Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Kilcullen (2013) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla.

David Kilcullen was an Australian infantry officer with tours in East Timor and Iraq. He was seconded to the US Army and worked with Petraeus as one of the intellectual forces behind the revised American counter-insurgency doctrine. In 2009 I heard him speak at the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society in Chicago; I was not impressed by his advocacy of a 400-thousand strong army and police for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an impoverished country of about 30 million, and couldn't afford to keep paying 400 thousand armed men. You would think we could learn that arming and training large groups to be abandoned when the money runs out isn't a good idea.  Kilcullen has learned. Since leaving uniform he has worked for Caerus and other NGOs, and shows a much more nuanced understanding of political, economic, and social factors in this book than one finds in FM 3-24, the US Army Counter-Insurgency Field Manual (2006).
     In five chapters there are three big ideas that are worth exploring - none original, but accessible and well connected here by Kilcullen. The first is that the world is becoming more urban and littoral. This hearkens back to US Marine Corps futures studies of the 1980s, and to UN and EU projections and planning from as early the 1960s.  The second big idea is that cities are interconnected through people and new communications technologies, and that this interconnectivity is transnational and cannot be managed or regulated effectively by states. Again, this is an idea that has been explored elsewhere, and Kilcullen notes some of the work, but doesn't seem to be aware of the Metropolis Project, which has been actively studying networked cities since 1996. Soldiers really should read more, but we get distracted by firefights, literal and figurative. Kilcullen's contribution on the second point is to map out and illustrate the implications of urban connectivity in the context of the third big idea - competitive control.
     Competitive control was an idea expounded by Bernard Fall in 1965, who Kilcullen describes as a classic COIN theorist.  Fall described a competitive system of control over the population - a spectrum of means ranging from persuasion through administration to coercion. A stable state, Kilcullen argues, has uncontested control, but an insurgency or criminal organization is able to compete with the state for control. Kilcullen's description of brittle (coercive) control, and robust full-spectrum control is very useful, but omits insights from Tilly (2003) The Politics of Collective Violence, or Bernadette Berti's work on armed political organizations.   For Kilcullen, competitive control is the key concept that makes sense of emerging struggles in networked urban littoral areas.
     The problems Kilcullen describes in the final chapter are problems of managing populations, and this is where the premise goes awry, with too much talk of, "what are we going to do about it?" implying Americans, or at least the West, "Obviously, we go in on the ground..." (emphasis added). But the premise is wrong - only locals can find solutions to corruption and disfunction in criminal- or insurgent-infested littoral cities, even when locals don't have a complete view any more than outsiders. His final observations are astute, but may lead us (the West) in the wrong direction. Yes, there will be fewer expeditionary wars fought in the mountains, but if they give way to expeditionary wars in the urban littoral, we are in serious trouble!  Yes, the ebb and flow of cities, and the "dynamic disequilibrium" that militates against "stabilization" must be studied, but it cannot be played as part of a military strategy. I think Kilcullen understands that there are no military solutions to the problem of competitive control, and I think he understands the utility of a joined up political-economic-social strategy to support the most functional local actors, but I think he is missing a vital piece: civil organization independent of, and sometimes in opposition to, the forces of coercive violence.  He cites the organization of Liberian women in opposition to the civil war (who took a leaf out of Lysistrata's book, Trojan Women!), but misses the larger point that the solution to violence is civil organization. I was skeptical about that until I found pioneering work by Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict. Kilcullen's book, Out of the Mountains, is a good read, and might help understand the operational logic of non-violent conflict.
David Last
Peace and War Centre
Norwich University
March 2016

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