KNOWING THE ENEMY
by GEORGE PACKER
Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”?
Issue of 2006-12-18
In 1993, a young captain in the Australian Army named David Kilcullen was living among villagers in West Java, as part of an immersion program in the Indonesian language. One day, he visited a local military museum that contained a display about Indonesia’s war, during the nineteen-fifties and sixties, against a separatist Muslim insurgency movement called Darul Islam. “I had never heard of this conflict,” Kilcullen told me recently. “It’s hardly known in the West. The Indonesian government won, hands down. And I was fascinated by how it managed to pull off such a successful counterinsurgency campaign.”
Kilcullen, the son of two left-leaning academics, had studied counterinsurgency as a cadet at Duntroon, the Australian West Point, and he decided to pursue a doctorate in political anthropology at the University of New South Wales. He chose as his dissertation subject the Darul Islam conflict, conducting research over tea with former guerrillas while continuing to serve in the Australian Army. The rebel movement, he said, was bigger than the Malayan Emergency—the twelve-year Communist revolt against British rule, which was finally put down in 1960, and which has become a major point of reference in the military doctrine of counterinsurgency. During the years that Kilcullen worked on his dissertation, two events in Indonesia deeply affected his thinking. The first was the rise—in the same region that had given birth to Darul Islam, and among some of the same families—of a more extreme Islamist movement called Jemaah Islamiya, which became a Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. The second was East Timor’s successful struggle for independence from Indonesia. Kilcullen witnessed the former as he was carrying out his field work; he participated in the latter as an infantry-company commander in a United Nations intervention force. The experiences shaped the conclusions about counter-insurgency in his dissertation, which he finished in 2001, just as a new war was about to begin.
“I saw extremely similar behavior and extremely similar problems in an Islamic insurgency in West Java and a Christian-separatist insurgency in East Timor,” he said. “After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency—a local separatist movement with mystical leanings—had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what’s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.
Indonesia’s failure to replicate in East Timor its victory in West Java later influenced Kilcullen’s views about what the Bush Administration calls the “global war on terror.” In both instances, the Indonesian military used the same harsh techniques, including forced population movements, coercion of locals into security forces, stringent curfews, and even lethal pressure on civilians to take the government side. The reason that the effort in East Timor failed, Kilcullen concluded, was globalization. In the late nineties, a Timorese international propaganda campaign and ubiquitous media coverage prompted international intervention, thus ending the use of tactics that, in the obscure jungles of West Java in the fifties, outsiders had known nothing about. “The globalized information environment makes counterinsurgency even more difficult now,” Kilcullen said.
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