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.