"If I were a Muslim, I'd probably be a jihadist. The thing that drives these guys -- a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that's happening now -- that's the same thing that drives me, you know?"
No. I don't know. And I sorely wish I could tell him so -- "him" being David Kilcullen, senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, senior U.S. commander in Iraq.
With this bizarro depiction of jihadists-as-swashbucklers, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, an Australian Army officer "on loan" to the U.S. government, should probably have been sent back with: "And I suppose if you had been a German during a certain world war, you would have been a Nazi, eh? Who more than those Third Reich 'guys' wanted to be in 'the big movement of history'? Grr. Thanks, mate, but no thanks. Go play Abu Robin al-Hood down under."
Of course, Kilcullen made his outrageous comment almost six months ago to The New Yorker's George Packer and is still on the job. But when a key counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq identifies with jihadists, it's not just a matter of surrealism -- hallucinations -- at the top. As they say at NASA when things are about to fall out of the sky: Houston, we've got a problem.
Why? Such remarks convey either noncomprehension or indifference to the evil nature of jihad. Or both. Such neutrality, if that's the word for it, also marks Kilcullen's discussion of his big, formative idea: lessons drawn from what he refers to as "an Islamic insurgency in West Java and a Christian-separatist insurgency in East Timor."
In the latter case, the language is jarring for what Serge Trifkovic has described this way: "In the motivation, patterns and perceptions of the actors on the ground -- killers and victims alike -- East Timor was an Islamic jihad against Christian infidels" that left as many as 200,000 East Timorese dead. In Kilcullen's Islam-blind view of the world, such events become plain-vanilla conflicts without moral distinction, differentiated only by the advent of global media coverage -- a large obstacle, he maintains, to winning counter-insurgencies. Indeed, he compares Indonesia's role in East Timor (where Indonesia ultimately failed, he says, due to global media) with the U.S. role in Iraq. This is a weirdly shocking way to see the American struggle against varyingly jihadist factions -- particularly for someone advising the U.S. military.
It's hard to say what's worse: ignorance of jihad, for which there's no excuse at this advanced stage of war, or indifference to it, for which there's never an excuse. Both attitudes deeply imbue U.S. war policy. As Kilcullen would (and has) put it, "the Islamic bit is secondary." Far more important to this Australian anthropologist are what he calls "social networks." Packer writes: "He noted that all fifteen Saudi (9/11) hijackers had trouble with their fathers."
Oh, brother -- as if half the people in the world don't have trouble with their fathers (but don't hijack airplanes for Allah). The New Yorker story continues: Although "radical ideas" lead young men to become jihadists, "the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates."
Sounds like our problem is a cell calling plan, not jihadist Islam. Little wonder Kilcullen is also down on the phrase "war on terror." That's because, as Packer writes, the concept (elliptical as it is) "suggests an undifferentiated enemy" engaged in global jihad. David Kilcullen strives to "disaggregate" insurgencies by disconnecting the Islamic dots linking various terror-states and terrorists. He prefers to see jihadist movements in terms of so many local grievances. It's as if he has taken the defunct Bush doctrine -- You're with us or you're against us -- and changed it to: You're really not with anyone, and certainly not anyone Islamic.
To what end? Difficult to say, particularly when, according to the New Yorker, his example of "disaggregation" is the Indonesian province of Aceh. Here, he maintains, Western tsunami aid and resentment of outsiders prevented Aceh from "becoming," as the article put it, "part of the global jihad" -- a funny sort of victory to claim in a place where, increasingly, sharia rules. Of course, maybe the man "disaggregates" sharia, too, reducing it to so many differentiated social networks. Just the thing, as Kilcullen might say, for family, friends and associates with that jihadist sense of adventure.
CORRECTION: In last week's column about media coverage of American Muslims attitudes on suicide bombing, I attributed the headline "Muslims assimilate better in U.S. than Europe, poll finds" to The New York Times. The headline was from The International Herald Tribune.