Meet the New Dr. Strangelove

Meet the New Dr. Strangelove

His name is David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military veteran, who seeks to impose a mad science of counterinsurgency on Iraq.


In the depths of the cold war, Stanley Kubrick created a notoriously mad scientist character, Dr. Strangelove, whose passion was for dropping atomic bombs. Now there is a rising media and Beltway fascination with a new Dr. Strangelove, whose passion is imposing a mad science of counterinsurgency on Iraq.

His name is David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military veteran whom the Washington Post‘s Thomas Ricks once described as Gen. David Petraeus’s “chief adviser” on the counterinsurgency doctrine underlying the surge in Iraq.

Kilcullen advocated a “global Phoenix program” in an obscure military journal, Small Wars, in 2004. For the ahistorical or uninitiated, Phoenix was a largely off-the-books detention, torture and assassination program aimed at tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who were identified by informants as the Vietcong’s “civilian infrastructure.” The venture was so discredited that the US Congress denounced and disbanded it after hearings in the 1970s.

But Kilcullen says the Phoenix program was “unfairly maligned” and was actually a success. So inflammatory was his advocacy in some circles that he revised his 2004 paper to rename the Phoenix program one of “revolutionary development.”

In addition, he advocates “armed social science,” which involves a key role for anthropologists and shrinks of various kinds in order to “exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees.” The long New Yorker piece by George Packer pictured Kilcullen as a charming, eccentric and isolated genius of sorts. In the Washington culture of national security think tanks, he appears to be a familiar and friendly figure.

His latest media fan is the Post‘s David Ignatius, reporting a Kilcullen briefing given “in a private capacity” at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. It was an argument for appearing to get out of Iraq while staying in, expressed in the Kilkullen formula “Overt De-Escalation, Covert Disruption.” Kilcullen argues that the American troop presence is so large that it’s counterproductive, only inflaming Iraqi sensibilities. What is required is a combination of US combat troop withdrawals combined with “black” special operations to “hunt terrorists” plus “white” special operations forces training and embedded with the Iraqi security forces, turning tribes against tribes wherever possible. Covert warfare is the future: “over the long run, we need to go cheap, quiet, low-footprint.” And, he might have added, off the television screen and front pages.

What Kilcullen means is a kind of deception-based warfare that is contradictory to democracy itself, with its instruments of critical media, Congressional oversight and public disclosure of the cost in blood, taxes and honor. The key militarily is to secure the civilian population from the insurgents, in South Vietnam by “strategic hamlets,” in Iraq by the “gated communities” with checkpoints, blast walls, concertina wire, fingerprinting, retinal scans and house-to-house population listings. The insurgents, meanwhile, are to be hunted, killed if necessary and detained without charges in American-controlled or American-supported prison camps indefinitely, without access to lawyers, journalists, human rights observers, or family members. In most cases, there are no charges against them. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who headed the Abu Ghraib inquiry, has more than once suggested that “a systematic regime of torture” occurs in these camps. That’s not including the CIA’s secret rendition sites or the secret Baghdad prisons under the US-funded Ministry of the Interior, as reported previously in the New York Times.

Naturally the distinction between civilian and combatant is difficult to draw in counterinsurgency warfare. But aside from those already killed, it is a fair estimate that 100,000 detainees are currently languishing in such facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, few with any charges against them. These facilities are incubators for future insurgencies. Last week, after a long hunger strike, for example, 1,100 detainees escaped an Afghan facility after the Taliban blew up the walls. The Pentagon’s plan is to build a permanent $60 million new detention facility on forty acres. The money might be better spent on lawyers for the present defenseless detainees.

These are the realities masked behind the almost-sensual description of a “lighter, smaller, more nimble residual force” in Ignatius’s summary of the Kilcullen scenario.

How have the nation’s once-great newspapers come to virtually sanctify–and obfuscate the real meaning of–these military doctrines, as if there were no alternatives? An explanation is impossible to obtain. But the uncritical acceptance, and even promotion, of counterinsurgency as a rational, realistic alternative to the either the status quo or withdrawal draws the Times and Post closer to the very Pentagon news manipulation operation they have recently exposed. The mainstream media have rarely, if ever, published antiwar critiques by leaders of protests against US military policy since the 2002 buildup, to the 2003 invasion, to the current turn to counterinsurgency. On the contrary, both the Post and the Times regularly publish the views of unrepentant neoconservatives with no military experience whatever. The only valid “antiwar” voices apparently must be former military men or White House operatives who have turned against their former employers. The spectrum of the “op-ed page” is devolving into center-right insiders. As a result, the wild frontier of the blogosphere has exploded as the only outlet for dissent, with or without the documentation. The two opposing sides of the Iraq debate now inhabit separate worlds, the antiwar voices having been expelled from the mainstream for being prematurely antiwar or not being attendees at places like the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies.

In the era of Dr. Strangelove, the sociologist C. Wright Mills vented against the national security intellectuals as “crackpot realists.” Few realized then (or now) that our lives and future are placed at risk by the unbalanced nature of our national dialogue, including the extreme gap between the reportage in America and the rest of the world.

Will a November election of Barack Obama bring an end to the one-note monotony of the national security debate? I fervently hope so. Obama to his credit favors combat troop withdrawals and diplomacy with Iran rather than obliteration. Obama and John McCain would seem to have totally opposing views of Iraq. But at a deeper level, Obama seems to be heading towards the counterinsurgency trap–planning to leave a “lighter, smaller, more nimble residual force” behind in a wasteland of preventive detention, secret gulags and advisers like David Kilcullen. For the media and public to fail to recognize, evaluate and debate this likely future during the presidential campaign will mean something beyond tragedy or farce.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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