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The Most Exciting Theory in Foreign Affairs

(The following post continues Michael C's review of David Kilcullen's "The Accidental Guerrilla." For those interested in our commentary on president's Obama's speech on Afghanistan, we will post our response on the troop surge tomorrow.)

I've always wondered why terrorists never attacked Rodeo Drive, the Mall of America or Saks Fifth Avenue. We're told terrorists hate our life style and our gaudy, unholy Western consumerism. But if that's the case, why haven't they blown up a Lexus dealership or a Tiffany's?

David Kilcullen answers this quandary in The Accidental Guerrilla. The majority of insurgents aren't terrorists, he argues, they are "accidental guerrillas." While there is a radical core of Islamic extremists around the world who hate America, the West, and Western culture, the majority of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan fight and kill Americans not out of rabid hatred of America but as a reaction to our presence in their country.

David Kilcullen doesn't doubt that Al Qaeda wants to destroy America. He doubts that every Muslim who fights American forces supports Al Qaeda. Then why do they fight us? They fight against the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia because they are accidental guerrillas; they seek to expel the forces they believe are foreign invaders. Al Qaeda infiltrates these local communities and radicalizes them.

This simple idea has radical consequences. For example, this theory unlocks the key to winning in our current counter-insurgency wars. We don’t need to kill hordes of terrorists, because hordes of terrorists don't exist. Labeling the enemy as a terrorist inhibits our operations because we misunderstand the threat. Instead, in actual insurgencies, we need to distinguish between ideologically opposed enemies and those whom we can influence. We did this in Iraq during the surge. It turned enemies into allies and those allies turned the tide.

The accidental guerrilla theory also shows the key difference between a target-centric approach to counter-insurgency and a population-centric approach. Killing more targets sounds easier than convincing a population to support their government. Indeed, labeling our enemies terrorists makes it easier to kill them. Calling someone an accidental guerrilla changes how we perceive them. Now they are a person to be persuaded, not a terrorist to be eliminated. True terrorists exist, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and need to be exterminated; but not every military age male is a terrorist.

It also makes our label the "Global War on Terror" irrelevant. Calling our struggle “the Global War on Terror” both defines a war against a method (foolish) and against an enemy who largely doesn’t exist. Thus, after 9/11 the many who signed up wanting to “kill terrorists” have a fundamentally flawed viewpoint and a futile road ahead of them. Dr. Killcullen recommends we develop a new lexicon to define our struggle; something I obviously agree with as evidenced by my multiple attempts to define this war.

Like all great global affairs theories, the "Accidental Guerrilla" theory changes how we perceive our world. Even better, it changes how we fight and win our wars. Let's hope it works in Afghanistan.

(Next week, we will have our conclusion to Michael C's review of "The Accidental Guerrilla.")

three comments

I’ll probably have more comments on this later as I think about it more,but for now let me just say I think this is maybe your best post yet. I really like what you had to say on this topic, as I often wondered the same thing you speculated on in the first paragraph. I have asked for The Accidental Guerrilla for Christmas and am really looking forward to reading it.


It seems so common sense that it’s almost taken for granted that the war on terror is a war against a particular method of fighting. We equate terrorists as demons who wish nothing more than to destroy everything good. In doing so we ignore motivation. We ignore an presence of humanity. It helps us to rationalize hunting them. It helps to rationalize increasing control and taking freedoms.

I too look forward to this read.


Wow Will that means a lot. Who is getting you the Accidental Guerrilla?

@ Matt- And to repeat my post, dehumanizing your enemy makes fighting an effective counter-insurgency almost impossible.