Home The Washington Diplomat February 2011

U.S. Takes Page From Kilcullen’s 
Counterinsurgency Handbook

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Over the past decade, the word “insurgency” has steadily gained prominence in the American lexicon. The lengthy U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ensured it.

Both conflicts have been marked by relentless, deadly insurgencies and the Herculean efforts of the United States and her allies to quell them. While the coalition forces provide the brawn to counter insurgents, one man — perhaps more than any other — has supplied the brains.

David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army infantryman, literally wrote the counterinsurgency handbook that many U.S. soldiers now rely on in the field. Over the past decade, he’s worked in Australia’s government and also “on loan” to the U.S. State Department, first as chief strategist in the counterterrorism coordinator’s office, then as special adviser for counterinsurgency to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Kilcullen was also Gen. David Petraeus’s point man in devising the so-called U.S. “surge” in 2007 that helped turn around America’s freefall in Iraq and paved the way for the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces later this year. In just a short span of time, many of the counterinsurgency (COIN) principles that Kilcullen advocated have rewritten the rules of modern warfare. These include not just “holding” but “securing” war-torn areas, protecting civilian populations, and boosting the local government’s legitimacy while fighting insurgents trying to topple that government.

Today, Kilcullen runs a small business in Washington (Caerus Associates) that offers strategies on issues such as poverty and alternative energy in conflict and post-conflict zones across the developing world. He’s also a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.

In addition to his latest book, “Counterinsurgency,” released last year, Kilcullen is the author of “The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One,” which has been widely lauded for helping to illuminate the shadowy world of military insurgencies.

Kilcullen recently talked to The Washington Diplomat about his work, the nature of insurgencies, and the controversial notion — and in his view, necessity — of fighting the so-called “Long War” against global terrorism.

First, it might be helpful to have the authority on counterinsurgency describe what the words “insurgent” and “counterinsurgency” actually mean. Kilcullen readily broke the terms down for the layman.

“An insurgency is an organized movement that is trying to overthrow a state or some other recognized authority,” Kilcullen explained. “It uses violence, political propaganda and subversion.”

“Counterinsurgency is whatever you are doing to counter an insurgency,” he continued. “It’s basically a combination of military, political, economic and informational methods that are designed to stabilize a country affected by insurgency.”

“Stabilize” is a key word here, Kilcullen pointed out. He notes that military might is only about 20 percent of the counterinsurgency equation, but it is an extremely important 20 percent.

“It’s the first 20 percent,” he said, explaining that eradicating corruption and establishing a functioning government, infrastructure and other elements of a successful society comprise the remaining 80 percent. “You need to be doing a hell of a lot more than military programs, but if your military programs aren’t working, it doesn’t matter what else you’re doing because they will never happen. Once you master the military program, you have to work on the other 80 percent.”

It’s also one thing to put down an insurgency by force. It’s another thing to prevent the insurgency from rearing its deadly head over and over again. That’s where intelligent strategy — and patience — come in.

“A lot of what you’re doing in counterinsurgency is about institutional change,” Kilcullen said. “Condi [Rice] used to say to me, ‘Is there anything we can do to make this go quicker? Can we spend more? Put more troops in?’ The answer to that is unfortunately no. Just by its very nature this kind of conflict takes a long time. There is really nothing we can do about that.”

For example, Kilcullen argues that training police forces and rooting out corruption can take a decade or more.

“If the police are abusive or corrupt, you’ve got to change them,” he said. “If you look at the historical record, it usually takes about 10 years to restore a police force. It’s not that it takes us that long to get our act together. It’s because new recruits have to get senior enough in their organization that they start to have authority and change the way the organization does business. It’s almost like a generational change. It takes a long time.”

Kilcullen also said his extensive research (he received a doctorate in politics with an emphasis on the effects of guerrilla warfare on non-state political systems in traditional societies) proves that insurgencies take time to conquer.

“If you look at the broad sweep of history, there have been about 360 examples of counterinsurgency over the last 200 years,” he said. “That’s a large enough number that we can draw some conclusions about what’s normal in this kind of environment. The average counterinsurgency lasts about 15 years. Some insurgencies last a hell of a lot longer — sometimes a generation or two.”

All of that adds up to the grim reality that the war in Afghanistan is destined to last years, according to Kilcullen, echoing “Long War” proponents such as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, speaking in 2006 at the National Press Club, was among the first to publicly articulate the view that the war on terrorism would be a lengthy one.

Rumsfeld argued that the United States was engaged in a “generational conflict akin to the Cold War, the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.”

However, Kilcullen, who has called the initial invasion of Iraq a terrible and costly mistake that detracted from the real battle in Afghanistan, admits that conventional warfare is too expensive for any nation to perpetuate indefinitely.

He noted that the war in Afghanistan is costing the U.S. about $100 million per day while the war in Iraq cost $400 million per day at its peak. Other estimates put both figures much higher, depending on how you define war-related costs. Either way, the price tag for the Afghan war — especially with the United States fighting a depressed economy back home — has been staggering: roughly $100 billion a year on a country that had a gross domestic product of $2 billion during the invasion in 2001.

Already the conflict in Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history, with public support for the war steadily waning as time drags on. After President Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops at the end of 2009, there are currently about 100,000 American troops in the country. A drawdown is scheduled to start this July, although the exact amount of troops that might be pulled out remains very much in flux. Likewise, the official departure date that’s been floated around — the end of 2014 — is far from guaranteed because it’s contingent on a establishing a viable Afghan security force, a tall order, and even then it’s likely that tens of thousands of U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan for years to come.

That’s not to mention the rampant corruption and widespread ineffectiveness of the central government in Kabul, or the insurgent sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan that continue to thwart U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

To that end, Kilcullen criticizes the July 2011 drawdown target as unrealistic, arguing that it damages Afghan confidence in the U.S. commitment. And while that commitment can’t be open-ended either, Kilcullen admits it will not be easy or quick. At the same time, however, he says the military should refocus its long-term aims, creating a cost-effective counterinsurgency strategy that addresses the particular threat level without draining precious resources.

“You can do long wars or you can do expensive wars, but it’s very hard to do both,” Kilcullen said. “We know this war is going to be a long war because these kinds of conflicts are. We have to find cheap ways to do it.”

He noted that Osama bin Laden in 2004 made a pronouncement that Muslim extremists’ strategy was to bleed the United States financially through a long series of attacks and insurgencies.

“If that’s the strategy, we better be working hard to find cheap ways to counter the threat,” he said. “Large numbers of troops are highly expensive. Large-scale interventions where we take over whole countries and try to restructure complete regions and a new way of life just because there are 150 terrorists there is not effective.

“It’s very cheap to be an insurgent,” Kilcullen added. “It’s very expensive to be a counterinsurgent.”

Kilcullen has earned widespread recognition for his clear, practical observations on warfare based on field research — and innovative thinking.

Late one night in 2006, Kilcullen opened a bottle of Scotch, poured himself a stiff drink, and began to write out his advice to soldiers actively working in the counterinsurgency arena. The result — a compendium of recommendations titled “Twenty-Eight Articles” — has been adopted by legions of soldiers fighting insurgents in the Middle East, as well as the Iraqi Army. The 11-page document is a fascinating, gritty manual that gives readers a sense of what it’s like working on a counterinsurgency campaign in the real world — “at night, with the GPS down, the media criticizing you, the locals complaining in a language you don't understand, and an unseen enemy killing your people by ones and twos,” as Kilcullen bluntly writes.

For instance, among his articles, he advises soldiers to engage the women, but beware the children: “Most insurgent fighters are men. But in traditional societies, women are hugely influential in forming the social networks that insurgents use for support. Co-opting neutral or friendly women, through targeted social and economic programs, builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine the insurgents,” he wrote. “But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from. The insurgents are watching: they will notice a growing friendship between one of your people and a local child, and either harm the child as punishment, or use them against you. Similarly, stop people throwing candies or presents to children. It attracts them to our vehicles, creates crowds the enemy can exploit, and leads to children being run over. Harden your heart and keep the children at arm’s length.”

Another piece of advice: Travel light. “You will be weighed down with body armor, rations, extra ammunition, communications gear, and a thousand other things. The enemy will carry a rifle or RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], a shemagh [traditional headdress] and a water bottle if he is lucky. Unless you ruthlessly lighten your load and enforce a culture of speed and mobility, the insurgents will consistently out-run and out-maneuver you. But in lightening your load, make sure you can always reach back to call for firepower or heavy support if needed.”

Kilcullen said he’s pleased that so many fighting men and women have used the manual successfully (on his many trips to Afghanistan, he is often asked to sign copies of it), but it also worries him.

“It’s gratifying but it’s also frightening because there is no one answer for this stuff,” Kilcullen said. “I wrote it in one night over a bottle of whiskey — kind of without much thought. I just kind of blathered on the latest collected wisdom as an e-mail, and that’s the one that’s become the most widely read.”

Kilcullen argues that the best way to avoid long, drawn-out counterinsurgency operations is to become excellent at doing them.
“A lot of potential adversaries have said there is no point fighting the Americans conventionally because they will kick your ass,” he told The Diplomat. “If you want to get out of counterinsurgency, get good at counterinsurgency. If you want to be soaked up doing counterinsurgency forever, the best way to get into that terrible situation is to demonstrate that you’re not going to learn from your mistakes. If you learn and develop the ability to do it well, people are going to stop doing it.”

Kilcullen rejects the notion — perpetuated by skeptics of the war who argue that the U.S. presence is actually fueling terrorism — that radical Islamic insurgents can’t be defeated. He points to the initial invasion of Afghanistan as proof, when the Taliban was ousted and “very large numbers of people working at the senior level of the insurgency actually surrendered in 2001 and just went home to try and be normal Afghan citizens.”

“We screwed it up,” he lamented. “We went and invaded Iraq and took our eye off the ball. We didn’t commit the resources to the peace that we needed. We treated it as a done deal when it was only partly completed. It’s like we walked off the football field after the first quarter.

He adds: “It’s a bit of a copout to say these guys are unbeatable, no one can beat them, and we’re stupid for trying — actually, no.”

Having said that, the counterinsurgency expert cautioned that it’s still to early — even a decade in — to predict “victory” in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s achievable,’ Kilcullen said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll achieve it. Ultimately, the only people who can stabilize a community are members of that community itself. The role of the international community is to create the environment that allows people to solve their problems in a peaceful way. We’ve made huge progress on the military threat, but it will all be for naught if we don’t do the work we need to do on corruption and bad behavior and abuse by the government.”


About the Author

 Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 24, 2014