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Counterinsurgency – David Kilcullen | Hand of Reason

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Counterinsurgency – David Kilcullen

Following the success and praise of his previous book, The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen has released a compilation of his previously published articles on counterinsurgency that have impacted and evolved the theoretical understanding of the field. From the “Twenty-eight Articles” that initially went viral to a summary of his doctoral dissertation, Kilcullen’s analysis can now be located in one book. Kilcullen, one of the leading counterinsurgency analysts, provides a wealth of information for COIN practitioners that stems from extensive hands-on experience.

Kilcullen’s Take-Home Points:

  • There is no panacea of counterinsurgency. Every operation must be specifically tailored to the environment and populace, accounting for the unique cultural and governmental aspects that initially gave rise to the insurgency. Thus, organizational learning for counterinsurgents is absolutely essential (1-3).
  • There are only two fundamentals to every counterinsurgency. First, the driving force behind the insurgency must be understood. Second, the well-being of civilians must be at the forefront and well ahead of any attempt to kill the enemy (3-4).
  • Critics of counterinsurgency claim that a government or military can kill its way to victory in an insurgency. Kilcullen points out that even highly aggressive and ruthless counterinsurgent operations distinguish between the enemy and the populace (5-7).
  • The center of gravity in an insurgency is its connectivity to the general population (7).
  • Both democracies and autocracies do poorly when confronting insurgencies that are not domestic when compared to insurgencies from within. This is due to the difficulty of understanding the unique characteristics of another culture and society. Furthermore, any expeditionary force will eventually withdraw, leaving them at a disadvantage since all actors know their presence is not a constant. Lastly, there is another government influencing the environment, complicating the operation and reducing cohesiveness (11-12).
  • Kilcullen’s first essay in the book, “Twenty-eight Articles,” contains 28 points that counterinsurgents should know before deploying.  The majority of the articles target a military audience, points pertaining to a wider audience are summarized below (29-49).
  • Counterinsurgency operations should begin in secure areas and slowly expand outward; do not attempt to gain control of areas that are firmly under the insurgents’ control until substantial progress has been made (37-38).
  • All actions should account for a global audience and seek to persuade that audience (39-40).
  • Local women can be valuable assets but beware of children who are often recruited by insurgents (40-41).
  • Counterinsurgency is primarily performing the work of civil servants while armed. Operations will consist of addressing political and societal problems while being shot at (43).
  • Keep programs small and avoid scaling them throughout the entire operating environment (44).
  • Do not attack the enemy, attack the enemy’s strategy and deny the enemy’s objectives (45).
  • Extraction plans must be kept secret (46).
  • The second article of Kilcullen focuses on suggested metrics to evaluate the progress of the Afghanistan counterinsurgency. As Kilcullen notes, any metrics can be quickly outdated as the insurgency evolves. Nevertheless, metrics should be designed to evaluate the local population, the host-nation’s government, the security forces, and the insurgents of any counterinsurgency operation (51-76).
  • Kilcullens’ third essay is an abridged version of his doctoral dissertation. Using Indonesian insurgency as a case study, Kilcullen concludes that when central power structures are weakened from a number of factors, local leaders can develop political and military power, using coercion through insurgency or guerrilla campaigns to diffuse power from the central authority to local actors (82-83).
  • Environmental factors can exacerbate the diffusion of power.  Topographically isolated areas, scattered population groupings, poor infrastructure, severe terrain, and traditional social hierarchies are more prone to a loss of control by a central authority (83).
  • The Indonesian government defeated the Darul Islam insurgency in West Java with the implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy: “Planning Guidance for Perfecting Peace and Security” (PK4). The strategy involved classifying areas as government controlled “A” areas, contested “B” areas, and insurgent controlled “C” areas. Once control was consolidated in A areas, civic action and psychological operations were undertaken in conjunction with large-scale cordon-and-search operations in C areas. In two years, the strategy had defeated an insurgency that had proved incredibly resilient for the preceding twelve years (90-91).
  • PK4 utilized a unique cordon-and-search operation that enabled the Indonesian military to conduct operations with a minimal number of troops. Traditional cordon-and-search operations require a large degree of manpower to perform effectively. The Indonesian military formed a perimeter around a C area, an insurgent controlled hill, by taking civilians in the area and placing them into a cordon. A small surveillance element would oversee operations and require each village chief to hand over a certain number of people that were involved in the insurgency. This tactic is known as pager betis (91-92).
  • The Indonesian army learned five lessons from the conflict that it would implement in future insurgent campaigns. [1] Pagar batis is incredibly effective. [2] A focus should be given to destroying insurgent cells, a counter-force approach. [3] Decapitating an insurgent movement can be instrumental. [4] Utilizing local militias is essential. [5] Special operations play a key role in the implementation of operations. These lessons should not be transferred to other counterinsurgency operations necessarily; their success depended on unique circumstances. For example, a decapitation strategy worked so well because Darul Islam was a hierarchical structure (93-94).
  • The Indonesian army attempted to apply the same techniques against the FRETILIN insurgency in East Timor and resulted in a stalemate. The Indonesians’ inability to tailor counterinsurgency operations to the unique characteristics of the conflict resulted in failure. Because the terrain did not allow an easy encirclement of insurgent areas, pagar betis was completely ineffective. Furthermore, the low population density meant there was not a surplus in labor within villages for the cordon operations, and food and water supplies quickly became a problem when people were removed from their villages. As opposed to the predominately Muslim population of West Java, most of the East Timor residents are Catholic. This increased social divides between the populace and the military—also predominantly Muslim—and reduced the military’s effectiveness. Lastly, FRETILIN had a network structure which is highly resistant to a decapitation strategy (97-102).
  • The globalization of information has given insurgents the ability to impose political and economic costs on counterinsurgencies through a global audience. Unless governments also adapt to this new communication environment, counterinsurgents will be at a disadvantage (102-104).
  • The fourth article is a combat monograph of a politically sensitive skirmish on the border of East and West Timor between Australian forces, the Indonesian military, and militia forces supported by Indonesia. Kilcullen negotiated a cease-fire with the Indonesian forces, addressed the media in an effort to prevent the incident from becoming an international incident, and endured a UN investigation following the incident. The incident was primarily the result of poor mapping and a lack of consensus on the exact location of the border (109-145).
  • Kilcullen provides a number of lessons for combat forces that he learned from the skirmish. Examples include: combat performance is never as good as performance during training, poor mapping is not an excuse for poor navigation, patrols should be planned thoroughly, contact drills should be practiced daily, personal equipment should be ruthlessly stripped down to bare essentials, and language skills must be developed within a military (137-145).
  • The origins of insurgency are similar to that of government. An insurgency is a group of non-state actors gaining local influence through the exercise of law and order, specifically through dispute resolution and mediation. This influence can then be translated into formal political authority through the process of state formation from the bottom-up (149).
  • A primary insight of “classical” counterinsurgency theory is that insurgents challenge a state by preventing the government from performing its functions such as the monopoly on force, local-level political legitimacy, the rule of law, taxation, control of movement, and regulation of the economy (149).
  • Support of the people does not cause an insurgents’ strength; the strength of the insurgents produce popular support. People support the organization they believe is most capable in providing stability and security (151-152).
  • There is a lack of a generalized theory of state formation from the bottom-up. Most international actors pursue top-down state formation which is not as effective at bottom-up strategies in post-conflict environments. This is a key problem in Afghanistan. State centric policies will not succeed when confronting the Taliban and priority should be given to enhancing local institutions and security (155-159).
  • Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism professionals need to communicate better with the peace-building and development community (160).
  • In Afghanistan, top priority should be given to anticorruption action, governance reform, creating a functioning government at the local level, and making people feel safe (160).
  • The failures of Afghanistan stem from a failure in securing legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people (160).
  • Terror is a tactic of insurgency. The War on Terror is not a conflict against terrorism but a defensive war against a globalized Islamist insurgency and should be approached as such. Counterinsurgency doctrine is more relevant to this conflict than counterterrorism doctrine (165).
  • Classical counterinsurgency theory has its limitations. It was designed to respond to defeat an insurgency in a single country by the host nation. Complex systems analysis can overcome this limitation and provide additional insight. In short, complex systems analysis reveals that the principle strength in a global insurgency is the links between organizations. Sever the links and the global Islamist insurgency no longer poses a threat to the international order. Kilcullen terms this strategy “disaggregation” (166-167).
  • There are eight basic types of links: [1] ideological, [2] linguistic and cultural, [3] personal history, [4] family relationships, [5] financial [6], operational and planning,  [7] propaganda, and [8] doctrine, techniques, and procedures (175-181).
  • Ayman al Zawahiri, the main al-Qaeda operational planner, articulated al-Qaeda’s strategy in two phases. The first would focus on the Middle-East, force the U.S. out of the region, and restore the caliphate. The second stage would use the caliphate to wage a jihad against the West and reorder the international system to include the Muslim world in a dominant role (168).
  • The global Islamist insurgency consists of numerous organizations and groups that are not centrally controlled by al-Qaeda. While ideological and tactical similarities exist, there are also distinct differences (169-170).
  • The theatres of the Americas, Western Europe, and Australasia do not have ongoing Islamist insurgencies. Insurgents use these theatres for subversion, fundraising, and organizational development. The Iberian Peninsula and Maghreb, Greater Middle East, East Africa, The Caucasus and European Russia, South and Central Asia, and Southeast Asia do have active Islamist insurgencies in addition to an active al-Qaeda presence (169-175).
  • Many of the actors involved in these insurgencies predate the recent global insurgency by decades and have little connection to it. Others are deeply involved and may prey on local groups to further their own ends (181).
  • The military activities of these networks are subservient to the other shared activities in which they participate. In other words, these insurgent networks can be described as a variant of a traditional Middle Eastern patronage network. They resemble a tribal group or organized crime syndicate more closely than a military organization (183).
  • Insurgency paradigms more accurately describe the global Islamist insurgency than terrorist stereotypes (186-190).
  • Considering the lack of a global government, classical counterinsurgency will not work. Only a global government could provide the degree of integrated operations to make classical counterinsurgency a successful approach (191).
  • Applying complex systems analysis to insurgencies finds several new insights, revealing them to be: [1] social systems, [2] energetically open but organizationally closed, [3] self-organizing systems, [4] nonequilibrium dissipative structures, [4] greater than the sum of their parts, [5] actors within ecosystems, [6] subject to theatres that have an adaptational, evolutionary dynamic (193-196).
  • Just like organic systems, insurgencies comprise seven elements: [1] nodes, [2] links, [3] boundary, [4] subsystems, [5] boundary interactions, [6] inputs, and [7] outputs (196-198).
  • Targeting the links, outputs, and inputs is more effective than targeting individual nodes (195).
  • The hierarchy of the globalized insurgency is a virtual state. It controls no territory but competes with world governments by controlling distributed systems that form elements of state power (200).
  • Local insurgent groups will disagree with globalized insurgents where different cultural norms conflict. This divergence can be exploited by counterinsurgents (203).
  • Not only are insurgencies complex systems, they are complex adaptive systems. The most adaptive groups within an insurgency will be the strongest (205).
  • With enough energy input from external circumstances over time, insurgencies can reach a “critical mass” and become self-sustaining. At this point, addressing the societal dilemmas or structures that gave rise to the insurgency will not eliminate support for it. This also means that the global insurgency may not be primarily fought in the Middle East but in Southeast Asia if its allowed to “go critical” (205-207).
  • The failure in Vietnam for the United States was not a result of an inability to attack a wide range of the elements that comprise an insurgent system. Contrary to popular opinion, the counterinsurgent strategy was fairly successful. However, its success sparked a wider war by provoking a crossborder invasion by North Vietnam. At this point, there was little political will to continue, resulting in withdrawal and failure (208-210).
  • The greatest threat to the counterinsurgency in Iraq is a lack of political will that results in premature withdrawal (211).
  • Each theatre and insurgency must receive a tailored systems analysis, not a template counterinsurgency strategy from other theatres and operations (211).
  • The current strategy of aggregation in the War on Terror—lumping all terrorism, failed states, rogue states, and strategic competitors together and treating them as a single entity—has the potential for strategic overreach, exhaustion of political will, and failure (213).
  • A strategy of disaggregation would focus on: [1] interdicting links between theatres, [2] denying regional and global actors the ability to link and exploit local actors, [3] disrupting flows of information, personnel, finance, and technology within the insurgency, [4] denying sanctuary areas, [5] isolating extremists from local populations, [6] disrupting inputs like personnel, money, an information from external actors, [7] preventing or ameliorating local communal and sectarian conflicts (214-215).

The Bottom Line:

This is not the best book for those new to the study of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen’s book will aid those with a foundation in classical counterinsurgency theory as well as a general knowledge of the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq more so than the general audience. For practitioners and scholars of COIN, this book is essential if the reader is unfamiliar with Kilcullen’s writings. For the general audience or those that already follow the work of Kilcullen, there are likely more pressing books to give priority to.


In Kilcullen’s last essay, he focuses on viable strategies to defeat the current global Islamist insurgency that makes up the War on Terror. However, he neglects to examine whether or not it’s even possible to mobilize a global Muslim populace in a global insurgency. He readily admits the cultural differences that exist within and between insurgencies that can decrease operational capabilities but does not apply this same concept to the Islamist societies. Indeed, nationalism within Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, has not been readily adopted, facing fierce resistance towards efforts to consolidate state institutions and identities. If states are having such difficulties in unifying a populace, a global jihadist movement is unlikely to fair much better at a larger scale. The emergence of a Muslim caliphate that is directly opposed to the West is no small undertaking and requires a substantial degree of analysis and evidence before national security policy can developed in anticipation of it. While Kilcullen offers a highly intelligent strategy to combat radical Islamist terrorism through “disaggregation,” his implicit assumption that this insurgency possesses legitimate challenges to the West may be overstated.

While Kilcullen’s emphasis on a population-centric approach to COIN, the importance alleviating suffering for the populace may be overstated. Some scholars have claimed that civilian control methods that also force civilians to endure hardship can be effective in an insurgency. Kilcullen represents one of the more prominent experts that recommend alleviating as much suffering as possible for the populace and the reader should be aware of critiques of that perspective. For a recent debate between the two perspectives, John A. Nagl and Gian P. Gentile each wrote two articles debating the topic in Joint Force Quarterly 58.

Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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