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Best Defense

The Future of War?: Expect to see urban, connected, irregular ‘zombie’ conflicts

By David Kilcullen Best Defense future of war entrant Thinking about future wars starts with understanding current trends that are shaping conflict. Here are a few to consider. The first two are urbanization and population growth. Since the industrial revolution, world population has shot up, from 750 million in 1750, to 3 billion in 1960, ...


By David Kilcullen
Best Defense future of war entrant

Thinking about future wars starts with understanding current trends that are shaping conflict. Here are a few to consider.

The first two are urbanization and population growth. Since the industrial revolution, world population has shot up, from 750 million in 1750, to 3 billion in 1960, to 7 billion today. By mid-century there will be 9.5 billion people on the planet, 75 percent of them in large cities. Most will be coastal (80 percent of people already live within 50 miles of the sea), with the fastest growth in the least developed parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The next 30 years could see 3 billion new urban-dwellers in the developing world. The planet’s most fragile cities may have to absorb the same number of people that it took all of human history to generate, across the entire globe, right up until 1960.

Edgar Pieterse, head of the Africa Center for Cities, talks of "dramatic, disruptive change in only one generation" while the urban theorist Mike Davis has written of an emerging "planet of slums" — and it’s a fair bet that this will affect conflict, making wars even more coastal and urban than they’ve always been, and further blurring the boundaries between crime and warfare.

A newer, more disruptive trend is the explosion in connectivity that has occurred in the same areas of the developing world over the past decade. In 2000, for example, fewer than 10 percent of Iraqis had cellphone reception, while Syria, Somalia, and Libya had no significant cellphone systems at all — Syria had just 30,000 cellphones for 16 million people, while Libya had only 40,000. Ten years later, there were 10 million cellphone subscribers in Iraq and 13 million in Syria, while Internet and satellite TV access had massively expanded. Nigeria went from 30,000 cellphones to 113 million in the same decade.

Connectivity has huge effects on conflict: democratizing and weaponizing communications technology, and putting into the hands of individuals a suite of lethal tools that used to belong only to nation-states.

In August 2011, for example, in the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, school children used mobile phones to mark Gaddafi regime sniper positions on Google Earth, allowing French warships off the coast to target them. In the same battle, rebels used smartphone compass apps and online maps to adjust rocket fire in the city’s streets. Syrian fighters use iPads and Android phones to adjust mortar fire, and video game consoles and flat-screen TVs to control homemade tanks. Snipers use iPhone apps and cellphone cameras to calculate, then record, their shots.

The technology writer John Pollock has brilliantly described the role of online activists in the Arab Spring, not only for political mobilization, but also for logistics and tactical coordination — as in April 2011 when Libyan rebels, at night in the open field, planned an assault on a rocket launcher via a multinational Skype hookup. None of this would have been possible a decade ago.

This democratized connectivity will increasingly allow distant players to participate directly in conflicts. For nation-states, we see this "remote warfare" trend in the Predator remotely piloted aircraft, which can be flown from the other side of the planet through satellite uplinks. But non-state groups can play the same game: In 2009, Iraqi insurgents pointed ordinary satellite TV dishes at the sky, then used Skygrabber, a $26 piece of Russian software, to intercept the Predator uplink. The guerrillas had hacked the Predators’s control system, far easier than shooting down the actual aircraft.

There are constants in war, alongside these new trends. Most wars are, and have always been, "irregular" — conflicts where a major combatant is a non-state armed group. Over the past 200 years, only about 20 percent of wars were state-on-state "conventional" conflicts — the other 80 percent involved insurgents, militias, pirates, bandits, or guerrillas. Indeed, interstate conventional war, though incredibly dangerous, is happening less and less frequently, though irregular wars and intrastate conflicts remain common.

Irregular conflicts tend to be "zombie wars" which keep coming back to life just as we think they’re over. Iraq is a case in point: By late 2009, through urban counterinsurgency, partnership with communities, and intensive reconciliation efforts, U.S. forces had severely damaged al Qaeda and brought civilian deaths to the lowest level in years: Only 89 civilians were killed across all of Iraq in December 2009, down from over 1,000 per month in mid-2008, and a shocking 3,000 per week in late 2006. But rapid and complete U.S. withdrawal in 2010 — combined with sectarian politics and the reinvigoration of al Qaeda through the Syrian war — pulled the rug from under local communities, reviving a conflict that a succession of U.S. leaders, on both sides of politics, have been incorrectly claiming was over ever since May of 2003. Likewise, in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, current outbreaks are not new — rather, they’re revivals of generations-old conflicts that keep coming back. Colombia’s FARC rebel movement, for example, turns 60 in 2014.

A final constant worth mentioning is what we might call "conflict entrepreneurs" — fighters who aren’t so much trying to win a war, but prolonging it to generate wealth or authority in fragmented societies. Somali clans, Afghanistan’s Haqqani network, and gangs like Kenya’s Mungiki or Mexico’s Zetas fall into this category: They fight not for victory, but to keep conflicts going for their own benefit. Turning conflict entrepreneurs into stakeholders in stability is a huge and daunting task.

What does all this suggest about future war? Well, as America and its allies pass — thankfully — away from an era of large-scale intervention in overseas counterinsurgencies, it’s tempting to think that each year’s crop of new irregular wars is just so much background noise that we can afford to ignore. Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore, if it ever was: In an increasingly urbanized, massively connected world, where empowered individuals and non-state groups will access communications and weapons technology that used to be the preserve of nation-states and future conflicts will leap international boundaries, we ignore these conflicts at our peril.

One crystal clear lesson for future war emerges from the last decade. This is that unilateral intervention in other people’s wars is not the way to go — and neither is large-scale counterinsurgency which, though doable, is extraordinarily difficult, and far from desirable in humanitarian, financial, or political terms. Interventions, particularly counterinsurgencies, must be an absolute last resort. But ignoring future conflicts doesn’t work either — urban, zombie, irregular crime-wars, that leap national boundaries and feature non-state groups with technology and connectivity only states used to have, will spread rapidly, sucking in surrounding regions, as Syria is doing now, and as Afghanistan did before 9/11.

Dr. David Kilcullen is a former Australian soldier, diplomat, and policy advisor for the United States and other governments. He is the founder and non-executive chairman of Caerus Associates, a research and design consultancy, and the author, most recently, of Out of the Mountains.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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