Kilcullen has an impressive résumé. A former officer in Australia’s military with a doctorate in political anthropology, he has served a number of senior American civilian officials (Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice) and generals (David Petraeus in Iraq and Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan). “Blood Year,” a breezy survey of the West’s antiterrorism campaigns, has a message: The strategy Kilcullen helped design has failed, as witness the emergence of ISIS. The Iraq war — needless and ineptly waged, he says — was a godsend to Al Qaeda, which used the wrath it provoked to “aggregate” the grievances of militants worldwide. Kilcullen rehashes the standard criticisms of that debacle. But even its vociferous critics will find his comparison of President Bush’s Iraq war to Hitler’s attack on Russia overwrought. And resorting to inferential excess, Kilcullen contends that President Obama’s failure to punish Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria encouraged Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine and saber-rattling over the Baltic States.
Kilcullen explains superbly the multiple paths to jihadism, the numerous ways in which terrorists can strike, the plentiful targets urban societies offer, and antediluvian ISIS’ savvy use of the Internet and social media to attract and train acolytes. He describes the torture, beheadings and massacres perpetrated by the terrorist “Internationale.” Yet such horrifying acts are not positive achievements, and historically, terrorist movements have never shown the capacity to inflict lasting harm on well-ordered states.