Dr. David Kilcullen is an Australian army officer who holds a PhD in political science from University of New South Wales, and is widely regarded as the greatest counter-insurgency expert alive. His doctoral work involved fieldwork in Indonesia, studying the effects of Islamist violence and how the Indonesian government had squashed it. Shortly thereafter, he served with the Australian peace operations in East Timor, and incorporated much of what he learned into his work. He has since served, with the Australians, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the US military, under Gen. David Petraeus, decided to take a more population-centric approach to the Iraq War, Petraeus brought Kilcullen on-board to advise. Kilcullen helped first with revising the Army training manual for counter-insurgency.
Unlike most military people, he has been on the record about his belief that the war in Iraq was a strategic mistake, even calling it "fucking stupid" to a reporter. (Also unlike most military people, he forgot to make sure that the comment was off the record.)
Kilcullen first came to wider notice when he wrote "28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company Level Counterinsurgency." It was a hands-on, how-to guide to successfully fighting insurgents in Iraq, written for the lieutenant or major in the field. It put forward that counterinsurgency "is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population." This was counter to what many in the military considered to be the cornerstone of their job, which was just to kill as many insurgents as possible. It specifically called on company-level commanders to refrain from the use of violence wherever possible.
Specifically controversial articles include:
5. Travel Light: Kilcullen specifically said that Americans were at a disadvantage because of all the gear and armor they wore, because the insurgents would always be able to outmaneuver them. Instead, Americans needed to ditch most of it at base, and rely instead on being able to call for back-up and air support if a battle should erupt.
10. Be there: Kilcullen always stressed the importance of being among the population that you are fighting for. While it is more dangerous at first to be among the people where a sniper or terrorist could kill you, it was essential to winning the population over. This also ran counter to traditional patrols in armored Humvees or MRAPS that would sweep through a neighborhood without ever stopping in the population.
26. Only attack the enemy when he is in your way: This struck many military commentators as the opposite of how war is fought. Going back to Clausewitz, it had always been assumed that to fight a war you had to destroy the enemy's forces. Kilcullen was explicitly stating that, as much as possible, the US and its allies had to ignore the enemy and focus strictly on the population.
While working with the US, Kilcullen wrote a book distilling all of his observations from all of the theaters he had served in. This book was the Accidental Guerrilla, and his main thesis was that the vast majority of insurgents in the world do so for entirely parochial reasons. For every Osama bin Laden, you have 10 Pashtuns fighting to get the US off their little patch of land. The upshot of this was that it was necessary, in order to win in counter-insurgency, to separate the truly radical from those fighting for money, glory, or their homes. He likened it to a cycle of contagion, where the presence of foreign troops fighting against the locals merely exacerbated the fever rather than curing it. Instead, he said that counterinsurgency required doing everything possible to make life better for those who would consider taking up arms.
The book was polarizing, but perpendicular to normal lines. Many liberals liked it, because it showed how hard any future such war would have to be, but others distrusted it, afraid that it would give license to future presidents to engage in further stupid wars. Conservatives were split, with some neocons stating that it was the path to victory in Iraq, while others denounced it as appeasement and would lead people from ever starting a necessary war. Some, such as Max Boot, explicitly stated that all that was needed was further firepower to win Afghanistan, and that those who followed Kilcullen had no place in the military. Michael Schueur, writing for Foreign Policy on its website, wrote that "the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle” is the only way to find success."
For now, however, the military's view is still very in line with that of Kilcullen's.
Applying the Accidental Guerrilla
Fortunately for policymakers, there are plenty of natural experiments to choose from in evaluating Scheur's claim about Kilcullen's work.
Xinjiang is one of the few provinces in China in which the Chinese are a minority. The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur people have long been the main nationality in this area, culturally and geographically closer to the Muslim parts of the Soviet Union and Central Asia than to Beijing. However, China has conquered and claimed it at various points in history, most recently since 1949. China has had to deal with independence activists and unrest in this region since that time. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the violence and displeasure has increased in volume dramatically, particularly as the independence activists and Uyghur nationalists have been able to use the globalized media to increase their voices around the world.
The Chinese strategy in the region has, to date, been one of systematic repression. In the late 1990s, China engaged in a campaign titled “Strike Hard” to completely eradicate all Uyghur nationalism and unrest. This makes for a perfect experiment to test both Kilcullen’s “fairy-tale” prescriptions and Scheuer’s own. One can accuse the Communist Party of China of many things, but insufficiently ruthless and brutal are not among them. Therefore, if the Chinese government’s crackdowns have succeeded in pacifying Xinjiang, then Scheuer may have a point. If, on the other hand, it has only further radicalized the population, spreading the salience of the Muslim identity further throughout the population, and in the end led to further reprisals against the Chinese government, then it is obvious that Kilcullen had the right of it to begin with, and that Scheuer’s analysis can be discarded.
China had always strongly repressed all aspects of Uyghur separatism, even prior to the official “Strike Hard” movement. In the wake of a 1990 “uprising” in Baren, near Kashgar, up to 3,000 Uyghurs were killed by Chinese security forces. Almost 8,000 more were arrested. The immediate repression had only mixed results, with a strong increase in bombings at first. This was followed, however, by more acts of “public contention.” In 1996, China launched the official “Strike Hard” movement to end “splittism.” By June of ’96, 10,000 people were arrested in Aqsu and 8,000 in Urumqi, and 4,000 students had been sent to prison camps. It culminated in the “Ghulja uprising” in February 1997. Human rights groups claim that hundreds of people died and 8,000 disappeared in this protest.
The Ghulja uprising was the last major action in Xinjiang in the Strike Hard movement, and it ended large-scale actions against the Chinese state. There were limited, small-scale premeditated attacks on the government in the late ‘90s, but by 2001 China seemed to be free of Uyghur separatist violence. This did not stop Chinese vigilance and repression, however. In 2007, Chinese media claimed that they had attacked a separatist training camp, killing 18 terrorists and capturing 17 more. Independent sources have cast doubt on that claim, and some have even claimed it was a protest over Chinese exploitation of natural resources that Chinese security forces opened fire on, killing over 50 people. Either way, it is obvious that China has maintained the same level of force and repression in Xinjiang.
The Accidental Uyghur Guerrilla
However, it is also obvious that the ruthless repression of the “Strike Hard” campaign of the 1990s and the vigilance since then has not fully ended the conflict in that province. Violence flared up again in 2008 in the run-up to the Olympics, and has continued to this day. If anything, the violence in Xinjiang is worse this time than least. Whereas it is difficult to get reports of Uyghur violence against the Chinese state from the 90s, there are many reports from last year and this year. The first report was of a bus bombing on March 18th, 2008, which the government has denied but independent journalists have corroborated. Since then, there have been many other acts, both premeditated (like a grenade attack on border patrol division) and unplanned (such as massive Uyghur riots in July of this year). The Chinese response has remained harsh, with 9 men condemned to death for their parts in the riots. Over 800 people were still in detention as late as September, with arrests warrants sought for a further 200. Even that was followed by a series of stabbings with hypodermic needles throughout Urumqi, apparently directed by Uyghurs against Han Chinese. The Chinese do not expect this to be the end, either; in August, the Chinese government passed a new law revising the rules for the deployment of the “People’s Armed Police,” the special paramilitary police unit.
It is clear that these incidents are largely fed by the form of antagonism that existed prior to the “Strike Hard” campaign. The premeditated attacks have been linked, at least by the Chinese government, to separatist groups, some of which may have links to al-Qaeda. The riots, though more spontaneous and without terrorist involvement, were overwhelmingly directed against Han Chinese people in general, rather than the government in particular. The inclusion of the Chinese people shows that it the violence is directed against a perceived colonizer, rather than just an unresponsive government.
This form of overwhelming communal violence was not such a large problem in Xinjiang prior to the “Strike Hard” movement. In fact, there is strong evidence that social cleavages prevented the formation of a Uyghur identity that was shared enough and deep enough to cause this form of violence. There were four regional identities, as well as a rift between “pan-Turkic” elite activists and peasants who saw themselves as Muslim and a native of one of four “oases”, and all of these identities trumped the overarching “Uyghur” identity. There was evidence that this rift was falling away during and immediately after the “Strike Hard” movement. Uyghurs at all levels were embracing both their national identity and their religious identity in stronger numbers. Now, it is obvious that all levels of Uyghur society are joining together in fighting against the Han “occupation.”
This fighting may be starting to take on an international flavor, as well. There were training camps for Uyghur separatists in Afghanistan at the time of the US invasion, and there is some evidence that al-Qaeda was aiding them. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has explicitly stated that it was attack Chinese interests in North Africa to avenge the Uyghurs killed in July. More recently, a senior al-Qaeda official called on Uyghurs to rise up in full rebellion against China.
With this information, it is apparent that, even if the full cycle that Kilcullen describes is not fully present in Xinjiang, there is still some support for his thesis to be found. At the very least, both the “intervention phase” and “rejection” phase can be seen. The heavy-handed repression (mass killing and mass arrests) of the Chinese have led many Uyghurs who did not view themselves as particularly Islamic or Turkic to strengthen both identities, and band together against the “atheists”, as al-Qaeda leader Abu Yashia Al-Libi put it. This fits in very closely with Kilcullen’s own observations in East Timor, where the people had become more Catholic as part of rejecting the intervention of the Muslim Indonesians.
Moreover, it is apparent that AQ and AQIM are beginning to consider the spread of their “contagion” to Xinjiang, even if they have not done so as of yet. There have not been any substantiated sighting of foreign fighters in China, but the AQ has given has led to increased pressure on the Uyghurs, and could cause further a stronger “rejection” reaction as well.
Some preliminary conclusions can be drawn from even as small a case study as this. The first is that brutality, firepower, and death sentences are not enough to stop an insurgency. China has more to lose from the Uyghur separatists than the US does from al-Qaeda, and has demonstrated repeatedly the ability to deploy maximum force against the Uyghurs. However, Uyghur separatist violence is worse now than almost any time in the history of the PRC. Scheuer’s conception of maximum kinetic force causing an insurgency to “admit the game is not worth the candle” is, at the very least, not supported by the actions in Xinjiang. Instead, there is even greater support for Kilcullen’s theory of the cycle of insurgencies. Rather that it being a “fairy-tale” theory, it holds up in another place and time, and should be seriously considered by the Chinese government as a way of solving its problems in Xinjiang.