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A Discussion with David Kilcullen on Counterinsurgency Strategy

Aired October 9, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the U.S. President Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize as he prosecutes two wars. Will it help or hurt him as he ponders sending more troops?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

America is deeply divided over the increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan. So, too, is Europe. The U.S. commander there wants a troop surge for a proper counterinsurgency to defeat the Taliban, and he's been warning of mission failure if he doesn't get them. But some of Obama's senior advisers say scale back, focus just on Al Qaida instead.

This debate has been thrown into turmoil for the last several weeks by Afghanistan's disputed presidential election. And so tonight, how exactly do you fight this war?

Joining me now to answer that, one of the world's leading counterinsurgency experts, David Kilcullen, a former senior adviser to the U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq and now to General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. He has also authored the U.S. government's 2009 "Counterinsurgency Handbook." He's a former Australian army infantry officer with 22 years of service.

David Kilcullen, welcome to our program.


AMANPOUR: You have just come back from Afghanistan.

KILCULLEN: A couple of weeks ago, yes.

AMANPOUR: What was your experience there?

KILCULLEN: Well, it's -- it's really a country in crisis right now. And there's a political crisis associated with the elections. There's also an ongoing security crisis. The security situation has been deteriorating for years now, but it's really substantially worse...

AMANPOUR: Did you come up against that?

KILCULLEN: Yes. We -- we had firsthand experience of some -- you know, some insecurity out in the countryside.

AMANPOUR: Is it insecure or is it really about to fall? I mean, there's such a raging debate about the state of what's going on there.

KILCULLEN: It is certainly not as bad as some of the worst descriptions of the environment, but it's much, much worse than it's been at any other time in the past. And I think that's the -- that's the factor that we need to take into account.

AMANPOUR: Should we look at the map for a second, once it comes up?


AMANPOUR: But, also, what we want to talk about is this notion that the Taliban have been steadily increasing their hold or at least their presence in the country. So here we are moving up from the south up through Afghanistan. In 2008, there was something like 72 percent of the country which had a permanent Taliban presence, according to statistics.

KILCULLEN: Well, I think you're quoting from an NGO called ICOS. And those guys currently say 80 percent this year...

AMANPOUR: That's right. In 2009, it's gone up.

KILCULLEN: Yes, 72 percent last year, 64 percent the year before. I think you can dispute their numbers, but the trend line is accurate, yes.

AMANPOUR: Can I just play this sound bite that we heard today from President Obama, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, but acknowledging this huge burden of the wars that's prosecuting right now?



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, even as we strive to seek a world in which conflicts are resolved peacefully and prosperity is widely shared, we have to confront the world as we know it today. I am the commander-in-chief of a country that's responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies.


AMANPOUR: So confronting a ruthless adversary, there is a political debate going on right now, but on the ground, what is the way to fight this war right now?

KILCULLEN: I think it's fairly clear that we need to do, really, two fundamental things. Firstly, we need to put a huge amount of effort into reform and governance transformation at the local level in the Afghan government. It doesn't...

AMANPOUR: Is that the most important thing?

KILCULLEN: I think so, yes. I think a lot of what's driving the violence on the ground right now is anger disillusionment with the Afghan government, which creates space for the Taliban. It's not a straight insurgency. It's -- it's a stabilization problem that derives from a bunch of factors, but governance and -- and anger with the government is -- is a really critical one.

AMANPOUR: Is this anger because of -- of promises not kept and development not made? Or is this anger about the elections?

KILCULLEN: I see it as sort of a five-step thing. You know, corruption, which is just massive across the Afghan government system, creates anger and disillusionment, bad government, and that creates space for the Taliban. The Taliban insurgency promotes poppy cultivation. The poppy creates vast amounts of money, and that drives the corruption, so you've got this kind of cycle of instability. And the Taliban's part of it, but they're not the whole problem.

AMANPOUR: So if the election commission gives the victory to President Karzai after having done the investigation, et cetera, is that a legitimate government, then, that the NATO forces, the U.S. forces can work with?

KILCULLEN: We can sit here at this table and decide whether it's legitimate or not...

AMANPOUR: I guess I don't mean legitimate legally, yes.

KILCULLEN: ... but what really matters is what the Afghans -- it's what the Afghan people think on the ground. That's the critical issue. And I think that's why the level of coalition forces, which I think is the second issue, is so important, because unless you have enough troops on the ground to make people feel safe and to have enough leverage to get the Afghan government to do the right thing, then it doesn't really matter what else you're doing. You're not going to gain control of the environment.

AMANPOUR: So would you say they need more troops in theater right now?

KILCULLEN: Yes, my big three problems are -- that I think we're facing right now -- are the loss of legitimacy resulting from the election, the safe haven, which continues to exist in Pakistan, and the just lack of resources, and I'd include troops primarily in that list of resources.

AMANPOUR: And helicopters and all sorts of resupply...

KILCULLEN: Helicopters, engineers, civil specialists and so on, but fundamentally, combat troops, and trainers, and advisers.

AMANPOUR: There is, again, a debate at least -- if not confusion -- as about who and what is the actual enemy there. Is it a pure war against terrorism? Or is it a classic counterinsurgency? I guess my question is, what is it?

KILCULLEN: Well, to some -- to some extent, it's both. I mean, we described the enemy as a syndicate. There are a number of different organizations within the enemy structure. There's the Haqqani network in the center here of -- of the Regional Command East area. There are a couple of different radical Islamist groups, like the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. There's then the Quet Ashur Taliban (ph) in the south and Al Qaida and a variety of other terrorist organizations on both sides of the frontier in the mix. So it's a complex group of different organizations.

AMANPOUR: But there's -- there's been some -- some ideas thrown around in Washington that, you know, you don't have to defeat the Taliban, it's not possible to defeat the Taliban. First of all, do you buy that argument?

KILCULLEN: I think it's very possible to defeat the Taliban.

AMANPOUR: And they were defeated in 2001, weren't they?

KILCULLEN: Yes, we've done it a couple of times already. It's certainly possible to defeat them. I don't think it's possible nor desirable to destroy them. We're not going to kill our way to victory, but it's very possible to fight these guys to the point where they realize they can't achieve their objectives through continued violence and push them to the negotiating table and -- and end this thing.

AMANPOUR: And fight them how?

KILCULLEN: Well, I think the fundamental thing we need to be doing is creating a permanent presence to protect the population in areas that are currently at risk. And if we take your figures of sort of 70 percent to 80 percent, let's say we need enough troops to provide a permanent security presence for 80 percent of the Afghan population. Now, that's not just...

AMANPOUR: Is that realistic?

KILCULLEN: That's not just U.S. troops, right? It's coalition troops, U.S. troops, Afghan troops, local militia, Afghan police. It's the full spectrum of security assets. I think it's not realistic without a substantial import of additional resources.

AMANPOUR: And let's say the Taliban was not defeated and that it did eventually -- some time in the future -- take over Afghanistan again. Again, there's another notion that it is not anti-Western or anti-U.S. Do you think that if it came back, it would be another place where Al Qaida could regroup again?

KILCULLEN: Well, personally, having worked this since about 2002, I would be highly surprised if Al Qaida didn't take advantage of an existing safe haven. And I think it's a risk we don't necessarily want to take. And you remember that the president, when he outlined the comprehensive civil-military strategy on the 27th of March, said that the aim is to conduct a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign in order to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaida and prevent them from returning.

So he laid that out very carefully when he put forward that strategy in -- in March, which, as he said at the time, was based on a comprehensive review and consultation. So I think we've got some pretty clear marching orders from the president.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you, also, there's a notion that you can bomb from the air. I know those orders have been changed and there's no longer offensive operations -- or there shouldn't be -- just defensive, if they're required. But nonetheless, there are still a lot of bombings that go on from the air and a lot of civilians who are killed. How dangerous is that to -- to the support for the mission?

KILCULLEN: I think it's very dangerous. One of the biggest issues which the Afghan population raises when we talk to them is the issue of civilian casualties. And air power -- you know, fighter jets and bombers and so on -- has been a key element in Afghan civilian casualties. So I -- I think...

AMANPOUR: And it's drained support.

KILCULLEN: It does very much reduce support, yes.

AMANPOUR: So I want to see, again, on this map, we've talked -- we've talked about the deaths of -- of -- of NATO soldiers, of U.S. soldiers. There are two areas in Afghanistan, both in 2008, where I believe nine soldiers were killed there, and then just last month here, at Kamdesh, where another eight soldiers were killed.

KILCULLEN: U.S. soldiers. Remember, Afghans were killed, as well.

AMANPOUR: U.S. -- yes, U.S. soldiers were killed, sorry, and a number of Afghans, of course, and the Taliban has even put its flag up there. There's also a debate going on as to, what are you doing fighting up in the hills right now? What are you doing fighting in the hills? These are tribespeople who don't like the next-door tribe, much less American or NATO forces, and that perhaps there's a reassessment of where to be fighting. Is that right?

KILCULLEN: Yes, well, General McChrystal has been -- done an extremely detailed assessment of what's required on the ground. And he's focusing on the right strategy, a population-centric strategy, not a terrain-centric strategy. A lot of these valleys -- particularly up in Wanat, in -- in Kunar, and up into Nuristan, where these last battles have happened, these valleys aren't very heavily populated, not a lot of people live there, and you can overextend and get into a situation where you bite off more than you can chew and you -- you lose units, for really no strategic purpose, just to hold a piece of terrain.

And he's saying, we need to focus on holding and protecting the Afghan population, rather than getting out there and holding a valley just for the sake of holding it. So that's been the intention for some time, to pull back and -- and focus on -- you know, the war is where the people are. We want to focus on being with the people.

AMANPOUR: We're going to talk more about that, because, next, we will get to the civilian side of counterinsurgency.

How does opening schools and educating girls help the U.S. Army fight the Taliban, when we come back.



AMANPOUR: Do you like learning? Are you glad you're being educated?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Yes, I'm happy to answer. I can have a good future.

AMANPOUR: Not only does this improve the lives of their families and their communities, but Greg Mortenson has also found that educated women can be a firewall against extremism.

GREG MORTENSON, AUTHOR, "THREE CUPS OF TEA": When someone goes on jihad, they first would get permission and blessings from their mother. And if they don't, it's very shameful or disgraceful. And I saw that happen after 9/11. They're primarily targeted illiterate, impoverished society, because many educated women were refusing to allow their sons to join the Taliban.


AMANPOUR: I interviewed Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan. He's the author of the best-selling "Three Cups of Tea," and he was also nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize.

So joining me again to explain the importance of focusing on the people, David Kilcullen.

The education picture of -- piece of this picture, being amongst the people, is enough of that being done to make a difference?

KILCULLEN: In the parts of the country where we have enough troops to do it, I think it's being done pretty effectively, that we have some things that we need to improve on the ground and we're working very hard to do that, but I -- I think it's, in general, where we have enough troops, we're engaging pretty well in the reconstruction, development work. It's the governance and security issues where we need to improve.

AMANPOUR: So -- so if there isn't enough civilian help, doesn't that undermine a military strategy?

KILCULLEN: It does, to some extent, but it's not a matter of whether you have enough State Department or AID people on the ground. It's more a matter of whether you're effectively engaging with the sources of instability out on the ground.

So if you go out into a district in Afghanistan and you look for grievances to fix, you'll find 100 grievances, you'll be there for 100 years, and nothing will change. But if you focus on the things that are actually driving instability, which is what we're training and working with our military units and civilian agencies to do now, then you can get with the population and separate them from the enemy.

And this is the important point. You know, the -- the enemy is not fixed. They can move around. They're not like a conventional army. They've got no headquarters or bastions they have to defend. But the population is fixed. They live in particular villages or valleys. So when you move in there, the bad guys run away, but you can work with the population, but you can't work with them unless you're bringing something to the table.

AMANPOUR: You know, about this population, so many people are trying to say that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, that the people there see U.S. and other forces as occupiers. I've never found that there. Have you?

KILCULLEN: No, I mean, I've never heard an Afghan describe what happened in 2001...

AMANPOUR: Except among the Taliban, of course.

KILCULLEN: Well, of course. But I've never heard an Afghan describe what happened in 2001 as an invasion, for example. They say we kicked out the Taliban, you helped us. And, you know, I -- I -- I think people are angry at the coalition sometimes, not because we're there, but because we're not providing security.

And, you know, I spoke to a tribal leader last year and said, you know, do you want us to leave your district? He said, "No, but I don't want you to be here and take my weapons away but not protect me. That's what I don't want."

AMANPOUR: Now, again, you've done a lot of studying on the ground. You've written -- helped write or written the whole of the counterinsurgency manual. Do you think, as some claim, that the Taliban is a, quote, "deeply rooted political movement" in Afghanistan?

KILCULLEN: I think it has some pretty deep roots in the Pashtun community and particularly in the south around Kandahar, sort of heartland of the Taliban, but it -- you know, there are other parts of the country -- Pashtun parts where it was never popular.

You take Nangarhar, for example, which is a pretty intense area of Taliban activity, but the population never supported the Taliban. They were very much under the thumb.

AMANPOUR: And I want to play you something that -- that was about the Taliban when we reported first back in 1996, when they first came and started to move towards Kabul. Look at this.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): We're against these things, its music. We broke the tapes, he says. The Taliban take cassettes from passing cars and string up the entrails. They've machine-gunned the heads of horses that form the centerpiece of a fountain, defaced public paintings, and declared television un-Islamic. Rooftops that once sprouted antennas are now bare.


AMANPOUR: So that was 1996, I reported on the Taliban moving up through Afghanistan. And what's interesting is that, according to polls and -- and talking to people, a very small minority of the people actually support the Taliban, something like...

KILCULLEN: It's 4 percent to 8 percent.

AMANPOUR: Four percent to eight percent.


AMANPOUR: So isn't that an opportunity for the West to get in there and sort of be able to win hearts and minds?

KILCULLEN: To some extent. It's important to realize, though, that you've got to have a viable local partner in counterinsurgency. It's not - - it's -- it's a pairwise comparison, you know? It's not the Taliban or nothing; it's the Taliban versus the government.

And I think part of the problem is that the Taliban's only real appeal in 1996 was that they were seen as clean and incorruptible by comparison to the warlords who'd been, you know, damaging the country for years before. After 9/11, we put those very same warlords back in charge of large parts of the country, and President Karzai's running mates in the most recent election were many of the same warlords. So people are now saying, what happened here? How did we end up with the same guys back in charge?

AMANPOUR: So in short, how do you correct that? How does one correct it?

KILCULLEN: I think we need to see some very substantial work on anti- corruption, firing of some of the worst abusers and corrupt people in the Afghan government. Only Afghans can do that. Outsiders can't come in there and -- and say, "Fire this guy," or whatever. It has to be root-and- branch reform.

And I think one of the most important elements is representation at the local level. Most of the local government figures in the country are not appointed by the local population through some kind of consultative process. They're appointed from -- from Kabul, and that's -- that creates an opportunity for the Taliban.

AMANPOUR: And let's just remind ourselves, back in 2001, 2002, the Taliban was defeated, to all intents...

KILCULLEN: In seven weeks, yes.

AMANPOUR: ... in seven weeks. Al Qaida was out. What got us back to this point where Secretary Gates is saying that they now have the momentum?

KILCULLEN: What we did was, we took a counterterrorism strategy, where we said we don't care that much about the Taliban, we care about Al Qaida. We don't have to worry about the Taliban remnants. What we're going to do is just strike Al Qaida from the air. We're going to have counterterrorism forces in there. They're going to deal with the Al Qaida cells, and we're not going to worry too much about doing counterinsurgency.

So we sort of said, we'll do the absolute bare minimum we have to do with counterinsurgency, and we're going to focus on counterterrorism. That was the strategy, really, until about '06, and that's what led us into the position that we're in now.

AMANPOUR: So what should have been the strategy, long-term, open- ended? What should have been the strategy to do this?

KILCULLEN: I think we should have taken a -- a different approach to securing the population, in particular, and to actually get out of Kabul and be on the ground enforcing a measure of security to make people feel safe enough to put the weapon down and start participating in reconstruction.

AMANPOUR: I talked to a lot of American soldiers when I was last there, and they all talked about being amongst the people, trying to get out amongst the people. Obviously, that's very difficult, because force protection is one of their -- their big doctrines. But they also talked about providing hope and opportunity. Is that something that's part of counterinsurgency?

KILCULLEN: Very much so. I mean, winning people over is all about convincing them that tomorrow is going to be better than today and that, if you side with us, you're going to be better off than if you side with the enemy.

It's not about making people like you. It's about a calculation of sort of enlightened self-interest. And a lot of it's about hope and change for them.

AMANPOUR: And do you think it's still possible? I mean, if you had to -- if you were asked right now, "Can it be done? Can this situation be turned around?" Can it be?

KILCULLEN: Right now, we -- we can, if we get a viable local partner, some pretty substantial reform, and additional forces on the ground, but it's a closing window of opportunity. This thing was not going to remain winnable forever. And even now, it's in a much more tenuous position than it was just a year ago. So I think we have to say, we need to, you know, put up and -- and get -- get through this process of review and decide what we're going to do.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you. First of all, can you make a decision or -- or a guess about how many thousand troops are required?

KILCULLEN: I don't want to say a number necessarily, but I think it's enough troops to provide a permanent presence in the big population centers and the -- and the moderate- to medium-sized villages.

AMANPOUR: Forty, sixty?

KILCULLEN: I think anything less than about 25,000 troops, you're looking at, you know, just enough to cost us casualties, but not enough to win, and I think, a minimum, you're really looking at sort of 30,000 to 40,000 troops.

AMANPOUR: OK. And I want to take you quickly, briefly back to Iraq, when I remember people weren't even allowed to talk about insurgents or counterinsurgency publicly.

KILCULLEN: Yes, correct.

AMANPOUR: So how difficult was that? I mean, how much damage did that do to the effort there? How much time did that waste?

KILCULLEN: Oh, a number of years. I mean, it was really General Casey in 2005 who started to recognize and talk about the insurgency in Iraq and to take steps to -- to really learn and -- and spread counterinsurgency doctrine. And General Abizaid, who's his commander, was -- was a part of that effort, as well. But we lost a good couple of years there, yes.

AMANPOUR: What about leadership? We've talked a little bit about the -- the corruption, the warlords, et cetera, but what about leadership in terms of in the Afghan security forces, even in the U.S. forces, who are trying to make a difference on the ground?

KILCULLEN: I think that I have never -- and I've been working this problem since 2002 and on the ground since 2005 -- I have never seen a better leadership team in the U.S. organization that's out there right now, in the embassy, in ISAF, in U.S. forces. It's the right team, and I think they have the right strategy.

Afghan leadership, I've seen some pretty substantial improvement in the Afghan military. Afghan police still have a way to go, but they are operating under some very difficult circumstances. My big concern is with the civil government leadership in Afghanistan. There's a lot of corruption and a lot of abuse of the population. We really need to see that changed or no additional amount of troops is going to make any difference.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, David Kilcullen, thank you so much for joining us.

KILCULLEN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And this will continue online and on our Web site,, where you can find out who has President Obama's ear on Afghanistan. So please join us there.

Next, though, a lesson of courage from another much bloodier war. Remembering the last commander of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto who died exactly one week ago today.


AMANPOUR: And now for our "P.S.," our postscript.

Tonight, we want to honor a man whose life and death personified courage and the triumph of the human spirit in another more dreadful conflict in World War II, the war of breathtaking evil.

The man we want to pay tribute to was Marek Edelman, the last leader of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. He died exactly a week ago today at the age of 90. He led his fighters knowing that they were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, but he led them in an unequal struggle against Hitler's brutal soldiers. After three weeks, most of Edelman's fighters were dead, and he was the only commander still alive. Somehow, miraculously, he had survived.

And later, Edelman said that, "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and the place of our deaths." More than 60 years later, those words and that spirit is something to live by.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back on Monday with a look at whether human rights is suffering from a dose of realpolitik in the Obama administration. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.