Small Wars Journal

The Accidental Counterinsurgent?

Wed, 06/29/2011 - 2:57pm
The Accidental Counterinsurgent?

Travel back with me a couple of decades to the Trident Room, the local watering hole at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. We could pay $3 to obtain a Trident Mug and drink unlimitedly with exceptional discounts. While we are there, we are looking for a young paratrooper on his way to earning a Masters degree in National Security Affairs. We spot him in a corner with some friends playing drinking games, which apparently he excels at because his name is still on a plaque at that bar today. So, we walk up to the young captain, and say, "Dude, guess what? One day you will be a three star general trying to build a military from scratch in Afghanistan." He'd probably think we were crazy.

Well, that "dude" in now Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell. Does he qualify as an Accidental Counterinsurgent? No, of course not, he is a professional military officer executing the mission given to him to the best of his ability. This experience is common throughout our military these days. We choose to serve, go where the nation tells us to go, and do what the nation tells us to do. We do not consider ourselves accidental.

I believe the same applies to those who rebel. Before you gasp and think that I'm dissenting against David Kilcullen, walk with me for a bit and let's see where it leads. Personally, I think Kilcullen has offered a lot to our understanding over the last decade, but I cannot quite resolve my direct observations with Kilcullen's theory of an Accidental Guerrilla.

Accidental implies Victimization

Whenever I would meet with representatives of the local resistance movements, whether it was the Madhi Militia, Badr Corps, AQI, ISI, or the 1920's Revolutionary Brigades, I would always start with developing a personal relationship, empathize with their views, and allow them to vent since they considered my men and I the occupying authority.

For the Sunnis in particular, I would take the time to admit that we had made mistakes at the outset of our intervention from outlawing the Ba'ath Party to disbanding the Iraqi Army. They felt extremely violated by these actions, and I wanted to make sure that they recognized that I understood their grievance. Additionally, we recognized their men as soldiers fighting against a government that they did not consider legitimate.

While I empathized with their views, I would reiterate that their feelings did not justify their behavior, and they must stop fighting and enter the political process. This realization would have to wait until my men proved that we were the biggest tribe, and that is another story for another day.


Why is this important? We earned the respect of our opponent because we gave them respect. We acknowledged that they were thinking, rational men acting over perceived grievances generated from either ideology or emotion. Unfortunately, we still had to fight it out for a bit until we exhausted the enemy, but we did not coddle, preach, or attempt to win their hearts, minds, or soul even when we disagreed with them. In fact, those actions were self-defeating and disrespectful to the insurgents in the Diyala River Valley.

As I type this entry two weeks after al Qaeda penetrated the Baqubah provisional government office and a day after the Taliban penetrated a luxury hotel in Kabul, I'm wondering if we really respect our enemy, or do we feel that he is just a confused, illiterate soul waiting to have his heart, mind, and soul converted by modernity?

By our own accord, free men have the right to choose. I cannot find evidence that a man deciding to blow himself up, behead his neighbor, or rebel against his government is accidental. He is not a victim of circumstance. He made a choice. Professional soldiers understand these choices. Tens years into Afghanistan, we might want to start respecting these choices.



We have failed to respect our enemy and overlooked that people make decisions based on incentives and drivers that given their environment actually makes sense rather than appearing accidental. Even if it has been written on SWJ and in many other hallowed journals in theory; in practice we seem to remain puzzled - like a dog with one ear cocked to the side.

This is no discredit to any non-police dudes in the military but I found some of the most effective military guys on the ground where those who had been or who are police officers back home. They respected the enemy and understood him because they had seen it all before on the streets of their precinct.

My grandfather played cards with German soldiers on Christmas Day in WWII. He would tell me how they absolutely respected the German Soldiers - they were not accidental either for obvious reasons, the point being the British soldiers at the time applied that respect to how they engaged their opponents on the battlefield.

This may be unfair, but we are still clutching onto the image of a uniformed opponent i.e. professional like my Grandfathers opponent. Kilcullen has provided a conceptual framework for us to critical assess the form of our existing non-uniformed opponent. Yet 'accidental is a misleading, catchy word that describes a rag-tag bunch of mis-fits, when actually they joined a fight for what to them is a rational reason.

Coming back to the police officer/military guy on patrol. He can tell you this feels just like the block he patrols. People responding and reacting to their environment. Getting involved in behaviour and actions that to them are not accidental but completely rational. Even if to us we cannot imagine until we think about what we would do in that situation - and dont think that you have the same mind-set as you do now and therefore say "well hey Id get off the drugs and get back to school etc etc"

You have raised a great question. Id like to know how we are training the young, future Caldwells to think about these opponents. Does this happen - Im sure it does but just curious.


PS: a good friend of ours at University could scull a jug of beer in 8secs - she is now a hot shot investment banker.

Craig J (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 1:53pm

I concur with much of your sentiment expressed in your June 29 post.

$3? Mugs in the mid-90s were $15 or something like that...

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 6:33pm

I think that we must first come to acknowledge and understand that, contrary to some present thinking, our aims in warfare today, as in the past, are to achieve policy ends -- when necessary -- through violence.

Herein, as in the past, our policy ends could be described as transforming and incorporating outlier states and societies (to wit: those states and societies that are least like us and which, because of this fact, cause us the most problems and offer us the least utility).

Our first priority, re: these policy aims, was to substantially transform and incorporate the outlier great powers. The 20th Century saw significant progress made on this front.

Our priority in the early 21st Century has been to substantially transform and incorporate lesser outlier states and societies. In this endeavor, while we have learned a lot, we have not yet been able to really get our act together.

Herein and regarding this new fight, as the author seems to say, we should not consider ourselves, nor those that come to fight against us now, as "accidental;" anymore than we would label ourselves -- and those of the great powers that stood against us in the 20th Century -- as accidents.

MikeF (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 9:51am


Concur, and in a perfect world, we would have the SERE guys training the classroom portion of the school to the Big Army. We collected a lot of understanding about the treatment of detainees from our brothers who were POWs during Vietnam, and it would be a shame not to fully pass on that knowledge.


This is merely a thought piece with an intent to compliment rather than criticize the existing literature. WRT Dr. Kilcullen, I find myself nodding my head in concurrence with almost everything he's writing or spoken about. After reviewing his work, I just found myself unable to balance his thoughts with my observations in this particular case.

Please continue to contribute or critique so we can determine a better understanding.



CM (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 8:38am


I think you've missed Kilcullen's point. He's arguing for disaggregation as a strategy to accomplish our policy objectives. Disaggregation seeks to split non-combatants and uncommitted potential combatants from combatants. As guys on the ground, we deal with whoever comes back at us (as it appears you did). However, the question by Kilcullen has to do with whether that guy is willing to fight you anywhere, anytime, or only because you have come to his area and are willing to fight. I think Kilcullen's point is focused at the strategic level with implications at the tactical level. As tacticians, we need to recognize it and seek to exploit the different motivations of our enemies and potential enemies.

John T. Fishel

Wed, 06/29/2011 - 11:43pm

Mike, I don't disagree qith anything you said here about our professionals (or even conscripts in past armies) or about the enemy who chooses to fight us or our allies. But that is not the guy Kilcullen was talking about. That guy is the armed peasant in a warrior and often tribal culture who puts his dog in the fight simply because there is a fight. This does not apply to all cultures but it did apply to the ones Kilcullen was talking about. It did not apply in el Salvador nor in Peru - the 2 insurgencies I know best. I'm not sure it applied in Guatemala (I tend to think it didn't but there is enough in the Indian culture there to make the accidental G plausible). Still, Kilcullen argues that there are a number of armed actors in the places he worked and fought that do fit the picture and without taking account of them the picture is incomplete.



Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 06/29/2011 - 10:21pm

Mike---are you hinting we have come full circle in what 7 to 10 years.

A few of us in the interrogation business used this approach often referred as rapport building very successfully and the insurgents we worked with may have inherently hated us but if respect was shown they would in fact answer your questions in a forthright manner.

Just how many military personnel currently in Iraq or now in Afghanistan still keep their protective dark glaases on when speaking with the local population----rest my case.

Know your enemy better than yourself and respect is the first thing one must have of your enemey---if he is willing to die for his side then something is driving him to stay there and slug it out with us over the last ten years maybe there is something we should try to understand and then respect.