Should we cry over spilt milk or clean it up?

David Kilcullen:

Spencer Ackerman, in yesterday’s Washington Independent, claims I told him the Iraq war was “f*cking stupid”. He did not seek to clear that quote with me, and I would not have approved it if he had. If he HAD sought a formal comment, I would have told him what I have said publicly before: in my view, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was an extremely serious strategic error. But the task of the moment is not to cry over spilt milk, rather to help clean it up: a task in which the surge, the comprehensive counterinsurgency approach, and our troops on the ground are admirably succeeding.

Anyone who knows me has been well aware of my position on Iraq for years. When I went to Iraq in 2007 (and on both previous occasions) it was to end the war, by suppressing the violence and defeating the insurgency. (Note: I said END the war, not abandon it half-way through, leaving the Iraqis to be slaughtered. When we invaded Iraq, we took on a moral and legal responsibility for its people’s wellbeing. Regardless of anyone’s position on the decision to invade, those obligations still stand and cannot be wished away merely because they have proven inconvenient).

Like every other counterinsurgency professional, I warned against the war in 2002-3 on the grounds that it was likely to be extremely difficult, demand far more resources than our leaders seemed willing to commit, inflame world Muslim opinion making our counterterrorism tasks harder, and entail a significant opportunity cost in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This was hardly an original or brilliant insight. Nor was it particularly newsworthy: it was a view shared with the rest of my community, and you would be hard-pressed to find any professional counterinsurgent who thought the 2003/4 strategy was sensible.

The question of whether we were right to invade Iraq is a fascinating debate for historians and politicians, and a valid issue for the American people to consider in an election year. As it happens, I think it was a mistake. But that is not my key concern. The issue for practitioners in the field is not to second-guess a decision from six years ago, but to get on with the job at hand which, I believe, is what both Americans and Iraqis expect of us. In that respect, the new strategy and tactics implemented in 2007, and which relied for their effectiveness on the extra troop numbers of the Surge, ARE succeeding and need to be supported. In 2006, a normal night in Baghdad involved 120 to 150 dead Iraqi civilians, and each month we lost dozens of Americans killed or maimed. This year, a bad night involves one or two dead civilians, U.S. losses are dramatically down, and security is restored. Therefore, even on the most conservative estimate, in the eighteen months of the surge to date we have saved 12 to 16 thousand Iraqis and hundreds of American lives. And we are now in a position to pursue a political strategy that will ultimately see Iraq stable, our forces withdrawn, and this whole sorry adventure tidied up to the maximum extent possible so that we can get on with the fight in other theaters – most pressingly, Afghanistan.


While I supported the liberation of Iraq, I was not surprised by the difficulty of the task. Indeed, I still think it was worth the effort. Kilcullen has been instrumental in achieving one of the strategic objectives I felt was needed. He has helped to prove that the US can defeat insurgency warfare. This is no small thing. In fact it is a huge thing for the national security of the country going forward.

One of the reasons that the US is rarely challenged in conventional warfare is that adversaries know that we will soundly defeat them in kinetic combat persisting warfare. This was demonstrated in the major combat operations phase of the war in Iraq as well in the chasing of the Taliban from Afghanistan. This has left adversaries with a reliance on the insurgency or raiding strategy to resist our policies.

If we demonstrate that we can defeat their insurgency strategy, we will have less need to fight this kind of war in the future and can find it easier to get diplomatic solutions. If we had retreated from Iraq as many Democrats including Obama wanted to do, we would have been on the defensive against insurgencies around the world. The war against al Qaeda would be longer and more costly.

This is why the war in Iraq has been a major strategic defeat for al Qaeda and its supporters. Al Qaeda has lost support throughout the Muslim world as a result of the way it waged the war in Iraq. While it may have been more difficult than we would like to win this war, the benefits can be huge if we don't give it away with a precipitous retreat.


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