . . .”

Photo via Amazon

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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