The Adults Are In Charge

George Packer — the Iraq expert who got everything wrong during the build-up to the war — is back with his own very special brand of cluelessness in the 18 December issue of The New Yorker (not yet online), with an article on David Kilcullen, a former member of the Australian Army, student of political anthropology, and current counterinsurgency advisor to the State Department.

Kilcullen made a brief appearance in Lawrence Wright’s article on “the new theorists of jihad” (meaning, apparently the people studying jihadist groups and not those actually involved in jihad) in the 11 September issue of The New Yorker, as well, but Packer spends considerably more time fleshing out his thoughts, which seem to involve giving an inordinate amount of consideration to how people like Osama bin Laden are attempting to manipulate public opinion through the media.

Apart from the fawning approach to the piece (there are literally no opposing voices to Kilcullen’s viewpoint presented) I have to wonder about the validity of statements by someone who writes things like the folllowing quote. Packer quotes Kilcullen in an email about insurgency groups like the Taliban alienating farmers from the legitimate enterprise by forcing them to grow poppies:

Get the people doing something illegal, and they’re less likely to feel able to support the government, and more willing to do other illegal things (e.g. join the insurgency) — this is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way.

Far be it from me to correct someone with a State Department job for the past year and a half, with a doctorate, and supposedly more than a decade in the study of counterinsurgency, but wasn’t the term “Bolshevik” more or less retired about twenty years before the cold war began? The only time I’ve ever heard it used outside of the context of the decade or so surrounding the Russian Revolution has been in satirical depictions of English gentlemen on their estates harumphing about “the Bolshis” going on strike or some such.

While I can certainly appreciate Kilcullen’s apparent understanding that insurgent movements aren’t caused by Islam (he served as a part of the peacekeeping force in Christian East Timor) the other item early in the story that gave me pause was his characterization of the Indonesian government’s campaign against a mid-century insurgent group called Darul Islam as a “hands down” victory when, in recent years, as Packer writes, “In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency…had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya.” Despite the intervening years, that doesn’t exactly sound “hands down” successful to me. It sounds like people were still pissed off and just saw another opportunity to express their displeasure.

Don’t miss an appearance in the article by Pentagon anthropologist Montgomery McFate:

McFate is forty years old, with hair cut stylishly short and an air of humorous cool. When I asked her why a social scientist would want to help the war effort, she replied, only half joking, “Because I’m engaged in a massive act of rebellion against my hippie parents.”

Yes, the Pentagon — as well as the White House — is staffed by people with “parent issues.”