Negus Media InternationalNMICopyright © Mark Rogers Photography


Conference Facilitator

Back to Interview Archive

Negus Media International

Kirsty Cockburn
Sydney Office:
Ph: (61) 2 9818 3537
Fax: (61) 2 9818 3854
Mobile: 0427 122396

Regional Office:
989 Promised Land Road
via Bellingen NSW 2454


David Kilcullen is a former Australian army officer and peacekeeper and he is also one of the world's foremost experts on guerilla warfare and counter-insurgency. He's served in every theatre in the war on terror since 9/11, as a special adviser to Condoleezza Rice, to General David Petraeus, and the US State Department. In short, when comes to terrorism and insurgency, he's got cred. Of late he has compared the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan to the Vietnam war, calling it "a crisis on the brink of failure". George Negus spoke to him from Dallas, Texas.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, thanks very much for talking to us. You're familiar with the piece we just put to air about the incident, as it's described, in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, that included, or resulted in five children being killed. This has been acknowledged by both the Australian Defence Department and the Minister as actually occurring, but I guess the question to ask you is how can an elite group of troops like that get something like that so horribly wrong, whatever the details are?

DAVID KILCULLEN, COUNTER-INSURGENCY ADVISOR: Let me say I don't know anything about the incident other than what just went to air and I think my limited experience of this kind of thing is that the first reports that emerge from an incident like this are often wrong, so I think one of the things we need to do is kind of take a deep breath and let the investigators do their job before we try to delve too much into the specifics of what may or may not have happened on this particular occasion, but I do think we have had enough incidents like this in Afghanistan over the last seven years that we have a pretty good idea of some of the factors, if you like, that give rise to this sort of situation. So if you like we could potentially talk about that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Australians have been involved in a few of these incidents where civilians - innocent bystanders in some cases - have been killed in the process of skirmishes with the Taliban. Hundreds, apparently, of civilians in Afghanistan are being killed. Is that counter-insurgency or counter-productive?

DAVID KILCULLEN: That's a neat phrase. I think there are three basic factors in Afghanistan that give rise to these kind of situations and I'll talk through each of them in turn. One of them is the fact that we just don't have enough troops on the ground at present to be in these locations on a permanent basis. The second point is that we have adopted a policy of fighting the bad guys rather than protecting the population, which has led us to be moving and mobile in Afghan valleys, which has its own problems. The final point is that we are fighting an enemy who deliberately hides behind the civilian population and uses them as political and physical shields.

GEORGE NEGUS: I hear what you're saying, but if what these people have told us, if they are legit, and it can be verified, does it make any sense whatsoever for a bunch of Australians, or anybody else from the forces there, to charge into a house, allegedly, and gun people down?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Let me get to my first two points because I think that really gets to the heart of your question. When you move into a village or a valley in Afghanistan it's extremely difficult when you are moving to figure out who you are dealing with, and what will happen is, you'll move into the environment and fire will come at you from a compound - it might be RPG or small-arms fire - and the compounds usually don't have windows or doors, they're just blank walls - these types of incidents you have been describing always become more likely. The better way to do it, and the way that we would always seek to do it if we have enough troops is don't be the one moving into the valley, be living in the valley or the village with the villagers. And in parts in the east of Afghanistan, for example, in Kunar province, or Nangar province, we have had a lot of success by having outposts in the villages and valleys who are living with people, side by side. You do end up fighting the Taliban, but what happens is it's the Taliban moving, not you, so they're the ones moving into the environment, you are in the compound with the villagers and you have a much better result.

GEORGE NEGUS: There have been suggestions already after that incident that maybe there are questions that can be raised about the rules of engagement, whether Australians are obeying them, there have even been suggestions of potential war crimes being committed here in incidents like the one we've just been referring to. Is that a serious consideration - that maybe our blokes are out of line?

DAVID KILCULLEN: It's a very, very serious consideration. I don't know the answer to the question though of whether we are in or out of line. But I think generally, if you look at the pronouncements of the Afghan Government ever since 2004, 2005, we've had a continual stream of complaints and raising of concern by President Karzai and people close to him that the coalition are not taking enough account of the political damage that's caused by civilian casualties, and there has been a lot of discussion about air power - bombers and so on inflicting damage on the population - and I think this is a ground example of the same kind of dynamic, where we have to ask ourselves - regardless of whether anybody's followed the letter of the law in terms of their rules of engagement, we have to ask ourselves if it's politically productive or politically counter-productive to be in this kind of situation.

GEORGE NEGUS: On a broader scale, you've described the situation in Afghanistan as dire, you've compared it to Vietnam, you've said it's a crisis bordering on failure, and you've even suggested that if things go on the way they are, with the insurgents, we could be looking at another 9/11. That's a big call. At the same time you are saying that, Joel Fitzgibbon, the Minister here, is saying our ambitions are too high in Afghanistan, we're going to lower our expectations. Is he right or are you? You're saying it's getting worse, it's a calamity, he is saying, no, we've got to calm ourselves down.

DAVID KILCULLEN: I actually see no contradiction between those two positions. I think one of the reasons why we have seen such a very substantial deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan in the last four or five years is that we set objectives that were unrealistically high and we provided resources that were unrealistically low. President Obama, Richard Holbrooke and Vice-President Biden have all made a similar series of statements in the last few weeks, suggesting we need to do really two things. One, we need to revisit our objectives and think about what's achievable, and two, we need to revisit the resources we're providing and make sure we are providing adequate resources for the new objectives. So I think the two positions aren't in any way contradictory. What both positions are suggesting are, it's not going well, part of the reason for that is we're under-resourcing it dramatically, and if you're under-resourcing something you have two options - change the objective or improve the resources, and I think what we're trying to do here is to do both.

GEORGE NEGUS: You say we're running out of time?

DAVID KILCULLEN: Yeah, I think we have a real crunch time, a real time factor issue this year because of the Afghan presidential elections, which, as you probably know, were originally scheduled for May 23. There has been some discussion about when they will happen, but they will happen in any case in the middle of the fighting season. Regardless of any additional troops we choose to send to Afghanistan it will be extremely difficult to gain enough security in the environment to make those elections go ahead effectively, so we have almost a constitutional crisis in Afghanistan linked to a security crisis. Blaming the Afghans is not going to help us here. Let me just clarify why I said it was like Vietnam. I don't suggest it's a quagmire or whatever like Vietnam. The context of that was my senate testimony and what I said to Senator Kerry was that a lot of people are blaming the Afghans, a lot of people are blaming President Karzai, and they're saying all we have to do here is get a new Afghan leader, we have to take more control of the situation and we can fix it. And what I said was this reminds me of Vietnam in 1963, with President Diem, when people were very unhappy with him and said, he's not doing a good job, let's overthrow the guy and get our own man in place, and that was a disastrous decision.

So I think we walk away from supporting the Afghans at our peril, and blaming them is the easy out. We need to actually focus on working with them, listening to them, and understanding what the concerns are and working through the Afghan process. That takes a lot of time, but it's better than the alternative, which is we own a major crisis in the middle of the Hindu Kush.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, a final question - the easy one, actually - is Afghanistan the real theatre of war in the so-called war on terror? Or should we be looking across the border? Is it really ultimately all about Pakistan, which a lot of experts believe is the case? Barack Obama seems to be on that line as well. Are we fighting the war in the wrong place?

DAVID KILCULLEN: I have no doubt that Pakistan is the real problem. I don't suggest the solution is necessarily military, but let me give you some numbers. Pakistan has 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons and an army bigger than the US Army, and it has al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the middle of the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control.

Afghanistan and Iraq, if you took the population of those two countries and smashed them together they still don't add up to one-third of the population of Pakistan. If Pakistan collapses, and what we're looking at here is potential for state collapse and extremist takeover, that is a problem that would dwarf any of the problems we have seen in the war on terror to date. So it's fundamental we grip the situation in Pakistan and try to stabilise that very, very difficult situation. But for the very reasons that I've outlined it's not a military problem - we're not going to invade Pakistan, we're not going to deploy lots of troops to take over the fight. This is primarily a diplomatic and a political problem of helping the Pakistani civilian politicians and legitimate officials gain control of their own national security establishment, which is essentially operating as a rogue state within a state and outside their control.

GEORGE NEGUS: David, thanks very much for talking to us. We've tried to pack in a lot on a very, very complex subject. Thanks for your time.

DAVID KILCULLEN: Great to be here.

GEORGE NEGUS: But, will his "good guys, bad guys" strategy for turning the worrying situation in Afghanistan around be taken up by the pollies and the generals?