Kilcullen’s New Urban Counterinsurgency Plan

David Kilcullen is the brilliant but largely invisible architect of America’s failed counter-insurgency policies in Iraq. According to Bob Woodward, Kilcullen was the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus during the “surge” of targeted killings of Sunni insurgents, which was coupled with the US-funded alliance with competing Sunni tribes known as “The Awakening”, in 2007-8. The Pentagon declared the victory over those insurgents was based on a two-pronged approach of killing the “irreconcilables” while arming and funding the “reconcilables.” The terminology was Petraeus’ but the doctrine was Kilcullen’s.

“While many boast of victory, defeat is always an orphan,” President John Kennedy said after his Bay of Pigs debacle. Now that those insurgents the US surge “defeated” are rising again in the Sunni regions of northwest Iraq and pockets below Baghdad, a review of Kilcullen’s (and Petraeus’) strategic thinking should be in order. But the public debate is politicized narrowly into whether to blame George Bush, Barack Obama, or both, not the underlying national security debates about counterterrorism or counterinsurgency.

Some will assert there was nothing wrong with the US military doctrines, but that the “surge” – and the war itself – should have continued indefinitely, regardless of casualties, cost and public opinion. Others might blame the stubborn al-Maliki for failing to share power and resources with the Sunnis. Whether or not that was a foolish liberal hope, the US never used its might to block al-Maliki’s Shiite regime from imposing sectarian exclusion on the disempowered Sunni minority. Now it seems far too late.

Kilcullen apparently has moved on too. He was an original proponent of the Long War doctrine that underlies our military policy, a war against Muslim insurgents projected to last fifty to eighty years, approximately the length of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In the Long War perspective, Iraq is only a phase, a “small war within a long one”, as he has dubbed it in a subtitle. Kilcullen also is a critic of Obama’s drone war strategy too, on the hawkish grounds that thousands of advisers and ground forces are necessary to winning.

But Kilcullen’s recent writings leave Iraq and Afghanistan behind to concentrate on the greatest current threat he sees: how to keep malignant, violent, and irrational masses of desperate people at bay in a coming urban apocalypse. Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains, the Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford, 2013) is an important read for anyone seeking to avoid the wars he is preparing for.

Of interest to the Left, Kilcullen’s new book is blurbed by my old friend and colleague, Mike Davis, who writes on the book’s cover that, “Although (I am) an enemy of the state, I must concede that this is a brilliant book by the most unfettered and analytically acute mind in the military intelligencia.”

Kilcullen lists Davis’ Planet of the Slums (2006) as a seminal work on the coming chaos centered in urban slums. Both authors are entranced by dystopian specters of anti-social violence and breakdown arising from the underclass. Here the two thinkers part: the specter of urban collapse frightens Kilcullen, while Davis is often intrigued by its possibilities. He has written sympathetically on LA’ street gangs, and recently wrote A Brief History of the Car Bomb, which Kilcullen finds to be authoritative. Davis holds a MacArthur Genius Award, which Kilcullen, an Australian, must envy.

Kilcullen’s picture of the violent urbanized planet is “littoral” (coastal), swamped by population growth, paralyzed by lack of services and infrastructure collapse, and connected like never before by the new communications technologies. Such places turn “feral”, he writes, with swarming chaotic mobs that can only be controlled, if at all, by a heightened police surveillance and pacification programs. An enthusiast for biological metaphors, Kilcullen defines the “feral city” as one where once-“domesticated” humans have “regressed to the wild”, the same terminology, which was applied to the young black men falsely accused of the 1989 rape during a “wilding” spree in Central Park. Another blurber of Kilcullen’s book, former NATO Commander James Stavridis, sees Kilcullen’s predictions as “part Blade Runner and part Minority Report.”

Kilcullen identifies his new enemy as the multiple non-state armed actors which include “urban street gangs, communitarian or sectarian militias, insurgents, bandits, pirates, armed smugglers or drug traffickers, violent organized criminal networks, vigilantes and armed public defender groups, terrorist organizations, warlord armies and certain paramilitary forces.” (p. 126)

Whew. If that’s not enough to make the reader sweat, Kilcullen warns that the violent threats often come from fluid, self-perpetuating outbursts by handfuls of people who briefly centralize before they evaporate. He quotes Marshall MacLuhan who predicted in 1971 that World War Three would be an information war, though McLuhan’ version was more symbolic.  American security forces have to come down from the mountainous rural areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, he argues, and engages on the wired battlegrounds portrayed by Davis.

Kilcullen here might want to borrow more from Davis’ Marxism and less from his dystopian reflections, since there is virtually no reference to class as a cause or solution in this 300-page work.  One reason for the vast urban migrations of our era is the globalization of corporate and financial capital. When NAFTA’s privatization came to Mexico, it caused displacement among thousands of campesinos and indigenous people who trekked north to the big cities. When private companies left Los Angeles and urban America for cheap labor havens abroad, tens of thousands of young people of color were stranded in Watts with few opportunities beyond the drug trade and gangs. Either Kilcullen doesn’t think there are root causes of the upheavals, a position taken by moralistic neo-conservatives, or believes it is too late for anything but security measures. To be fair, he does incorporate a few lines about the crisis of inequality on page 247, speculating that while, “inequality per se might not be the problem…inequality without opportunity…can create lethal, city-killing resentments.” He goes no further, except to hope that civic society will manage to generate that quota of hope necessary to keep people clinging to reform above the abyss.

Kilcullen seems blocked by his conceptual model from seeing why people might freely choose revolution or violence as options. Since his blockage is common among national security theorists, it’s worth deconstructing briefly. In his model, radical social movements give rise to power-driven “predators” who seek control over innocent populations. Whether racketeers, underground communist revolutionaries, al-Qaeda recruiters, or other non-state actors, they act out a script of top-down manipulation. They use grievances to mobilize recruits, “blood them” through violent confrontations with rival groups, “groom them” through involvement in illicit actions, and lead them into “an ever-greater level of illegality and alienation from society,” finally absorbing them into a trap they cannot leave. Kilcullen compares the process to luring fish into a cage before shutting the gate.

This “theory of competitive control” is Kilcullen’s effort to explain why insurgencies develop parallel power structures of their own, either underground or in “liberated zones.” In previous writings, Kilcullen has described the trapped villagers as being “accidental guerrillas” because they have been coerced to choose the insurgent side or face terrible consequences. We’ve seen their fate played out in many Hollywood gangster movies.

The basic flaw in this model is Kilcullen’s inability to accept that the nationalist, radical or revolutionary anti-Western aspirations of these “innocent” populations can be sincere and independent. Instead, he argues that people are manipulated into taking sides based on the need to keep their families safe. They secretly help the extremists because they have to, not because they want to. To think otherwise would require Kilcullen to review his own assumptions about race, class, imperialism, colonialism, religion, and a host of factors that affect the choices of people under oppression. Usually there is no “accident” about joining or protecting a guerrilla movement; it is preferable to turning them over to an alien power.

The same fallacy lay at the root of President Kennedy’s dream of the Green Berets: that somehow American fighters wearing jungle fatigues could win the villagers of Latin America away from the Cuban-inspired guerrillas. Being liberals, it was difficult for the Kennedy generation to realize that they ultimately were on the side of the old order, however reformed, for example, in denying colonial intent but taking over the role of the French in Indochina or the British in modern Iraq. Try as they did to invent a “Third Way”, they failed again and again., and when a real “third way” was presented by the Non-Aligned Conference, the US was opposed to its left-leaning neutralism between the Cold War blocs.

Two of Kilculllen’s intellectual forerunners died during military missions. Bernard Fall was killed in South Vietnam in 1967 during a US Marine operation in Hue, the coastal city then south of the Demilitarized Zone. Another of Kilcullen’s heroes, John Paul Vann, was a devotee of counterinsurgency who died in a US helicopter crash in June 1972. Vann was a legendary figure who befriended such young reporters as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Daniel Ellsberg, whom Vann mentored, was at his funeral. Sheehan’s biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie, is stillconsidered an authoritative history of the conflict. Kilcullen, like Fall and Vann, is often in dangerous zones, practicing what he calls “armed social science.”

Following Fall and Vann, Kilcullen has joined a virtual national security cult which has evolved since the Vietnam experience. These cosmopolitan, mostly liberal, warriors originated with the Kennedy administration’s counterinsurgency approach of isolating the “unreconcilibles” while winning the “hearts and minds” of the peasantry they were said to prey on In the late Sixties in South Vietnam,  the doctrine crystallized in the so-called Phoenix Program, a CIA-led effort to identify and capture villagers suspected of operating as agents in the Vietcong’s clandestine infrastructure in health care, education and literary, rice-growing and local security operations. Vann was heavily engaged in this so-called “pacification” program, a term which was borrowed from the French. These village networks were much easier targets for the US and Saigon forces than the battle-hardened Vietcong and allied North Vietnamese armed forces hidden in jungle sanctuaries or underground tunnels.

The effect of the Phoenix Program, revealed in US congressional testimony, was to kill, capture, imprison and torture many thousands of South Vietnamese, confining the rest in heavily-secured “strategic hamlets” similar to the reservations built in America’s Plains Wars or the “gated communities” where countless Iraqis live under camera surveillance behind blast walls, amidst check points and patrols.

The Phoenix Program finally folded amidst protests against widespread torture by South Vietnamese forces and their American trainers and advisers. The Vietnam war wound down to its final debacle, which should have left the Phoenix Program in the dustbin of history.

But it wasn’t to be. As in legend, the Phoenix rose again from the ashes. Military leaders like David Petraeus forged a new narrative from defeat, arguing that the Phoenix Program would have succeeded if the American liberals hadn’t ended the war prematurely. Few in the ranks of the peace movement or mainstream media even noticed the legend reviving, since it seemed so beyond any rational account of the war. Yet Petraeus restored the myth as official doctrine while in Iraq, then incorporated Phoenix as a forgotten model of “success” in the 2007 revised US Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual written in collaboration with Harvard liberals at the Carr Center To drive home the point, Kilcullen himself wrote a huge document on countering insurgency which called for a “global Phoenix Program.”

Given all this history re-invention in the wake of failure, Kilcullen recalls the “best and brightest” in David Halberstam’s history of the intellectuals who thought us into the graves of Vietnam. Or perhaps he resembles the Great Gatsby who, along with his upper-class friends, never cleaned up after the carnage they created. One wonders how Kilcullen plans to isolate the “real terrorists” from the millions of innocents at their websites in quiet desperation or who, like Mike Davis, already consider themselves to be enemies of the state. Is cyber-warfare what lies beyond counterinsurgency? Will Anonymous be the equivalent of the Vietcong “headquarters” which was never located? If the enemy is information in our heads, who is the sniper and who the Pied Piper?

One thing is certain. Despite Kilcullen’s trouble in accounting for the past, he always is on the frontlines of the military future, never more so than in this age of the Internet Guerrilla.


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