#Reviewing Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror

Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War of Terror. David Kilcullen. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.

“Now seemingly overnight, we were back to square one, and people wanted to know why”
--David Kilcullen (ix)

How did we get here? Many military strategist and policy pundits have asked this question after fifteen years of combat. Looking back after 9/11, the United States saw a quick victory in Afghanistan supplanted by a counter-insurgency war in Iraq, a rebound after the 2007 surge and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Arab Spring, outbreaks of Islamist revolutions, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and homeland attacks in Europe and North America have resulted in a world of turmoil and uncertainty.

Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, a veteran Australian Army officer and student of counterinsurgency warfare who rose to become an advisor to American leaders offers a unique view of the United States counterinsurgency strategy. A critic of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, he was skeptical of Bush’s 2007 Surge and saw it as the door opener for the U.S. to leave Iraq. Whereas others may now defend their legacies, Kilcullen’s reason for writing Blood Year is “to explain things as I see them—with all the blind spots, limitations, and lack of access to all the facts that any one person’s perspective inevitably implies…my experience is professional rather than political.” (x)

Since leaving the his official positions in both the U.S and Australian governments Kilcullen  has built a network of intelligence collectors employed by his consulting firm that provide him a reporting stream in areas where is it difficult for the U.S. intelligence community to operate.  He uses this “eyes on target” reporting in the book to present first hand understanding of a war that is often confusing to a casual observer.

Originally written as a series of articles for the Australian journal Quarterly Essay, Kilcullen won the 2015 Walkley Award for long-form feature writing, Kilcullen presents a well-told history of the War on Terror and the errors made in creating the strategy of “aggregation of threats” that attempted to link the various diverse threats into a common enemy. As an example, President George W. Bush created the “axis of evil” which linked  North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.  Kilcullen described the strategy as “strategically counterproductive and morally problematic.” (9)

President George Bush conducted weekly teleconferences with Prime Minister Nuri Mali . Maliki would lose his close relationship with the White House after the election of President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of the White House.  

As an Australian, Kilcullen could speak more bluntly, offering, “The Australian accent affords the speaker a measure of amused indulgence in Washington.” (11) He and others in official Washington proposed a strategy of “disaggregation” to reverse the “lumping together” of the threats.  For example, he relates an early observation by Australian counterterrorism expert Leah Farrellt “that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was very independent…he was not under the control of al-Qaeda at all, but he had a friendly relationship with them.” (22)  Zarqawi eventually pledged bayat (allegiance) to Osama bin Laden but differences in strategy would result in a rocky relationship between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda leadership.  The Blood Year was the year that saw the transformation of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the surge of foreign fighters that surpassed the numbers that fought against the U.S. and its primary allies, Australia and the United Kingdom.  In this year, the new self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Mosul, a key city during the U.S. war and set the stage for a new war. As Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s Iraq Security Forces left the battlefield, President Barack Obama maintained that al-Qaeda was no longer a viable threat to the U.S.

What changed as AQI morphed into ISIS? Kilcullen offers that the observable change between the period he served in Iraq (2006-07) and 2014 was that the terrorist organization had “retained an impressive capacity for rapid tactical adaption.” (28) ISIS moved from using “classical guerrilla tactics” to an organization wearing uniforms, organized into units, and using military tactics employing captured U.S. equipment.

“Our objective is clear, and that it is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States…what we need is make sure that we’ve got the regional strategy in place that can support an ongoing effort…” President Barack Obama. (90)

ISIL fighters on U.S. provided equipment after the fall of Iraq Security Forces in Mosul. Photo courtesy Syrian Free Press.

However, since 2014, the United States and the small coalition of nations that joined the effort to defeat ISIS had not engaged in a strategy to counter what Kilcullen started to call the “ISIS Internationale” because of ISIS’s move to expand into other regions. He argues that the rise of ISIS and the defeat of the Iraqi Security Forces “was more than just a military defeat. It was the collapse of the entire post-Saddam social and political construct, a failure of national and organizational cohesion across the board…” (106)

"The bottom line is that the rise of ISIS has exposed the weakness of a strategic approach, which, for too long, focused just on neutralizing terrorist plots and killing or capturing senior terrorist leaders. This approach looked and often felt, as if it was proactive—taking the fight to the enemy. But in reality, as the defeats of 2014-15 have shown, it was too narrowly focused to succeed.” (201)

Kilcullen articulates several strategic elements that could improve the situation in the Middle East and effect the growing global threat of ISIS.  Assuming that President Obama, in the last year of his administration, will not make a major change to his current strategy any new strategy will fall into the lap of the next administration.  “The longer it takes to deal with the Islamic State, the further its influence spread…” (216)

Kilcullen’s role as an advisor who has continued to monitor the region through the deployment of his private “intelligence network” offers the reader a clear and arguably insightful view of the past as well as his presentation of strategic ideas for the future. He presents a way forward for the U.S. However, as he argues it will depend on the “political will” of the U.S. “Strategy isn’t just about deciding on goals, it’s about resourcing and sequencing the actions needed to achieve them.” (230)

Blood Year is a necessary read for military and political strategist as well as policy makers, especially those that may be making decisions after the November elections. In fact, voters wishing to make an educated choice before entering the voting booth should read Blood Year as well!

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015, and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader. This article represents the private views and opinions of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, of the U.S. Government.

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