President Obama at West Point in 2014   

After the horror of Nice David Kilcullen’s Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror provides a superb means of untangling the mess that is the legacy of this tragic conflict. Kilcullen provides advice for the future, cutting edge-analysis and an insightful, readable resource.

My interest in this book was piqued when I heard an interview with Kilcullen on the radio well before publication. The clarity and authority of his analysis was striking. This derives from Kilcullen’s on-the-ground experience with insurgency. Kilcullen worked prior to 9/11 as an Australian infantry officer on Indonesian Islamic insurgency. Subsequently he became a counterinsurgency advisor to Condaleeza Rice; advised David Patraeus during the 2007 “Surge”; and was a chief strategist in the US State Department.

Predictably, Kilcullen is critical of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which he calls, “the greatest screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia”. He is even more critical of the failure to follow the invasion with a viable post-conflict solution arguing that, “The bare-bones invasion force Rumsfeld had insisted upon was enough to push Saddam off his perch, but not to contain the chaos after his fall”.

Kilcullen describes post-conflict planning as criminally shabby. He claims that detailed study of post-conflict risks or costs would have undermined the rationale for the war. Kilcullen is glowing about the quality of contemporary American intelligence which was extraordinarily prescient when viewed in hindsight. But he is less than impressed by “the wilful naiveté of the group of policy makers around Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney” who thwarted those best placed to point the way forward.  

Anticipating George W. Bush becoming this book’s whipping boy, I was surprised by Kilcullen’s opinion of the former president. Kilcullen writes of experiencing a very different president to the one who took the US into Iraq in 2003 when Bush took personal charge of the US in Iraq in 2007:

Tampa was a coalition conference … and the president spoke after lunch on the first day. He was singularly unimpressive at first: folksy, shallow and upbeat in a way that facts on the ground simply didn’t justify. But after he finished his remarks he asked the reporters and television cameras to leave. As soon as the doors closed his voice changed … He showed a comprehensive grasp of both tactical-level detail and the big picture and… a clear understanding of exactly what was, and was not, working on the ground … It was a tour de force of coalition leadership p… [Another] illustration of the president’s leadership was his focused engagement, epitomised by near-daily phone calls and weekly videoconferences with General Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi leaders.

There is no such respect for President Obama, grudging or otherwise. Kilcullen sees Obama as an arch-vacillator whose Administration has been passive, indecisive and strategically confused in the face of catastrophe. He threw away the hard-won progress of the Surge.  

Blood Year ranges from Afghanistan to Iraq, with a mountain of detail and plenty of exotic names. It requires a focused reader with a stomach for psychotic violence. But the book’s challenge is eased by Kilcullen’s easy, journalistic style. He writes engagingly and the chapters are tightly written.

The blood year of the title is 2014, when President Obama reassured West Point graduates that the global war on terror was winding down. This was 12 days before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant rampaged across Iraq, taking Mosul, the second largest city, and threatening Bagdad. ISIL then re-badged itself as the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a world-wide caliphate.

The book brings us up to the present including Russia’s entrance into the conflict and ISIS-outsourced terrorist attacks in Turkey, Tunisia, France, Belgium, Kuwait and Denmark.

Kilcullen does not claim to have all the answers, but at the end of the book, after detailing the avoidable atrocities of ISIS crucifying children, bodies of asylum seekers washing up on beaches, Russian cluster bombs falling on Syrian villages and suicide bomber attacks, he departs leaving five “insights” with the reader. The first is the best: “Don’t confuse bad management with destiny.” Kilcullen warns that quick fixes, “light footprints”, and expectations that others will do the fighting will definitely escalate a conflict that is already escalating alarmingly.

This is a compelling book and a critical resource for following the West’s response to a horrendous conflict that will be with us for some time.  

James Burfitt is headmaster of Redfield College, in Sydney.