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Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate


SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.

R2P is the New COIN

Monday, September 19th, 2011


The weirdly astrategic NATO campaign in Libya intervening on the side of ill-defined rebels against the tyrannical rule of Libyan strongman Colonel Moammar Gaddafi brought to general public attention the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” as a putative doctrine for US foreign policy and an alleged aspect of international law. The most vocal public face of R2P, an idea that has floated among liberal internationalist IL academics and NGO activists since the 90’s, was Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Policy Planning Director of the US State Department and an advisor to the Obama administration. Slaughter, writing in The Atlantic, was a passionate advocate of R2P as a “redefinition of sovereignty” and debated her position and underlying IR theory assumptions with critics such as Dan Drezner, Joshua Foust, and Dan Trombly.

In all candor, I found Dr. Slaughter’s thesis to be deeply troubling but the debate itself was insightful and stimulating and Slaughter is to be commended for responding at length to the arguments of her critics. Hopefully, there will be greater and wider debate in the future because, in it’s current policy trajectory, R2P is going to become “the new COIN”.

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

It must be said, that unlike R2P, an abstract theory literally going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, COIN was an adaptive operational and policy response to a very real geopolitical debacle in Iraq, in which the United States was already deeply entrenched. A bevy of military officers, academics, think tank intellectuals, journalists and bloggers – some of them genuinely brilliant – including John Nagl, Kalev Sepp, Con Crane, Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Michèle Flournoy, David Kilcullen, Fred and Kim Kagan, James Mattis, Montgomery McFate, Thomas Ricks, Andrew Exum,  the Small Wars Journal and others articulated, proselytized, reported, blogged and institutionalized a version of counterinsurgency warfare now known as “Pop-centric COIN“, selling it to a very reluctant Bush administration, the US Army and USMC, moderate Congressional Democrats and ultimately to President Barack Obama.

The COIN revival and veneration of counterinsurgent icons like Templer and Galula did not really amount a “strategy”; it was an operational methodology that would reduce friction with Iraqis by co-opting local leaders and, for the Bush administration, provide an absolutely critical political “breathing space” with the American public to reinvent an occupation of Iraq that had descended into Hell. For US commanders in Iraq, adopting COIN doctrine provided “the cover” to ally with the conservative and nationalistic Sunni tribes of the “Anbar Awakening” who had turned violently against al Qaida and foreign Salafist extremists. COIN was not even a good theoretical  model for insurgency in the 21st century, never mind a strategy, but adoption of COIN doctrine as an American political process helped, along with the operational benefits, to avert an outright defeat in Iraq. COIN salvaged the American political will to prosecute the war in Iraq to a tolerable conclusion; meaning that COIN, while imperfect, was “good enough”, which in matters of warfare, suffices.

During this period of time and afterward, a fierce COINdinista vs. COINtra debate unfolded, which I will not summarize here, except to mention that one COINtra point was that COINdinistas, especially those in uniform, were engaged in making, or at least advocating policy. For the military officers among the COINdinistas, this was a charge that stung, largely because it was true. Hurt feelings or no, key COINdinistas dispersed from Leavenworth, CENTCOM and military service to occupy important posts in Washington, to write influential books, op-eds and blogs and establish a think tank “home base” in CNAS. Incidentally, I mean this descriptively and not perjoratively; it is simply what happened in the past five years. The COINDinistas are no longer “insurgents” but are the “establishment”.

R2P is following the same COIN pattern of bureaucratic-political proselytization with the accomplished academic theorist Anne-Marie Slaughter as the “Kilcullen of R2P”. As with David Kilcullen’s theory of insurgency, Slaughter’s ideas about sovereignty and R2P, which have gained traction with the Obama administration and in Europe as premises for policy, need to be taken seriously and examined in depth lest we wake up a decade hence with buyer’s remorse. R2P is not simply a cynical fig leaf for great power intervention in the affairs of failed states and mad dictatorships like Gaddafi’s Libya, R2P is also meant to transform the internal character of great powers that invoke it into something else. That may be the most important aspect and primary purpose of the doctrine and the implications are absolutely profound.

Therefore, I am going to devote a series of posts to analyzing the journal article recommended by Dr. Slaughter, “Sovereignty and Power in a Networked World Order“,  which gives a more robust and precise explanation of her ideas regarding international relations, sovereignty, legitimacy, authority and power at greater length than is possible in her op-eds or Atlantic blog. I strongly recommend that you read it and draw your own conclusions, Slaughter’s argument is, after all, about your future.

ADDENDUM – Related Posts:

Slouching Toward Columbia – Guest post: Civilian Protection Policy, R2P, and the Way Forward

Phronesisaical –Dragging History into R2P

Dart-Throwing Chimp – R2P Is Not the New COIN

Committee of Public Safety –With Outstretched Arm | The Committee of Public Safety


Saturday, October 30th, 2010

On the BBC:

Hat tip to SWJ Blog.

David Kilcullen with Diane Sawyer

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Dr. Kilcullen seems to have charmed Diane Sawyer quite handily, who gave a nice plug for his new book Counterinsurgency.

Hat tip to SWJ Blog.

Kilcullen on COIN “Persistent-Presence” vs. “Repetitive Raiding”

Friday, May 7th, 2010

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

I purchased a copy of The Accidental Guerrilla, intending to read it last summer but, being buried under my own academic course work, I was forced to put it aside until recently. I am not finished yet but I can say that Col. Kilcullen has written a seminal, if idiosyncratic, work on the theory and practice of counterinsurgency – no doubt why some reviewers found The Accidental Guerrilla be difficult book to read, one that “…could be like a junior high school student’s attempting “Ulysses.” Or were aggravated by Kilcullen’s format through which he enunciated a more nuanced understanding of the war and COIN than they found politically tolerable. Most readers in this corner of the blogosphere  will find The Accidental Guerrilla an intellectually stimulating book from an author well grounded in the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is the leading theorist of counterinsurgency today.

I would like to take a look at one section where Dr. Kilcullen discusses the merits of “presence” vs. “raiding” in the context of road-building operations in the Kunar and Korengal vallies of Afghanistan by American troops under, successively, LTC. Chris Cavoli and LTC. Bill Ostlund [p. 96]:

Cavoli contrasts this “permanent-presence” methodology with the “repetitive raiding” that has characterized operations at some other times and places. He argues that persistent presence is essentially a “counterpunching” strategy that relies on a cycle of defense and counterattack, in which the presence of the road and Coalition forces protecting and interacting with the population draws the enemy into attacking defended areas, causing him to come to the population and the government – the opposite of the “search and destroy” approach in which security forces “sweep” the countryside looking for the enemy within the population, as if for a needle in a haystack, and often destroy the haystack to find the needle. More particularly, search and destroy operations tend to create a popular backlash and contribute to the “antibody response” that generates large numbers of accidental guerrillas and pushes the population and the enemy together. The persistent-presence method avoids this.

My Comments: 

The context that Kilcullen is writing here is a tactical one but the conceptual conflict of “presence vs. raiding” scales up easily to one of strategy and engages ( or should engage) consideration of how you want to position yourself at the mental and moral levels of war. Colonel  John Boyd, in Patterns of Conflict recommended principles to create strategies and tactics that would: 

  • Morally-mentally-physically isolate adversary from allies or any outside support as well as isolate elements of adversary or adversaries form on another and overwhelm them by being able to penetrate and splinter their moral-mental-physical being at any and all levels.
  • Pump-up our resolve, drain-away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted.
  • Subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s vulnerable, yet critical, connections, centers, and activities that provide cohesion and permit coherent observation-orientation-decision-action in order to dismember organism and isolate remnants for absorption or mop-up.
  • Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive

Abstractly, Kilcullen’s “persistent-presence” has superior strategic qualities – it isolates and demoralizes the enemy and daunts the latently hostile while connecting our side to the population and “pumping up” the morale of allies and sympathizers. The initiative is seized and control of the battleground is determined. Most of the time, this is an advantage, so long as the chosen ground is also tactically defensible, unlike, say at Dien Bien Phu. When Julius Caesar was carrying out his conquest of Gaul, he often divided his legions for their winter quarters, even though this entailed some risk, because doing so reinforced the political spine of Rome’s local allies in tribes of uncertain loyalty and intimidated the malcontents or secured the population against  raiding by still hostile Gauls or Germans from across the Rhine. Caesar did a lot better in Gaul than did the French in Indochina.

The problem, is not Kilcullen’s theory of COIN, which seems to me to be solidly based upon his empirical observation and deep experience in counterinsurgency warfare. Nor is tactical execution by American troops the issue either; while the US/ISAF have had successes and failures, the principles of COIN seem to be widely understood, if not always perfectly implemented. The dilemma is at the intermediate level of “state building”, one Kilcullen’s primary strategic goals in Afghanistan, that is supposed to support the progress made in the villages by COIN operations.  

On COIN specifically, Boyd wrote:

Counter-guerrilla campaign  


  • Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people-rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.*
  • Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances and connect government with grass roots.*
  • Infiltrate guerrilla movement as well as employ population for intelligence about guerrilla plans, operations, and organization.
  • Seal-off guerrilla regions from outside world by diplomatic, psychological, and various other activities that strip-away potential allies as well as by disrupting or straddling communications that connect these regions with outside world.
  • Deploy administrative talent, police, and counter-guerrilla teams into affected localities and regions to: inhibit guerrilla communication, coordination and movement; minimize guerrilla contact with local inhabitants; isolate their ruling cadres; and destroy their infrastructure.
  • Exploit presence of above teams to build-up local government as well as recruit militia for local and regional security in order to protect people from the persuasion and coercion efforts of the guerrilla cadres and their fighting units.
  • Use special teams in a complementary effort to penetrate guerrilla controlled regions. Employ (guerrillas’ own) tactics of reconnaissance, infiltration, surprise hit-and-run, and sudden ambush to: keep roving bands off-balance, make base areas untenable, and disrupt communication with outside world.
  • Expand these complementary security/penetration efforts into affected region after affected region in order to undermine, collapse, and replace guerrilla influence with government influence and control.
  • Visibly link these efforts with local political/economic/social reform in order to connect central government with hopes and needs of people, thereby gain their support and confirm government legitimacy.


  • Break guerrillas’ moral-mental-physical hold over the population, destroy their cohesion, and bring about their collapse via political initiative that demonstrates moral legitimacy and vitality of government and by relentless military operations that emphasize stealth/fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of overall effort.


* If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides! 

Arguably, we cannot realize this kind of political program without a) significantly altering the political culture of Afghanistan which is historically exceptionally hostile to an efficient, centralized state, and b) getting a better set of clients to run the state. Or, c) changing our objectives to ones that are realistic for our time frame, resources and national security interests.

Hamid Karzai is our more humane version of Barbrak Karmal, equally incompetent but more corrupt. Frankly, having stolen the last election and forfeited whatever legitimacy he had in Afghan eyes, Karzai is now a net negative on our efforts and by extending the reach of his government, we alienate every villager and tribesman with whom his officials come into contact. If we are serious, then we should either abandon state-building in Afghanistan and concentrate all our efforts on localities until we secure al Qaida’s destruction in neighboring Pakistan or we should remove Karzai from power and find more effective clients. We need to choose.

If a piece of territory, be it province or nation-state is of no particular intrinsic value to the national interests of the United States, it becomes hard to justify, except upon exigent humanitarian grounds – say, intervening to stop a genocide – a “permanent-presence” COIN operation that lasts for years. It might be better in such places if determined enemies, who are likely to be state supported or at least tolerated non-state actors, faced swiftly dispatched “repetitive raiding” but in a more robust form more properly termed a “punitive expedition“. The the infrastructure that makes the territory militarily useful is systematically and thoroughly destroyed, along with any enemy combatants who assemble to contest the field. Raids, other than neatly targeted assassinations, should not be cruise missile pinpricks but destruction on a scale that General Sherman would find recognizable

Is state-building in Afghanistan and appeasing Pakistan’s military elite our primary national objectives in this war?

If our interest in a regime’s survival is vital, then by all means dig in with a “persistent-presence”. If not, then scale down to a more appropriate level of response.


Dr. Kilcullen has a new book out, Counterinsurgency.

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