“The greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia” is how David Kilcullen describes George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. If anyone thinks that is a throwaway line they should read on. For it comes from one of the architects of the 2007-08 “surge” into Iraq that sought to restore security to a society the US-led occupation broke, and to create space to rebuild a state it destroyed.
Kilcullen was a young lieutenant colonel in the Australian army who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a scholar steeped in counter-insurgency theory, “watching closely and keeping notes as this enormous slow-motion train wreck took place”. In 2007 he was seconded to US forces as chief adviser to General David Petraeus, commander of the surge. This strategy combined a big influx of American troops with co-opted Sunni tribal fighters to defeat al-Qaeda. The jihadis, later to transmute into the far greater threat of Isis, had virtually no presence in Iraq prior to the invasion — but used it to turn the country into a charnel house and trigger the region-wide war between Sunni and Shia Islam that has now ripped Syria apart.
Put simply, Kilcullen argues we should never have gone into Iraq, with the job still unfinished in Afghanistan after 9/11. But the US and its allies were morally and legally obliged afterwards to try to “halt the carnage and restore some normality”. Like many soldiers, Kilcullen does not do gore. So when he mentions, in the sparest of prose given the depravity of the sectarian bloodletting, the “commercial kidnapping gangs auctioning off terrified children for slaughter, in a makeshift night market that operated under lights near the soccer stadium”, it is a kick in the stomach.