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Chair: Davis Lewin
Speaker: Dr David Kilcullen, author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert
Tuesday 1st March 2016
The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, London
What a pleasure it is to see you all at The Henry Jackson Society and without any further of due, David Kilcullen a man who can clearly draw a crowd of this size, author of “The Accidental Guerrilla”, “Counter Insurgency” and “Out of the Mountains” he has written a new book who I have been told not by him but by others that the book is doing well, this is deserved as he is a man who knows what he is talking about and did used to do so professionally as a previous advisor to General David Petraeus, senior counter insurgency advisor should I say in Iraq to the NATO security assistance force in Afghanistan and among other things he is also now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation but most of all I am hugely grateful that he is here today at The Henry Jackson Society to discuss his new book, “Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror”.
Thanks to everyone that has come out on what is a wet Tuesday and sorry for keeping everybody waiting. I thought I might try and spend around 20 minutes trying to offend as many people as possible so that we can have a fruitful conversation. To me the conversation is more important than what I’m going to say, but what I thought I’d try and do is to lay out some pretty big points about ISIS, Daesh, ISIL, Islamic State, whatever you want to call it. The fact that we don’t have an agreed upon term for it I think suggests that actually its somewhat unclear in many peoples mind what the exact entity it is that we are confronting in Iraq and Syria and a row of other places. So I’m going to talk about three things. Were it comes from historically, I’m going to talk about how to understand the threat and what framework I use to think about it, and then flowing relatively naturally from that, what should we think about in terms of what to do about it.
So to start off, where it comes from. So I think that there are three years that are critical to understanding the emergence of the Islamic State. These are 2003, 2011 and 2013. So let me talk about each of those in turn. 2003 is the year in which we carried out as what I describe in the book as the greatest strategic error since Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, namely the decision to invade Iraq. Now there would be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq. I want to make that really clear. It’s not true that ISIS was created by the United States and the West in Iraq, there were already in Iraq before we turned up in a previous incarnation as al-Qaeda in Iraq, but certainly the invasion, the vacuum we created and the opportunity that we created for sectarian conflict between Shia, Sunni and to some extent Kurds in Iraq, generated the basis for the emergence of what is now ISIS.
The second critical year is 2011. So sticking with the Iraq theme, we had actually successfully stabilised Iraq by the end of 2008. We had gotten al-Qaeda in Iraq activity down by around 90% we had reduce the organisations numbers by about 85%, we had reduced sectarian killing by about 95% by the end of 2008. So we had taken a really bad situation and made it into a manageable situation on the ground. When then essentially pulled the road out under that, left by 2011 and created the environment that allowed ISIS to come back much more strongly than it had been even before the surge. So that’s the first element that happened before 2011 but not the most important. The most important events that happened in 2011 were the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Arab Spring and then the emergence of ISIS as a result of the Syrian civil war. So of May 2011, Bin Laden is killed and this actually throws al-Qaeda into disarray and it would actually take six weeks for al-Qaeda to actually agree on who the successor is going to be to Osama Bin Laden and eventually they agree on Ayman al-Zawahiri. He is not a popular person, he is quite pedantic and a lot of the times where I quote him in the book you can see just from the way he interacts with other members from al-Qaeda how sort of librarian-esque he is in his approach and he doesn’t get support from the radical and aggressive field commanders and it takes the rest of 2011 for all the other al-Qaeda franchises to sign up to agree that Osama’s successor will in fact be Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Why does that matter? Because 2011 was also the year of the Arab Spring and al-Qaeda was basically missing in action for that entire period. So for 20 years, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in Iraq to some extent had been telling people in the Middle East there’s no way to deal with these apostate regimes, there’s no way to overthrow them other than through terrorism against the United States and the West, which is going to push the West out and then once their supporters are gone the apostate regimes are going to collapse. But in the Arab Spring, ordinary civilian democracy protestors using peaceful means successfully overthrew a whole series of these apostate regimes and in many other cases created the beginnings of a real transition to democracy in 2011. So there was as period in 2011 where it looked like the Arab Spring had delivered what al-Qaeda had failed to deliver in 20 years. This was a huge setback for the organisation which al-Qaeda wasn’t really able to deal with as they were busy with their own succession struggle.
Obviously as we all know that by end 2011, the Arab Spring had gone bad and turned into what some people call the Arab Winter. It started in Egypt with the re-imposition of authoritarianism, originally religiously authoritarianism under the Muslim Brotherhood but then that was basically put to an end in 2013 by the return of the military regime. In a number of other places we also saw the Arab Spring fail in the same timeline and so by the end of 2011 people started to turn back to the idea of the armed struggle against these apostate regimes but by this point they weren’t turning back to al-Qaeda but to the new kid on the block Islamic State. And so that plays onto the third important event which is the Syrian civil war. When Bashar al Assad saw Mubarak fall and then he saw Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and he saw Mohammed Gaddafi fall, in the first three major conflicts of the Arab Spring he basically decided well that’s not going to happen to me and so did his best as quickly as possible to turn the thing from an Arab Spring style peaceful uprising into a straight up armed conflict. That took not only the form of not only very heavy and lethal actions against civilian protestors in Syria, but also releasing Jihadists from jails, providing weapons to Jihadists and basically trying to turn the thing into a terrorist uprising as quickly as possible.
Why? Because NATO and the West were tied up in Libya and the view was if we turn this thing so violent quickly enough that they can’t intervene, it’ll be past the point at which the international community can take decisive action and of course ISIS turning up in Syria as they did towards the end of 2011, suddenly they gave a real jihadist threat that played into Assad’s narrative. The result of this was more or less a complete truce between ISIS and the regime that lasted until them until mid-2013. So sitting in America you tend to look at ISIS through the lens that I initially put forward, as the kind of successor to al Qaeda in Iraq. That’s true, but that’s only one way of thinking about that. I think that this is one of the other most important elements coming out of the Syria conflict and while we created the opportunity for them to be reborn as a result of our withdrawal from Iraq, it was really the Syria conflict that gave them the ability to build to the level of capability and what that allowed them to break back into Iraq and seize cities and so on in 2014.
The other year that is important is 2013. August 2013 is the year of the Gupta chemical attack when the Syrian regime launched about 400 Kilos of very high quality sarin gas in missiles from a Syrian governmental post, killing more than 1500 people in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Now remember why they did that. The reason is very significant because there was a secular nationalist pro-Western alliance of rebels has just succeeded in capturing about half of the Syrian capital and that was the period under which it was at its most significant threat. I write in the book that Assad did not give the order for that, it was the generals under him and his first initial reaction was horror. He said you guys have screwed us, the Americans are going to come down hard on us like a ton of bricks, which is going to turn into military action and now we have lost the campaign. Of course, that didn’t happen and we basically choked at the opportunity to act on the red line that we had already stated which was Syria’s use weapons of mass destruction. By failing to act on that we basically destroyed the moderate opposition and we’ve done a lot of work since to try and rebuild that but I would argued to very little avail because that was their moment and when that failed the leadership of the uprising really passed on to the more Jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.
So that’s how we got here and it’s a pretty sad tale and I go into it in much more detail in the book. I’m not politically aligned so I’m bipartisan so I spend about the first half of the book, slamming the crap out of the Bush administration and the second half posing some pretty sharp criticism of the Obama administration as well so I think there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s not one political party at fault, but we all share some blame. But the real question now is what we do about it. I think if we understand the threat correctly we can come up with a set of approaches to combat it. So let me lay down, in what I talk about in the book as a way to understand ISIS.
I think of it as a three layered entity at the central level at Iraq and Syria, is something that looks a lot like a state. It thinks it’s a state, it fights like a state, it governs like a state and in fact if you were to apply the same criteria form the 1933 Montevideo convention on the rights and duties of a state it meets nearly all those criteria. So you could argue that it’s a state like entity, but not one we should recognise. It has several dozen tanks, hundreds of armoured vehicles, thousands of artillery pieces, controls about a dozen cities, it has 6 million people under its control and an economy of roughly 600-800 million dollars per year of income for the government structure which puts it well out of the realm for any other terrorist group with the exception of the FARC at the height of the drug war in Colombia, it is beyond the realm of a straight up terrorist group. The threat that it poses is in fact not a terror script, it is a straight up geopolitical conventional conflict. It is drawing in regional powers, it is playing into the conflict into the region, it is already drawing the Russians in, the Turks have been dragged in, many other players in the region are engaging in it and that conflict has now killed more than 270’000 people in Syria, it has destabilised the entire region, it is having a very disruptive effect on the global economy, it brought 1.1 million refugees into Europe last year, in the US it is another 3 million by the end of 2017. So that is the first layer of the problem, the geopolitical threat of the central Islamic state.
The second layer is 11 regional territories, provinces in Islamic state parts and they are all the way from West Africa through many countries in North Africa into Afghanistan now and into South East Asia and these are regional allies of the central Islamic state. They look a lot like the traditional Al-Qaeda franchises that we are aware of, sort of regional terrorist groups and they do have a very substantial terrorist component to what they do, but in many ways they are not the same as the Al-Qaeda franchises which were basically trying to support a global uprising by acting locally. These guys are territorial outposts of Islamic state and they work fairly closely with the group in Iraq and Syria many of whom, about 25-30% of ISIS leaders are ex Saddam Hussain military, and they think about this very much as a conventional military war of conquest so the model they are tapping into is not like Al-Qaeda after 9/11 it is much more of the expansion of the caliphate in the 20th century, conventional conflict and expansion by conquest and these are sort of territorial outposts.
The third layer and I am going to go back to an earlier era of international terrorism and is what I call the international arm and it is a group I would estimate at least 200’000 people globally that are individuals, ad hoc groupings that are engaged in terrorism, subversion and propaganda in their own territory in a way that is sort of designed to be a sort of sympathy and support network for the central state. The reason I call them the international arm is the closest thing we have to this is the early Soviet period so if you look back to 1922, Leonard is still alive and it has the formal aim of a global revolution, it has fraternal party’s in many countries globally, it has a central state and it has this international arm network which it engages into. That is basically where we are right now with the Islamic state and I think again if you follow what happened in 1923 after Leonard dies, they say we are going to do socialism in one country and the Soviet Union settles down to being a state amongst that who are not trying to overthrow the wider state system, albeit it is an incredibly obnoxious and destructive state. Is there any chance that that might happen to the Islamic state, if you are a betting man I wouldn’t be betting that. I guess it is possible but it is somewhat unlikely.
That is the three layer structure of the Islamic State and clearly only at most 2 out of them 3 layers are fundamentally terrorist threat, the biggest threat in terms of numbers is the conventional threat, the most direct threat to us is the international arm and the affect it has on our own societies. I think that suggests3 different types of responses need to be coordinated – a military effort to destroy the Islamic state entity in Iraq and Syria to then stabilise and rebuild the countries it has effected, that is a huge effort which is probably going to take about 20 years to do, it is not just a matter of putting military groups on the ground, it is a very sustained significant effort. The second thing is something we have been doing for a long time which is basically regional partnership and cooperation, providing assistance to military police and governance efforts in the countries that are threatened by the Islamic state. I would argue there that we have put too much effort in the last 15 years into capacity development with partners and not enough into reform and governance so we have often ended up helping corrupt cops to be more effective corrupt cops and teaching oppressive militaries to shoot straight, instead of focussing on balanced reform and dealing with general grievances that give rise to these situations in the first place. And then at the global level, the level of the international arm we need domestic policing, intelligence work, law enforcement, surveillance and community engagement. Again all things that western governments have focussed on since 9/11 but I would argue just like the foreign assistance element we need a fundamental rethink here because a lot of what we have done to date has probably succeeding in alienating some members of our society and hasn’t done much to reduce the threat. So I think I have got my views across now and hopefully we can have a constructive discussion.
First of all thank you for what I think was a fantastically concise and yet expansive presentation, ladies and gentleman I have failed to mention the most important part if you do want to expand on the presentation which David has just given, the book is for sale out there and David will sign it for you. We will go to questions, if you would be so kind as to introduce yourself and any affiliations.
Question 1 – Charles Grossman
I would like to know if your book deals with the Americans wanting the Iraqi army to inaudible after 6 or 7 weeks of inaudible and whether that is deliberate.
So I do go through that in some detail, as Napoleon would say it was worse than a crime it was a mistake, it wasn’t something that deliberately happened. The Iraq reconstruction was a very detailed assessment of what went wrong during the war in Iraq and it was published, you can get it, it’s online. There is one and one only major decision in the Iraq war that no-one to this day has been able to figure out who was in charge and people are continuing to deny who it was, and it was the decision to, actually a cluster of decisions, the decision to disband the Iraqi army, and the decision to inaudible, both of them were summoned by MS Bremmar who was in charge at the time. He and others have said look the decision didn’t come from us it came from the white house, people in the white house said no it was them it wasn’t us, so until this day no-one has figured out where that came from. The effect of it which I go through in the book was massively negative and in fact in some ways worse has come out to date because it wasn’t just that the army was of a sound mind and they had all their weapons and units in tact sort of sitting around in the north and west of Iraq. It was that from 1994 onwards the CIA and others had deliberately and very consciously messaged Iraqi generals to say at some point in the future we are going to fight and if you stand beside us, we will put you in charge. And that message was given consistently for almost a decade to the Iraqi generals. So when they came in and instead of following through on that, disbanded the military and didn’t let them participate in the process, they felt actively betrayed and Bremmar as far as we are aware, he was not aware of those original commitments that were made but that was a really significant factor in driving a lot of people who were really pro regime into the arms of the Barth. We draw a distinction which I think is maybe to sharply drawn too many times between the secular Barth regime and the Jihadists which joined ISIS. In fact after 1991, Saddam and his vice president engaged in a programme called the faith inaudible, trying to basically Salafist’s in Iraq trying to associate Jihad and Sunni identity with the survival of the regime. So many of the Iraqi Barth who later joined the Islamic state where just as Salafi as the ISIS guys so a bit of a false distinction.
Question 2 – Carey
I think it stands in very strong contrast to the inaudible process in Germany in World War Two but my question for you is so there is two elements I would like your comment on – one is the Sunni actions in Yemen at the moment and how that is impacting growth in the region, and then the second element is the role of Iran – what is your opinion on that?
Carey so very briefly on your first point, I never saw this because I was in Iraq later but people who saw this when Bremmar was in charge talk about seeing the multi-line history of post war occupation in Germany and it was a certainly a conscious moral for what was there. If you look at the domestication which happened in Germany and when that was done in Iraq it was much deeper and we didn’t take into account effectively the fact that there are A) many jobs in Iraq which we would consider private sector jobs, actual civil service jobs in Iraq and B) you had to be a member of the Barth party to get those jobs. So we are actually excluding a very significant part of the Iraqi elite from jobs and pensions and all sorts of things and we never really took that fully into account. So joint power which is the jargon name for the Iran nuclear deal. I am not qualified to assess its affects as a inaudible measure, I am not saying it is bad on that side but it has certainly had some negative impacts on the issues we are talking about. One of them is that it has really cemented a greater role for Iran in the region. Iran now has very strong influence on a huge band of territory which is a huge regional change for those in Iraq and it is one that is directly threatening to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Israel of course and many other players. It is that fundamental inaudible shift which is creating the space in which ISIS grows because ISIS is number 2 or 3 on everybody’s list of priorities and number 1 is something else so in the case of Iran, number 1 is the threat to the Assad regime, in the case of the Saudis and others it is the Iranians. Two effects of the Iranian nuclear deal which are directly involved here are one is that the inaudible force which is the Iranian action organisation is much more open and is getting a lot more money and effort getting put into it now just because the trading environment is a lot less negative for them since the deal. Secondly though because of the deal, now the Iranians are major oil dealers and that has meant that all the other major players have no interest in controlling their production because the Iranians will just fill that market share so that has basically resulted in a lot of production which is one of the reasons why we have the sustained global oil crisis. That has negative effects on ISIS, they have had to cut down their pay in the last 3 months, not really because of our airstrikes but because of the low oil price. It is also affecting the Kurds, it is affecting Turkey, Saudi so everyone is affected by it so it is not just hurting ISIS it is hurting everybody and I do think it is a real challenge if you think about how these countries are going to pay for the military and social spending which they will need to effectively combat ISIS going forward.
To what extent are they 1960s inaudible arrangement disenfranchise large groups of Syrian tribes and certainly in that region the choice for them is that if they rise against ISIS and they provide the majority of foot soldiers they will be fighting for the inaudible which dominated Iraq during the Assad regime none of which is attractive.
When I was first in Iraq in 2005 we thought we were really smart and put forward an information operations fee where we said why are you fighting to support these Jordanians and Sadiqi basically went on TV and said there are no Jordanians, there are no Iraqis it is just western fiction we are all Arabs and that really resignated with people. So you are right, that has been a really strong propaganda thing for ISIS to say we are going to free you guys from this artificial division of the Arab people into these fake nations in a sense. That said I don’t think we want to walk away from that structure lightly and the reason that I say that is so much violence and so much population displacement and straight up killing would have to take place in order to settle down into a more fundamental state structure that I think we are already very weary of contemplating that. The rank up of Iran, Iraq into regional constituencies is almost complete, I think that Iraq is in a much better position that it was a couple of months ago militarily and politically they have got a much more together government than they had a year ago, but still it may be too late, it is like putting humpty dumpty back together again. Syria is even worse though, I don’t think there is any prospect that we are going to see a unified Syria come out of this process. You will probably end up with a Kurdistan that covers north and eastern Syria, northern Iraq and possibly pulls in people from Turkey and Iran. You are going to see a sort of rump Saudi/Arab state which is roughly equivalent to the area controlled already by ISIS and then you will have a sort of Aloistan in Syria and a Shiastan in Iraq. Is that sustainable, I am afraid I don’t think so, it looks kind of neat but you would still end up with a civil war and it’s not a solution to break it up because it already is effectively broken. Right now it is about making peace in Syria and using that process as a way to stabilise in Iraq but recognising it is not going to go back to how it was in 2003.
Do you think Obama would of inaudible had the British government been able to …inaudible
It is a interesting conceptual, my guess is yes based on some of the conversations I had in Washington at the time. It was uncharacteristic of president Obama to defer to congress at all on military action so the fact that he did so indicates that he was already a bit reluctant to follow through on what I think was a throwaway line when it was first said within the decision in congress for the UK to pull back it had a couple of effects. One was that the US would have had to go it alone and there was really never a prospect that they were going to do that, I think it brought harness into UK decision making which was enforced overseas in a way it hadn’t been before so I think it changed the dynamic a little bit going forward. Afterwards and I go through this in some detail in the book, I think the worse thing about that process was the way John Kerry’s throwaway line of if they have weapons of mass destruction we will be able to work it out and then deferring to the Russians to solve that problem. That was the worst error because the Russians basically won that process and to date Russian military expansion, Russian aggression in Ukraine, Syria and the Baltics to those dates. 2011 is the first important date when the Russians first felt betrayed by Hilary Clinton by her decision around article 73 in the UN resolution to authorise Libya and at that moment as I say in the book is when Putin says okay fuck you and comes back in as president so what we are dealing with the Russians now is a response to them realising basically nothing that they do is going to generate a significant push back from the western alliance.
Question 5 – William Miller
I wanted to talk a little about the Kurds actually, you mentioned that you envisaged a future whereby the Kurdish region of Syria would become independent, so the KG currently as I am sure you are aware, isn’t necessarily overly seeking independence on a higher level in government, on a lower level one or two people are seeking independence and they are pouring in so much money in order to fight the Islamic State that they have absolutely no money, in inaudible as well the prospect of independence are less strong particularly because of Turkey and one very concerning thing which has happened in the past few months is that Turkey has been actually attacking forces in Syria as I am sure you are aware and also civilians as well. Last month over 60 people died in the basement of a burning building which the Turkish government thought it would be a good idea to shell, mainly women and children who were seeking refuge from the shell. So my question is given that Turkey is so vehemently opposed to any idea of an independent Kurdish state, what do you think is the future in terms of a peaceful settlement in that area?
Right so there was initially a bloody civil war in Kurdish territory and that balance of power has been fundamentally disrupted by the influx of weaponry and ammunition coming into Kurdistan since the intervention in 2014. So people are much more gunned up than they were in the past, people are stockpiling ammunition and if you look at the way that the two groups are dealing with each other, it is a much more stable set of arrangements than it was in the past and I think that’s partly because Kurdistan has been treated like an independent state and partly it is because Kurdish politicians now are keeping the military equipment to be a sort of power player and obviously PPK aligned groups are another factor in that. The Turks in fact have a reasonably tolerant view of Kurdish independence as long as it was just going to be in Iraq and the reasons why I think Kurdish independence is not a big deal was as the leaders as you mentioned didn’t want it, they would much rather have autonomy in Iraq because that removed a lot of fairly onerous burdens for them. So I think that the influx of money, the very low oil price, the Turks actually sent a brigade unit into northern Kurdistan about 6 months ago without the approval of Baghdad and started doing their own thing in the North. When they launched their first air strikes last October after coming into the war, two thirds of those air strikes happened in northern Iraq not even in Syria even though they were supposed to be targeting ISIS. Why that, well Turkey is has got a legitimate concern about its homeland security and its region on its frontier and what we are seeing now is that the Kurdish national project and Turkish national project are now clashing in a way in which they didn’t until the middle of last year. So I think that is going to be a destabilising effect on the region but I think it’s you know if you are ranking challenges it is below ISIS but probably above some of the other stuff which is going on inside of Iraq.
Question 6 – John Dobson
You have mentioned that the Russians but granted that they have got inaudible in one of their ports, what do you think are the aims and objectives that Russia has in the area?
It is a great point, we regard the Artic, the Baltic, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria as different contexts and we have different policies on them and clear prioritisation amongst them. That is not how the Russians regard it. The first military unit into Crimea was the same what Russia sent into Syria and the same military commander was responsible for both those operations. So it is not just that they see it the same, the same actual people are running both operations and I think that is really important to recognise that for us they might be different conflicts but for Russia they are all facets of a strategy that is about basically relitigating the outcome of the cold war not trying to roll it back but trying to say as Putin said in his speech which I quote in my book, after the cold war the US acted as if US policy was the same as everybody else’s interests and as if the opinions of the elite in the US was the same as the world international community and we reject that. I don’t think he is trying to go back to a cold war but what he wants to do in a broader geopolitical sense is to say Russia has got its own interests we want to establish a security plan in which we have privacy and we are trying to treat the Americans not as an enemy but just like any other country. It is obviously potentially dangerous in terms of areas of conflict, not necessarily the cause of a new cold war but that’s depending on how we want to approach it. As that translates to Syria, they have two new airbases which they have created since last year so they have a significant military presence. I don’t think that the Russians have a strong personal commitment to Assad, they are more concerned with their sphere of influence and control of certain areas and I think what that suggests is that just have they have done in Ukraine, the Russians may be pushing for what I would describe as a frozen conflict, so they are not trying to conquer ISIS, they are not trying to solve these issues with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, all they are trying to do is carve out, control their naval base across the strip and a sphere of influence that allows them to preserve their geopolitical interest without getting into all these other issues.
Thank you very much, people speak about inaudible… trying to block as ..inaudible… we are seeing a reincarnation of this cycle again inaudible… since 1923 …inaudible… how do you counter this ideology once and for all because it seems to me as if it is a cancer because every time a counter based on military and intelligence inaudible…
I am a big believer in the fact that anytime you have a problem in the Middle East Churchill can often be found lying behind it. I would agree that the strategy in Iraq in 1920 was probably inaudible as Churchill, but if you go back a couple of decades Churchill and Jackie Fishers decision to convert the Royal Navy to oil from coal that brought a lot of geopolitical players into the region that hadn’t been the case in the past and the initial impact of that was mainly on Iran but it has been very significant since in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere. I think that the problem here is in part that we have failed to engage with reform and I said it before you came into the room, I think we have spent too much time focussing on building up the cohersive capacity with allies and not enough on addressing the grievances and focussing on the governance and reform issues. You know that is why there is still this fantasy out there that we can go back to a pre-9/11 world but we can’t go back to it not only because what has happened since then but because the pre-9/11 world didn’t work for a very large proportion of the world population and that is why there was an unlevied. So I think there are things in there which we have to think about more broadly than just the military aspect. I do think in the case of the Middle East more broadly than Iraq and Syria specifically. I think we need to look out how do we combat the ideology which comes out of it but that is only part of it, there is also many other things that we want to be focussing on, much more to talk about on the ideology front but I think I should take another question.
Question 8 – Mike Starkie
Do you think the choice of the next US president will have any significant differentiating effects on this area of policy?
If I could just add could you tell us about your experience of the US full stop, your experience of it, is there a lot of things that they could and should be doing and give us an idea of where this is going and if we can be safe?
Right so a few things to address. So you know I am not politically savvy in US politics, I was brought in as an intelligence officer on secondment to the Bush administration, I was out of government by the time the Obama people came in and haven’t really had a close relationship with the government since. Couple of things on the US side, firstly there is actually much more continuity in US counter terrorism policy than either democrats or republicans like to admit. The real change in US policy happened at the end of 2005 at the beginning of the second term of the Bush administration. The Obama administration has a very different reminick from the Bush administration in an era of drones, surveillance, special operations raids and it has worked very hard to get out of the conflicts which were started by George W Bush in 2003. Just as in the UK, in the US when an old government gets voted out and a new government gets voted in, people are often voting for the opposite of what they just had and so our administration in many ways is exactly what it was elected to be, it is the anti-Bush administration so many of the tenancies that you saw in the Bush administration, the Obama administration is the opposite but to a fault. So George W Bush was much too prone to delegating important programs and policies and it was only when he realised it was going incredibly bad at the end of 2006 that he took back into his own hands a lot of the decision making around Iraq in particular. So his fault was being too trusting and delegating too much. President Obama on the other hand has took the decision making very much in his own hands and with two or three other advisors in the White House and that has made decisions flow through a very small number of people in the White House so you are seeing things like principle committee meetings being called two or three times a week resulting in no firm decisions, there are sort of seminar briefing sessions to brief the national security advisor who will then go into a closed door room and make a decision with the president or not so that has had a real effect on American decision making. The other thing that has happened is frankly a very significant disconnect between ends, where’s and when’s, they have continually articulated a series of goals what are dramatically out of whack with the resources they are prepared to commit to achieve those goals. The only time that we have ever seen much success was during the period of Iraq, when we not only trimmed the goals back dramatically but put significant resources in. So that’s the past, the future, I don’t know man, right now if you were a betting man you would say it is probably going to be Trump vs Clinton. A president Trump, I am not 100% sure what he would do, he has expressed at different times very isolative point of view but he has also expressed a very aggressive military point of view about killing the families of terrorists. He has also reached out, pretty interestingly towards Putin on a number of occasions and said some very open things and sort of has a bromance with Putin which could mean I think there may be actually reasonably strong prospect of US/Russia cooperation with a president Trump from what we have seen today. That would work against Europe as Europe is mad with the Russians for the bombing in Libya so I think we would have more difficulty with the Russians under president Clinton. I am not going to speculate too much what would happen under president Clinton or president Trump, I think people have consistently underestimated Trump and I am not sure whether that was wise, you never really know what is going to happen. I think that it is very clear that whoever is the president in January 2017, he or she will be confronted with a much more dangerous situation than we have now. ISIS are not only expanding in Libya, a very strong and growing ISIS environment in Afghanistan, significant weakening of the Afghan government over its control of territory over the past 12 months, groups appearing in different places in north Africa and south east Asia so a significant threat that is more so than what we have been dealing with before. With the Iranians and the Saudis also playing a much more destabilising role and we now have the Russians out there as a direct competitor so we have everybody from the Israelis to the Libyans saying if we don’t get what we want out of America, there is another option out there. So I think it is going to be a more fragmented, more dangerous environment with not one but now two global Islamic terrorist organisations, Al-Qaeda and ISIS who are competing against each other for who can do the most damage.
It is actually building on this questions, Hilary Clinton, if you speak to the officials of the liberal regime in Tunisia there is a great deal of hostile towards her. They blame her for the rise of the Muslim brotherhood across northern Africa and they believe that it was the US governments position through her to create sort of a block across that region and so if she was elected President obviously that would have an impact on the governments regime in the region. There are a number of other groups right now, smaller think tanks that are rising across northern Africa that are liberal and I mean that in a classical liberal sense. So my question to you is what would be the strategy in your view in whatever the future may be in regards to what you are saying both in terms of governments and liberalisation?
Actually the conspiracy theory which has got most currency in Egypt and Tunisia is because of her family connections and because she is such a close advisor to Hilary Clinton that there was obviously going to be a factor in her foreign policy. If only people could be so organised that is very unlikely but it is real in the sense that people believe it and it effects their opinion. I think that we are still dealing with, well the brotherhood are still dealing with the aftermath of the AL Morsi presidency in Egypt. The brotherhood are trying to create an Islamic state within the parliamentary framework by separating communities, observant Muslim communities from the rest of society and essentially by parliamentary means establish the basis for an Islamic state. What we have essentially seen is the lid come off a series of oppressive regimes and the real revolution may not have actually happened yet. In the east of Tunisia you have the ISIS stronghold, the attack with killed 30 British tourists last year, I think it is yet to really play up. The place that I am most worried about in North Africa is Libya. I think Algeria and Tunisia are not too far behind.
Well ladies and gentlemen I measure these talks at the Henry Jackson Society the same way other people measure movies, were there any points in them in which there was a lull in my attention span and let me tell you David Kilcullen there was no lull it was riveting and I do hope you all buy the book and thank you for coming back to the Henry Jackson Society and please promise to come back with the next book. Let’s thank David in the usual manner.