At the heart of The Dragons and the Snakes is a Darwinian dialectic between the mighty dragons and the snakes that seek to subvert and outflank them. Each has learnt from the other — with the weakest disappearing — and the results are far from predicable. Sometimes when snakes morph into dragons, as Isis did in Iraq, initial success contained the seeds of destruction. “By operating at scale, in the open, with tanks and large combat units, seeking to seize and hold cities, Islamic State shifted the conflict . . . to exactly the conventional forms of open warfare where Western forces excelled,” argues Kilcullen.
Westlessness’ (is ‘the West’ in decline?) is a topic being discussed at major conferences in today’s volatile international environment, and this new book from David Kilcullen is a vital contribution to these debates. It is an eye-opening and sobering read, but realistic and authoritative. As a soldier in the Australian army, Kilcullen was active in counter-insurgency and peacekeeping operations in East Timor and the Middle East, before being seconded to the US Department of Defense where between 2004 and 2008 he worked on counterterrorism policy with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and General David Petraeus.
A limitation of Kilcullen’s book is that he writes exclusively about military perspectives. It seems essential to set this debate within the context of a recognition that battlefield victories over insurgents are meaningless unless achieved within a framework of effective social engagement with local societies.
It also seems important to explore the difficulties of securing support for defence within democracies. Few political leaders explain threats to voters, save the obvious one from terrorists. Thus, who can be surprised that most people are indifferent to national security issues?
Kilcullen makes a good fist of it, however. As an analyst in the Iraq war with the Australian army, his task was to study guerrilla tactics so that western armies could adapt to the changing threat. After watching the video clip of a jihadist kneeling in the middle of a street to fire his rocket launcher, and promptly being shot, he concludes: “We’re killing the stupid ones. Nobody who saw this guy getting wasted will ever make that mistake again. Next time they’ll be smarter, and the harder we kill them, the faster they’ll improve.” That is the essence of the book; armies are having to evolve faster and faster to keep pace. It’s a giddying time to be in command.