Kilcullen to Me: “You’re a conspiracy theorist.”

Big Chief Counterinsurgent David Kilcullen prefers hagiography to reporting.


This photograph was taken in 2014 at a Washington seminar on Syria where I was finally able to speak directly to David Kilcullen about a story I was preparing about his contracting company, Caerus Global Solutions. As I reported in The Baffler this month, he refused to answer any questions about his publicly funded company, and instead told me this:

I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.

As veteran Matt Hoh told me after he read that, I should take his attack as a badge of honor. I do. Here’s what I reported about him.

True to the playbook of D.C.-based warmaking-for-profit, Kilcullen made the most of his ascension into guruhood by launching a consultancy, Caerus Global Solutions, to monetize the counterinsurgency movement. Within months, he had flipped the advisory work he did for McChrystal and Petraeus into a stream of lucrative contracts from the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, and the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan. In 2011, his first year in business, his company’s gross sales were $4.5 million, 97 percent of which came from Pentagon contracts, according to a government audit of Caerus I obtained. Most of that money was devoted to advisory work for ISAF on counterinsurgency and measuring the “stability” U.S. forces had theoretically created. One of his partners was MEP, the big CNAS donor. In 2013, Caerus and MEP teamed up on a Defense Intelligence Agency contract for Afghanistan that involved Caerus analyzing metadata obtained from NSA intercepts for U.S. “combat intelligence teams” in Afghanistan, according to documents I obtained.

But in 2014, Kilcullen’s company came under the scrutiny of the Defense Security Service, the investigative arm of the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. I later learned that, while working with Petraeus in Afghanistan on a surveillance project funded by the Pentagon, someone in his company had accessed classified information that Kilcullen, as an Australian national, may not have been cleared to use. He denied any breach of classification rules, and told me for good measure, “I don’t see you as a real reporter. I view you as a conspiracy theorist.” But the breach and the audit of his company were confirmed by the Defense Security Service itself, as well as by one of Kilcullen’s business partners.

After the incident, Kilcullen’s media appearances and public-speaking gigs dropped dramatically. For a while, he shifted his focus to Australia, where he’s become one of the fiercest advocates for an expanded Australian military role—together with the United States—in the war against ISIS. By 2015, he’d returned to the think-tank world at the New America Foundation, where he works with his “Global COIN” ally Peter Bergen on an initiative on the “future of war.”

You can read the entire article here. I will be augmenting my story by posting key documents – watch this space.


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“Nation-Building” Is Back: Now with Contractors

My latest, published in LobeLog, a great publication on U.S. foreign policy. Here’s how Antony Loewenstein, the great Australian investigative journalist, just introduced the article on Twitter:

@TimothyS on interest in making $ from “nation-building” in the #MiddleEast; #disastercapitalism by any other name.


Last month, President-elect Donald Trump told The New York Times that the United States under his watch will not “be a nation builder.” It was a variation on a comment he had made dozens of times during the campaign as he attempted to lay out a vision for a new foreign policy that will avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors, particularly the Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

Ironically, Trump made that proclamation at a time when the term has reentered the vernacular of the U.S. military and foreign policy elite. Long identified with the war in Iraq and the US-NATO counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, the phrase “nation-building” has renewed currency as the U.S. military and its allies confront a humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East that has produced the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Barely two weeks before Trump’s election, in fact, I heard the term used several times by senior defense and State Department officials. “We may not be interested in nation building, but nation building is interested in us,” a senior Pentagon official said on October 26 at a Washington conference on how US government agencies should confront the social chaos engulfing the Middle East.

He called the situation in Syria “an unprecedented emergency” that offers “lots of opportunities at the nexus of development and humanitarian assistance” that closely resemble what U.S. military and civilian agencies tried in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan.

Opposition to the idea of nation-building, another Pentagon official explained at the same conference, “doesn’t mean we won’t be conducting long-term stabilization operations.” Americans, she added, must “get over the hangover of Iraq and Afghanistan” because “stability and security translates into victory.”

To read on, click here.




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Hankyoreh honors my work on the U.S. and South Korea

One year ago I had the incredible honor of having my work on the United States and South Korea featured in Hankyoreha newspaper founded by courageous journalists forced out of their jobs during the Park and Chun dictatorships. 


Hankyoreh posted this spread after the Consulate General in New York representing the government of Park Guen Hye complained to The Nation about an article I had written about Park’s repression of Korean trade unions, titled “In South Korea, a Dictator’s Daughter Cracks Down on Labor.”

This sparked a furious response inside Korea – recounted here – with even the opposition parties joining in the criticism of the government. Hankyoreh wrote a scathing editorial. The give-and-take I had with the Consulate General was later printed in The Nation’s letters section (scroll to the bottom for our exchange). As Park Guen Hye – “dejected, sleepless and alone” – huddles in the Blue House as the nation demands her resignation, her corruption and authoritarian practices are now clear to everyone – even her allies in the U.S. government.

As an American who has been concerned since an early age about my country’s relationship with South Korea, I was deeply touched by my colleagues’ response to Park’s actions in 2015. The Hankyoreh depiction of my work, from my reporting as a kid in Seoul of the 1960 Revolution against Syngman Rhee to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, was the icing on the cake. I can’t thank the newspaper enough for this tribute.




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Whatever happened to the COINdinistas?

screenshot-2016-12-07-17-03-59A few years ago, I was leaked a large trove of documents from a contractor deeply engaged in the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. As I slowly made my way through them, I decided I had to go back to my years of studying the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to understand what I was dealing with. This article, just published in The Baffler, is the result. I couldn’t have done it without the support of several friends and colleagues, including Mark Ames of Pando and Jason Leopold of Vice, both of whom provided valuable insight and suggestions. I also owe a huge thanks to Matthew Hoh, the Marine vet who resigned from the State Department in 2009 to protest the war; he helped frame the story and, as you’ll see my conclusions. Here’s how it starts:

Eight years ago, as Washington was making the transition from the nightmare years of George W. Bush to the endless possibilities of Barack Obama, national security elites were transfixed by a military doctrine called counterinsurgency.

The modern counterinsurgency faith stirred to life in the glory days of JFK’s “hearts and minds” campaign in Vietnam. Its champions promised to win over conquered lands by eschewing raw firepower for enlightened social projects. They pledged to use cash, economic aid, and military training to convince locals that America offered their last, best hope for a better life. When they retrofitted the doctrine to help salvage the disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, they called themselves “COINdinistas.”

Leading the twenty-first-century revival of counterinsurgency was an up-and-coming army general, David H. Petraeus, who had participated in nearly every major U.S. intervention overseas since Vietnam, including those in El Salvador, Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. After preaching the COIN gospel for decades on the margins of the national security establishment, Petraeus was appointed in 2007 to command U.S. forces in Iraq. There, he finally got his chance to practice what his followers liked to call the “new American way of war.”

Within a year of Petraeus’s ascension, the Sunni insurgents and the Al Qaeda hardliners had been subdued, and the innovative tactician was suddenly a national hero. According to Washington mythology, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency methods, together with Bush’s exquisitely timed “surge” of thirty thousand troops, finally allowed the Pentagon to extricate the United States from Iraq, and reverse the invasion’s rapid plunge into imperial folly.

Strangely, this myth also won the hearts of many antiwar liberals and Democrats, who seized on the humanitarian ethos that sparks counterinsurgency efforts as the antidote to the neocon model of unilaterally blundering into one “war of choice” after another. “All of them glommed onto this narrative,” Gian Gentile, an Iraq combat veteran and the author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, told me. “Why? Because it maintains the idea that American wars in foreign lands still work. And the proof in the pudding was in the surge in Iraq.”

But for these liberal strategists, the proving ground for mature counterinsurgency techniques would be Afghanistan—the conflict that President Bush had sidestepped in favor of Iraq and that candidate Obama described as a war of necessity. By 2008, the turnaround was complete and counterinsurgency was now “the coin of the realm,” as Time sardonically put it.

Indeed, president Obama seized the earliest chance during his first year in office to launch his own “surge” in Afghanistan—and along with it, he embraced the hearts-and-minds strategy promoted by Petraeus and his new commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Flush from their latest success, the COINdinistas were riding high. David Kilcullen, the Australian Army officer who served as Petraeus’s senior counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq and later Afghanistan, began talking of a “Global COIN” to fight terrorism from Somalia to the Philippines, winning the admiration of CNN’s Peter Bergen and other prominent terrorism experts. A new era of warfare seemed to be upon us…

To continue, click here.


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With Clinton, Expect Increased Tensions with North Korea


Antiwar protesters in New York denounce THAAD deployment to Korea, Oct. 21. (NewsPro)

My latest, just posted at The Nation (with the Korean version at NewsPro):

Over the past two weeks, South Korea has been obsessed with a huge scandal involving its president, Park Geun-hye. Highly unpopular, she faces fierce criticism and protests over her mysterious relationship with a religious cultist without any position in government who apparently edited Park’s speeches and may have made critical decisions concerning North Korea.

But in Washington, where foreign-policy elites generally ignore the politics of South Korea, the obsession was over North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. He has built a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and—claiming that his country’s survival is at stake—is moving relentlessly to develop missiles capable of reaching not only South Korea and Japan but even the United States.

On October 24, James Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, essentially threw up his hands over Kim, expressing exasperation over the failure of economic sanctions to slow his weapons program. ““I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” he said in a speech in New York.

That same week, John Hamre, a former Pentagon official and the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, admitted in a conference on Korea at the conservative Heritage Foundation that many in Washington are embracing a more militaristic approach. “I’ve been at meetings with senior US officials who say we need to change policy to formally embrace regime change,” he said. Hamre argued that such a policy would be counterproductive because it would lose China’s support for denuclearization.

So what will the next US president—widely believed to be Hillary Clinton—do about Korea? It just so happens that, as November 8 draws near, she has quietly mapped out hawkish positions on North Korea and China that would go well beyond President Obama’s policy mix of military pressure and economic sanctions.

To read on, click here.

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