Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Kilcullen (V): And now, a few words about how to measure the enemy

We bring Kilcullenpalooza to an end with his observations on a few ways of judging the performance of your local Taliban unit. Significantly, only near the end of the essay does he focus on the enemy. You listening, S-2s of the world? So here are some ways to know your enemy: "High-technology inserts." When you ...

QAZI RAUF/AFP/Getty Images
QAZI RAUF/AFP/Getty Images
QAZI RAUF/AFP/Getty Images

We bring Kilcullenpalooza to an end with his observations on a few ways of judging the performance of your local Taliban unit. Significantly, only near the end of the essay does he focus on the enemy. You listening, S-2s of the world?

So here are some ways to know your enemy:

"High-technology inserts." When you see the enemy using satellite phones, sniper optics and high-end roadside bombs, those indicate that the group may have access to external sponsors, and is a mainline Taliban outfit, rather than just the local minor league team. "Insurgent medical health." What shape are detainees arriving in? The local wannabes tend to suffer from afflictions like malnutrition, parasitic diseases, TB, and such. "Main force units, on the other hand, often have a better general level of health," especially if based in Pakistan. "Presence of specialist teams and foreign advisers." If you are facing a Taliban group with mortar teams, intelligence teams, and more, then you are facing the major leaguers. Doubly so if they have foreigners with them. "Insurgent village of origin." Where is the guy from? If he is caught fighting on his home turf, he may well be a part-timer and more amenable to switching sides. These are the guys to think about reconciling, especially because "attempts to destroy local guerrillas outright can backfire by alienating communities, creating blood feuds that perpetuate the conflict." But guys from outside the district "should be targeted with maximum lethality." They can be killed without disrupting local relationships -- indeed, the locals may feel safer  without the outsiders hanging around. "First to fire ratio." Which side starts the firefights? That shows who holds the tactical initiative. And the side holding that is better able to control both its loss rate and that of its opposition. "If they are losing more of their casualties in engagements we initiate, then we control their loss rate and can force them below replenishment level and ultimately destroy the network in question." "Price of black market weapons and ammunition." Price fluctuations in common items, such as AK-47s, or bullets for them, are possible indicators of changes in the enemy's operating tempo. But price increases also may be signs of greater demand by the local community, or of more effective interdiction. "Insurgent kill/capture versus surrender ratio." You can track enemy morale by following rates of surrender. "Mid-level insurgent casualties." Pay attention especially to the middle tiers, the planners, facilitators, specialists, trainers, recruiters, and low-level operational commanders. This is the guts of an organization, and so a good indicator of its health. Conversely, you may want to keep alive the rank and file, who "may be good candidates for reintegration," and the top guys, who might be convinced over time to give up.

We bring Kilcullenpalooza to an end with his observations on a few ways of judging the performance of your local Taliban unit. Significantly, only near the end of the essay does he focus on the enemy. You listening, S-2s of the world?

So here are some ways to know your enemy:

  • "High-technology inserts." When you see the enemy using satellite phones, sniper optics and high-end roadside bombs, those indicate that the group may have access to external sponsors, and is a mainline Taliban outfit, rather than just the local minor league team.
  • "Insurgent medical health." What shape are detainees arriving in? The local wannabes tend to suffer from afflictions like malnutrition, parasitic diseases, TB, and such. "Main force units, on the other hand, often have a better general level of health," especially if based in Pakistan.
  • "Presence of specialist teams and foreign advisers." If you are facing a Taliban group with mortar teams, intelligence teams, and more, then you are facing the major leaguers. Doubly so if they have foreigners with them.
  • "Insurgent village of origin." Where is the guy from? If he is caught fighting on his home turf, he may well be a part-timer and more amenable to switching sides. These are the guys to think about reconciling, especially because "attempts to destroy local guerrillas outright can backfire by alienating communities, creating blood feuds that perpetuate the conflict." But guys from outside the district "should be targeted with maximum lethality." They can be killed without disrupting local relationships — indeed, the locals may feel safer  without the outsiders hanging around.
  • "First to fire ratio." Which side starts the firefights? That shows who holds the tactical initiative. And the side holding that is better able to control both its loss rate and that of its opposition. "If they are losing more of their casualties in engagements we initiate, then we control their loss rate and can force them below replenishment level and ultimately destroy the network in question."
  • "Price of black market weapons and ammunition." Price fluctuations in common items, such as AK-47s, or bullets for them, are possible indicators of changes in the enemy’s operating tempo. But price increases also may be signs of greater demand by the local community, or of more effective interdiction.
  • "Insurgent kill/capture versus surrender ratio." You can track enemy morale by following rates of surrender.
  • "Mid-level insurgent casualties." Pay attention especially to the middle tiers, the planners, facilitators, specialists, trainers, recruiters, and low-level operational commanders. This is the guts of an organization, and so a good indicator of its health. Conversely, you may want to keep alive the rank and file, who "may be good candidates for reintegration," and the top guys, who might be convinced over time to give up.

That’s it. Again, I think this is a terrific paper, one of the most insightful things I’ve read lately, and one of Kilcullen’s best essays. I think it is most significant for the order of its recommendations. It tells you what not to track, and then emphasizes measuring the people, the government, the security forces — and, lastly, the enemy. It is signed, "David Kilcullen/ Kabul, December 2009."

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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