Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Kilcullen (I): Here’s what not to measure in a COIN campaign

When David Kilcullen is at his best, he is unexcelled at discussing how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign. And I think the Australian infantry officer turned political anthropologist/COIN guru is at his best when he gathers field observations, boils them down to distilled principles, and then describes those rules in a clear, practical manner.  So ...

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When David Kilcullen is at his best, he is unexcelled at discussing how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign. And I think the Australian infantry officer turned political anthropologist/COIN guru is at his best when he gathers field observations, boils them down to distilled principles, and then describes those rules in a clear, practical manner. 

So I want to take some time to go through a paper he wrote recently in Afghanistan. (I didn't get it from him, by the way.) While it ostensibly is about metrics in COIN campaigning, it amounts to a thorough discussion of what works in such warfare, what doesn't, and -- especially -- how to tell the difference. It is written about the current campaign in Afghanistan, but clearly has broader applications. ...

After some initial throat-clearing (one of my rules when I was an editor was to see if I could cut the first three pages of any long article), Kilcullen's first major section is about metrics to be avoided. These are:

When David Kilcullen is at his best, he is unexcelled at discussing how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign. And I think the Australian infantry officer turned political anthropologist/COIN guru is at his best when he gathers field observations, boils them down to distilled principles, and then describes those rules in a clear, practical manner. 

So I want to take some time to go through a paper he wrote recently in Afghanistan. (I didn’t get it from him, by the way.) While it ostensibly is about metrics in COIN campaigning, it amounts to a thorough discussion of what works in such warfare, what doesn’t, and — especially — how to tell the difference. It is written about the current campaign in Afghanistan, but clearly has broader applications. …

After some initial throat-clearing (one of my rules when I was an editor was to see if I could cut the first three pages of any long article), Kilcullen’s first major section is about metrics to be avoided. These are:

  • "Body count." As he says, when you have 100 enemy and kill 20 of them, you may wind up with 120 live enemies, because you just created 40 more. It’s more algebra than arithmetic. ‘Nuff said? Sure, but as Sean Naylor’s excellent reporting in Army Times lately has shown, there are still some Army commanders who disagree with this basic point.
  • "Military accessibility." Yes! One of my many peeves in Iraq was when a battalion or brigade commander would say that a route was "green" because his up-armored Humvees generally could use it without getting blown up. That may have been true, but it also was irrelevant to the security experience of the average Iraqi on the street. When I asked about that, he just didn’t seem to know, or care. So I was pleased to see this high up on Kilcullen’s list of don’ts. His point is a bit different from that here. It is just because you don’t get hit on a road doesn’t mean it is under your control. Rather, it may just mean that the enemy doesn’t care to engage you there. This may be because it lacks support there, or conversely because it doesn’t want to fight in an area where it is popular. Why risk blowing up your own peeps? 
  • "SIGACTs, especially those involving violence against the coalition." This is a related point. Be wary of SIGACTs trends. Violence may be low in an area simply because it is in the uncontested control of the enemy.
  • "Dialog with the enemy." An interesting point, because there has been so much talk lately about various parties talking to the Taliban. In our tradition, we stop talking to the enemy when the fighting starts. Not so the Afghans, Kilcullen notes. Also, he adds, "the mere fact that our local partners are in dialog with the enemy is not an indicator, in and of itself, of disloyalty to the government."
  • "Any input metric." Megadittoes. This was another thing that used to drive me nuts in Iraq, listening to Americans boast about money spent, projects initiated, patrols conducted, and such. "These indicators tell us what we are doing, but not the effect we are having." Rather, he advocates, look at outcomes, and especially the effect on the population. How to measure those will be the subject of our next installment on this insightful essay.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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