Permissible Arms

“Counterinsurgency,” by David Kilcullen

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 15 June 2010

Please join me in welcoming Starbuck from Wings Over Iraq, guest posting today with his review of David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency. In turn I’ve guest-posted over at WOI with my review of Counterinsurgency; check it out here!

David Kilcullen’s “Counterinsugency” is a must-read for counterinsurgency practitioners at the tactical and strategic levels, as well as for policymakers, government officials, and NGOs. At a minimum, it should be in the cargo pocket of every officer and NCO headed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Though the book is not without its flaws, Kilcullen has taken a number of critical counterinsurgency lessons–some gained through harrowing experience–and packaged them in a handy, notebook-sized publication. I’ll examine each section of the book in turn.

Introduction: Understanding Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The book begins with a touching dedication to Dave Dilegge and Bill Nagle, administrators of Small Wars Journal, before moving to a base discussion on the fundamentals of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Often, I’m compelled to skip over the introduction of a book, but the introduction to Counterinsurgency is laden with great information.

Much to my amusement, in offering a brief primer on counterinsurgency, Kilcullen addresses, though does not name, “armchair chickenhawks” who advocate the “brute force” approach to counterinsurgency (this guy, perhaps?), noting that the Romans and even the Wehrmacht implemented state-building approaches in their times.

Though I agree with the argument, I found that it wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, and some might mistakenly find contradiction in the case of the suppression of the Darul Islam movement, which came to an abrubtabrupt end shortly after the capture of its leader and key lieutenants, which Kilcullen discusses later. Again, greater clarification of supporting factors–even a primer on why insurgencies lose–might have been helpful. However, the chapter is, overall, an excellent foundation in the basics of counterinsurgency; though, those familiar with The Accidental Guerrilla might find themselves skipping ahead to the next chapter.

The Twenty-Eight Articles

I have to admit that I skimmed through this chapter, having read Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles a few times before. For those unfamiliar with Kilcullen’s work, “Twenty-Eight Articles” are short anecdotes, written in the style of T.E. Lawrence’s Twenty-Seven Articles, which Kilcullen penned his Moleskine notebook as he sat in a Starbucks coffee shop in Washington. Many of the lessons were learned though practical experience, presumably through some very…difficult…lessons. Take a look at number nineteen.

Engage the women, beware the children. Most insurgent fighters are men. But in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Co-opting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents. You need your own female counterinsurgents, including interagency people, to do this effectively. Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population. Conversely, though, stop your people fraternizing with local children. Your troops are homesick; they want to drop their guard with the kids. But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from. The insurgents are watching: they will notice a growing friendship between one of your people and a local child, and either harm the child as punishment, or use them against you. Similarly, stop people throwing candies or presents to children. It attracts them to our vehicles, creates crowds the enemy can exploit, and leads to children being run over. Harden your heart and keep the children at arm’s length.

This reminds me very much of the situation I faced in Honduras, where we would often conduct joint airborne operations with the Honduran parachute battalion. Without exception, children would hide in the tall grass of the drop zone, waiting for American parachutists–recognizable by their uniforms and distinctive MC-1C parachutes–to land. The children would chase American paratroopers as they fell to the ground and beg them for money; even going so far as to actually roll and pack the parachute for them. While I would always give them candy and a little money, I understood the same thing Kilcullen did. By giving out candy and money, we were reinforcing behavior, and our very presence often created the same crowds Kilcullen described.

I won’t comment more on Kilcullen’s Twenty-Eight Articles. Far better counterinsurgency practitioners than I have already commented on Kilcullen’s work in Small Wars Journal (Pt. 1234). Suffice to say that if you haven’t read “Twenty-Eight Articles”, you need to.

Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

At this point, we move from a tactical view of counterinsurgency to an operational perspective, with a chapter on effective “metrics”–measures of performance in counterinsurgency. Those that follow Kilcullen and the CNAS gang may have already gotten a large portion of this already during a week-long segment on metrics at Tom Ricks’ blog (here’s part two of five).

As soon as Small Wars Journal linked to the series on metrics, the trolls came out of the woodwork bashing them, crying that human endeavors cannot be encapsulated into equations, diagrams and statistics. This echoes a recent trend, identified not too long ago in SWJ, which suggests that the study of warfare is–rightly so–moving away from a “scientific” study in a more “humanist” direction. Indeed, complaining about statistics is hardly a novel idea.

We all complain about metrics. To a large extent, I sympathize with the critics. It’s impossible to capture the broad range of human behavior in equations, computer models and statistics. T.E. Lawrence once noted that “nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals”. Indeed, metrics in any field of human endeavor–from business, to battle, to baseball–only tell a portion of the story. As one commenter in SWJ noted, you couldn’t measure the improvements in security by mere numbers. You could feel the difference.

Nevertheless, as much as I believe in Jedi senses, they can’t alwayalways accurately measure intangibles. We–and more importantly, the American public–need to communicate security improvements with statistics.

Using metrics to gauge intangibles is by no means limited to the military. We measure the health of our economy with the Dow Jones and S&P, we measure earned run averages and slugging percentages, and we measure Megan Fox’s hotness in terms of 34C-26-24. Verily, as much as we complain, we’ll always use metrics, and Kilcullen’s metrics are as good as any I’ve seen.

Globalization and the development of Indonesian counterinsurgency tactics

They say that confusion is the first step along the path to enlightenment, and nowhere is that more true than in this chapter. While doing a decent job at highlighting the differences between the organizational cultures between the armies of Australia and the US, Kilcullen actually gives us some counterinsurgency wisdom which seems to run contrary to current population-centric doctrine. During the 1950s and 60s, the Indonesian Army was faced with the prospect of an insurgency in West Java from the organization Darul Islam.

However, shortly after the capture of the insurgent movement’s leader, Darul Islam began to crumble. Although Kilcullen mentions that civic action followed military success, he doesn’t elaborate fully upon these methods. Thus, those who feel that simple military action can “crush” an insurgency might look at the suppression of Darul Islam as an example. (For more on this issue, see Pat Porter’s excellent analysis at The Offshore Balancer)

Fortunately, Kilcullen expands upon his analysis of the Darul Islam insurgency by noting that it was a very leader-centric insurgency–one of the greatest flaws an insurgency can have–some critics of counterinsurgency might see this as a misreading of COIN doctrine. In Kilcullen’s defense, though, he does mention that the advances in communication and information technology have led to less transparency, and thus, a decline in “crushing” insurgencies. I think it’s a topic worth researching more, in full.

Reflections on the Engagement at Motaain Bridge

Some reviewers have felt that this was an unnecessary distraction. I disagree, as it demonstrates the types of situations our troops, particularly our junior leaders, might find themselves in “small wars”. From Kilcullen’s lessons on dealing with the international media (get the right message out, and get it out quickly), to lessons on the psychology of combat (post-traumatic stress, “tunnel vision”, hyper-alertness, etc), Kilcullen’s vivid description of combat made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, as I nervously chewed on my highlighter.

Deiokes and the Taliban

A short chapter, Kilcullen explains the need for effective governance in counterinsurgency using a vignette from Herodotus’ Histories. Structurally, it seems as if it might fit well in the earlier portions of the book, as it once again serves as a short introduction to counterinsurgency, though in operational and strategic terms.

Kilcullen paints a very grim picture of Afghanistan, in which ISAF controls the central government in Kabul, but the Taliban hold sway throughout the countryside by practicing effective “bottom-up” governance. Kilcullen proposes a “bottom-up” counter to Taliban influence, strengthening national leadership by improving governance at the local level. Using the example of Somalia/Somaliland, Kilcullen asserts that nation-building efforts in Somalia, led by the UN, have performed poorly in relation to those practiced in Somaliland due to the fact that the UN focuses on central, national governments while Somaliland built its peace dealings from the grassroots level.  Kilcullen doesn’t delve too deeply into this example, although he does provide anthropologist Ioan Lewis as a reference for this subject, so I’ll have to check out her report.  (Possibly this one?)

Countering Global Insurgency

The final chapter is by far the longest, and the most controversial.  In it, Kilcullen expands upon and refines an idea he first put forth in The Accidental Guerrilla, where he first theorized that there is a global Islamic insurgency.  According to Kilcullen, global movements such as al-Qaeda attempt to link together disparate movements–Chechen rebels, insurgents in the Philippines, even Muslim groups in South America–into one larger movement.  It’s an interesting, though possibly a little alarmist, look at the larger threat we face from these sorts of movements.

However, addressing the bigger picture might have been a bridge too far for this book.  Though the chapter is fascinating, it could have been greatly expanded upon.  Indeed, though the title of the chapter is “countering global insurgency”, Kilcullen spends a mere paragraph outlining a constitutional approach to reforming the governments of the developing world, quipping that he could write another chapter on the topic.   I would be quite interested to hear his thoughts on this subject.


Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5.  Kilcullen is obviously a master of this realm, yet I feel he cut himself short limiting himself to a pocket-sized book on the topic of counterinsurgency.  The chapters feel somewhat disjointed, as if pieced together from separate works on the topic.  In fact, I think that less might have been better, packaging all but the final chapter, saving that one and expanding upon it for a future book.

Nevertheless, Kilcullen’s work is always a joy to read.  Kilcullen, like Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, is one of those few people who has not only the penchant for becoming embroiled in incredible adventures, but also possesses the wit to write them well.  For those that are not familiar with Kilcullen’s “Twenty-seven eight articles” or his series on metrics, this book is a must-read.

I did feel somewhat let down that I had read large portions of this book in various articles throughout the blogosphere.  Yet, it’s still well worth the price.  The first 2/3 of the book contains invaluable advice for the counterinsurgency practitioner at the tactical level, and I’ll certainly have it in my assault bag during my next deployment (whenever that might be).  You should, too.


6 Responses

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  1. Karaka said, on 16 June 2010 at 11:43

    One of the things I liked about “Counterinsurgency” was his exploration of COIN at work in Indonesia. It’s easy to get caught up in a handful of examples, like Algeria, Arabia, or Iraq, and be less knowledgeable about smaller, less well-known conflicts. Comparing West Java and East Timor side-by-side was fascinating.

  2. […] Retread, Authors@Google Posted in counterinsurgency by Karaka on 16 June 2010 Speaking of David Kilcullen, he spoke last year at Google’s visiting author […]

  3. onparkstreet said, on 16 June 2010 at 14:39

    I like this guest posting stuff.

    – Madhu

  4. Mike Few said, on 17 June 2010 at 05:25

    Starbuck, good review. In reference to the kids, we took a different approach after we realized that many of them were being used for passing messages, reconnaissance, and early warning. I called it the “go to school or go to timeout” approach. We tried to minimize the amount of children out on the streets.

  5. Arherring said, on 21 June 2010 at 12:23

    In size, scope and content I saw it as a handy copanion book to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

  6. […] at Small Wars Council worth your time; he very kindly posted links to Starbuck’s review and my own. Now that I’m a bit removed from my initial reactions to the book, I do think it […]

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