Best Defense

Kilcullen speaks: On COIN going out of style, his recent book, Syria, and more

Kilcullen speaks: On COIN going out of style, his recent book, Syria, and more

Best Defense: What do you make of the whole “anti-COIN” movement?

David Kilcullen: It’s natural for people to ask “What comes after Afghanistan?” and “Was it all worth it?” There’s a legitimate questioning of whether the right decisions were made in orienting the military to COIN in 2005-6. Also, people are looking at Iraq these days and wondering whether we lost friends and colleagues in vain.

As you know, I’ve argued, ever since the first paper I wrote for the U.S. government back in 2003, that COIN is a last resort that we should only undertake when some very onerous preconditions have been met — to do with the host government’s willingness to reform, and its political viability, and political will at home.

In Afghanistan, in particular, the military has done all that was asked of it, and much, much more. And yet we’re seeing a lot of difficulty in translating that military success into political stability. It makes no sense to blame the military for that — instead we need to ask ourselves whether we as a nation expect of the military something that it’s not designed (and, in a democracy, not allowed) to do: to forcibly create a particular political outcome. The military can and successfully does create the conditions for a stable political situation — but creating the conditions for something doesn’t guarantee that outcome, as both Iraq and Afghanistan show. In other words, I don’t think the military necessarily has a problem executing COIN, rather I think the nation may have a problem translating COIN success (or indeed, military success generally) into long-term political stability.

That may mean COIN is not a viable approach for us, even when all those preconditions are met. So, I think the jury is still out on COIN as a military technique (it’s not a strategy as such) and therefore the debate is a valid one — and the so-called “anti-COIN” movement is a valid and valuable part of that debate.

BD: Do you think it has more of a case on Afghanistan than it did on Iraq?

David Kilcullen: There’s a school of thought that says Afghanistan proves COIN can’t work, and another that the Iraq “surge” proves it can. In my view, each side is overstating its case — in Iraq, we did a lot of things that weren’t in the COIN manual, and much of the turnaround began (for example, with the Marines in Anbar, or certain units in Baghdad) in 2006, before the COIN doctrine came out. Also, the Awakening (the uprising of the Iraqi tribes against al Qaeda) was a huge part of it, so there was much more going on than just a new COIN doctrine. There’s a correlation in time and space between success on the ground and introduction of COIN doctrine, but correlation is not causality.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, when General McChrystal was appointed in 2009 and told he would be executing a “fully resourced COIN strategy,” he did a detailed analysis based on COIN doctrine and decided he needed something like 80,000 additional troops to do it. He was told to not even ask for that amount, so he requested 40,000, and in the end got 30,000 extra troops for only 18 months, with about another 7,000 added later during the surge. So, vastly fewer troops than COIN doctrine requires, for a much, much shorter time — the doctrine talks about campaigns lasting 10-15 years, not 18 months. We’ve never had anything close to the doctrinal troop strength or timeframe that COIN calls for.

So, saying that Iraq proves that COIN works is a gross oversimplification, and saying Afghanistan proves it doesn’t work is just plain wrong: If you give the patient half the dose for one-tenth the time, and she still gets sick, you can’t then say that proves antibiotics don’t work…. Likewise if you give the campaign half the troops that the doctrine calls for, for one-tenth of the time, you can’t say the campaign proves anything much about the doctrine.

BD: A larger question: What do you make of intellectual fashion in military culture? Why do ideas seem to take hold with such ferocity and then are discarded before they are half-understood?

David Kilcullen: The military is skeptical of untried ideas for good reasons: They can get you killed. Picture yourself climbing a cliff, hauling yourself up from hand-hold to hand-hold, and some good idea fairy rappels down and hangs comfortably next to you, offering helpful new rock-climbing techniques. You’re not going to be too receptive. You’ll be like, “Hey man, just let me just get to the top of this cliff and then we can discuss it.” Troops in combat are like that — they want to be shown that something works before they discard proven techniques built on lessons that are literally written in their friends’ blood. On the other hand, when people realize something really does work, they embrace it enthusiastically because it has an immediate, life-saving effect. I saw this first-hand with units in both Iraq and Afghanistan, who were initially, very properly, skeptical of COIN until they saw it could work, and then they suddenly “got religion.”

More broadly, there’s definitely a pattern of military fads and fashions, just like in other human endeavors. Before COIN it was “Transformation,” before that the “Revolution in Military Affairs” and the “System-of-Systems,” and so on. Right now there’s a fashion to reject everything of the last decade and focus on “returning to real soldiering.” But there’s also a groundswell of anger and disillusionment at the junior officer and senior enlisted level. That’s actually positive, because real innovations in military thought come not from academics and generals or admirals but from angry junior leaders with combat experience.

Think of the Western militaries after the First World War — cavalry generals like Douglas Haig were slapping each other on the back, saying “trench warfare worked;” it was the more junior officers — guys like Billy Mitchell, Liddell Hart, Manstein, Guderian, Rommel, Tukhachevsky — who looked at the hell they’d just been through and said, “There has to be a better way.” And it was from that anger at the junior levels in the 1920s that ideas like Blitzkrieg and Strategic Air Forces and Maneuver Warfare came about. Likewise, it was junior Marine officers — lieutenant colonels and below — in the 1930s, in a time of real resource constraint with the Great Depression, who came up with innovations in amphibious operations like the Higgins Boat, and from that came, in part, MacArthur’s successful island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, and the Normandy landings. There are a lot of angry, skeptical people out there now, at that same lieutenant colonel and below level, and we have to listen to them because it’s from these guys that the new ideas will come.

And as part of that, we have to be ready to move away from what we think we know — including COIN. COIN, in its 21st century reincarnation, was an adaptation we made, under fire, to fix a problem we should never have gotten ourselves into in Iraq. To the extent that it hardens into some kind of eternal dogma, we need to be very wary of it, because the next big challenge might be an insurgency, but it might not. Even if it is an insurgency, it may or may not be amenable to the techniques that are in the current COIN doctrine.

Part of this is what I discuss in my latest book, pointing out that in a future megacity, population-centric COIN techniques — as written in FM 3-24, anyway — are simply not going to work, because of the scale. So we need to think of new approaches.

BD: What motivated you to write your most recent book?

David Kilcullen: In part, it was the experience of being out in Afghanistan, where I’ve worked on and off since 2005, and realizing that much of the violence there is created by economic, tribal, and contracting-driven patterns of conflict, and very little of it is directly connected to Islamist extremism, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and so on. In an earlier book (The Accidental Guerilla), I showed how a lot of the people we fight are fighting us not because they hate the West, but because we’re there, in their face, looking for a completely different set of enemies who hide in their societies. In this book I’ve tried to lay out some ways of thinking about these conflicts that make more real-world sense than just thinking about “terrorists” or “insurgents.”

But as I researched the book, going to places like Colombia, Somalia, Libya, Sri Lanka, and looking at megacities like Rio and Dhaka and Mumbai and Lagos, I realized that while we’ve had our heads down chasing bad guys around Iraq and Afghanistan, the world has changed a great deal. For starters, we’re looking at 3 billion new urban-dwellers by mid-century, virtually all of them in developing-world coastal cities: That’s the same number of people it took all of human history to generate, across the entire planet right up until 1960. And these people are connected, electronically — with each other and with the broader global system — to a radically unprecedented degree.

So I ended up writing about future cities — not offering answers, but trying to ask some questions about urbanized conflict in the generation after Afghanistan. And patterns like coastal urbanization, population growth and — most importantly, and the only really new factor — massively expanded electronic connectivity turn out to have a major impact on that future environment.

Though, obviously, my start point is guerrilla warfare, I end up arguing that there’s a paradox here: On the one hand, history teaches us that the military is going to get dragged into messy irregular conflicts, and those conflicts will increasingly be in highly connected coastal megacities. So if you’re in the military, you’d better be thinking about that. On the other hand, there never has been, and never will be, a purely military solution to any of these problems. Militarizing them, sending the military in to “solve” something that may be insoluble, is a really problematic approach. Particularly in a lot of the places where I’ve worked, sending the local military (or heavily armed police) into someone’s neighborhood doesn’t make them safer — it just offers them lots of attractive new opportunities to get shaken down. So I suggest some ideas drawn from urban design, around community mapping, participatory development, urban metabolism, and co-design, which the evidence suggests are likely to work better.

COIN in megacities, though, is a really, really bad idea — you could lose an entire division in some of these new coastal cities and most people who live there wouldn’t even know it was there. There’s an issue of scale here that has never really been faced in COIN theory, which of course was designed primarily for rural agrarian conflicts in the mid-20th century. There will certainly be future insurgencies in megacities — but COIN as we currently understand it may not be the right way to counter that threat in urban fighting.

BD: Speaking of urban fighting, what are you thinking about Syria? Do you see a way out?

David Kilcullen: Unfortunately, no. Syria is, first and foremost, a human tragedy of immense proportions. Over the past year we’ve seen a massive deterioration in human security, with a lot of international humanitarian assistance not reaching the most vulnerable populations, and not much of an end in sight. It’s what we might call an escalating stalemate: no prospect of outright victory for either side, little prospect for a negotiated peace, and yet violence levels that keep ratcheting up. For ordinary Syrians, it’s tragic.

Geopolitically, we’re also seeing some extraordinarily negative effects from the conflict — it’s a key factor in the rise in civilian casualties in Iraq, for example, and has also destabilized Lebanon, parts of southern Turkey, and several other neighboring countries. It has revived al Qaeda in Iraq and given it new strength. Less negative but politically problematic, we’ve seen the emergence of a de facto autonomous Kurdistan across northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. A few weeks ago, the Kurdish Regional Government began exporting oil without approval from Baghdad, while civilian councils in northeastern Syria call themselves the councils of “western Kurdistan.”

Equally transformative is the sheer pace and scale of foreign fighter flows into Syria, which dwarf anything we saw in Iraq by a factor of 10 or more. Those fighters come from North and West Africa, from across the Middle East and Central Asia, and of course from the European Union, which effectively has a land border with Syria through Turkey. And then there are the Chechens and Daghestanis who’ve come to Syria to fight a Russian ally and train for jihad. This will have a long-term regional, and possibly global effect that’s only now starting to become apparent.

Bottom line, I think the conflict has a long way to run, it has some troubling spillover effects, and little prospect of a peaceful resolution any time soon.

BD: Do you have any major lessons learned from Syria?

David Kilcullen: Yes, lots — and in fact Caerus Associates is publishing its key research findings this week, based on a study of how the conflict has developed in Aleppo over the past several months. Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, one observation is that we’re seeing a whole new class of Salafi jihadist groups emerge in Syria, with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Brigades. Unlike their rivals (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, ISIS, which is basically al Qaeda in Iraq, version 2.0), we’ve seen these new groups learn from the experience of being defeated in Iraq in 2008-09 and develop a set of humanitarian, governance, and administrative capacities that they’re using to good effect to build support from the population. Meanwhile ISIS has been following the same old Iraqi script of beheadings, bombings, kidnappings, and torture — alienating people to the point where al Qaeda Central just disowned them for being too extreme. Ouch.

BD: What is next for you?

David Kilcullen: Well, it’s nearly four years since I founded Caerus Associates, and the company has grown into a small but capable R&D firm that works across Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East on some pretty sophisticated modeling and analysis of difficult and dangerous environments. Caerus works for NGOs, international organizations, aid agencies, and corporate clients, and of course for governments including the U.S. government. Virtually none of that is my doing — I’ve been lucky enough to gather a really capable leadership team at Caerus, and our research and field teams have achieved a level of talent and capability I could never have imagined.

As a founder it’s always difficult to know when to step back from your start-up and let the company blossom and develop beyond your original vision. This year, in part because of my impending U.S. citizenship, I’ve decided it’s time to do that, so we’ve consolidated the two halves of the company (R&D and field research) under Dr. Erin Simpson as CEO. Erin has done an outstanding job leading our U.S. government R&D company for the past two years, and I have great confidence in her and the management team to take this to the next level.

I plan to be around to support the team without telling them what to do or how, but my focus is shifting to academic writing and teaching, and working with philanthropic foundations in the United States, Africa, and Latin America. I’m also working with a couple of new start-up companies, one in the United States and one in Europe. It all keeps me running around madly from place to place…

BD: What is your favorite book of the last year?

David Kilcullen: Hmmm, that’s a tough one, so many great books came out in 2013.

I particularly enjoyed Stig Hansen’s new book Al Shabaab in Somalia, which paints a detailed picture of how al-Shabab is evolving as African Union peacekeepers push them out of major cities, and they begin to go regional across Africa.

I’m also halfway through two fascinating new books — Salvadoran writer Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, which chronicles his underground journeys with illegal immigrants across Central America’s people-smuggling networks, and Ian Buruma’s wonderfully written Year Zero: A History of 1945, about the reconstruction and stabilization challenges, and the humanitarian catastrophes, of the end of World War II — a valuable reminder that not much of what we’re dealing with today is new.

BD: Thank you.