Book review: the rising tide and urban insurgency

Out of the Mountains by David Kilcullen

‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.’

-T.E. Lawrence

This perhaps famous piece of advice by the First World War legend T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) is something that popped in my mind while reading one of the most interesting books I have picked up in years: Out of the Mountains (2013, Oxford University Press) by David Kilcullen, one of the counterinsurgency experts of the modern age. To be sure, this is no book solely about Arabia or its surroundings. It’s not even a book solely about counterinsurgency. Even more so than one of Kilcullen’s previous books, The Accidental Guerilla, Out of the Mountains is mainly a theoretical treatise about one of the current and future problems of our planet. (continued below)


Conflict (armed or otherwise) is mostly a social interaction, and thus takes place where people live. Where and how people live (the conflict climate, so to speak) is currently driven by four megatrends: population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness. What this basically means is that (1) there are more and more of us, (2) more and more of us live densely packed into small urbanized areas (3) close to the shore of either lake, river or ocean, and (4) we’re more and more connected through internet, phones, TV, radio or other communication technology.

In countries with functioning governments and a strong economy, a (reasonably) high standard of living and strong civil society this is already strenuous enough – but manageable. The problem is that for the largest part, these four megatrends are taking place in countries with no or only partially functioning governance and low – in some areas within those countries even falling – living standards.

Population growth is forcing people to go where there’s some work. This is causing urbanization. In a large number of cities around the world, public services are stretched beyond their breaking point, causing the rise of large shantytowns in which there’s no government presence. This power vacuum tends to get filled by organized crime and/or insurgents. Often they simply take the place of the government through what Kilcullen calls a system of competitive control – the insurgent group simply starts doing tasks the government can’t, or won’t, do. To top it all off, this is all taking place in cities close to large bodies of water with an immense amount of traffic flow above, below, on, or close to this water – and its inhabitants are more and more interconnected through communication technology.

Kilcullen mentions some examples. Of those, the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai in 2008 are the most telling. For all its high-rise luxury and tourist visitors, most of Mumbai is a mega-slum close to the Indian Ocean, situated close to one of the busiest international ports of the region. First, the attackers used their time to get a feel of the flow of the city. They scouted their (social) route of approach in such a way that they would use busy places with barely any government presence. Second, they used the immense water-based traffic flow as an infiltration cover. Third, they chose targets with a large number of tourists present, such as popular hotels. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, they operated in small teams connected, through cell phones, to what comes down to a Tactical Operations Center in a house somewhere in Pakistan. There, their commanders kept a close eye on Internet news feeds (the Indian government was notoriously leaky with information about their counterterrorist plans) and fed important information back to Mumbai so that the ground teams had Situational Awareness to stay one step ahead and execute their plans with brutal success. Because of this approach, the Mumbai attacks of 2008 are still one of the more high-profile attacks in recent history. In some ways, the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January and the Paris attacks of November 2015 echo this approach.

So, what to do about all of this? Well, there’s no simple solution to this. Counterinsurgency in general is already a complicated subject – let alone when it takes place in an unplanned urban mess close to the ocean. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, militaries have a tendency to kill a city in order to save it. Not strictly in a literal sense, although that regretfully happens as well. Through the establishment of checkpoints and military presence, the city loses its life – its social blood is unable to go where it normally would.

From a strategic perspective one of the solutions is co-design (this is where Lawrence’s quote popped into my head). No plan, however well intended or executed, will succeed if the local population or government doesn’t want it to succeed. Outside experts, however smart or knowledgeable, often lack the local contextual knowledge to make their plans work. This is where the locals come in. Vice versa, they often don’t have the skills, tools or resources to combat their problems on their own. In a counterinsurgency security is either a very large part or a very small part of the total solution, but however big of a part it is, it is most definitely the first problem to tackle. This is very often a problem in which outside help (kinetic or non-kinetic) will be necessary.

Being a former military officer, Kilcullen ends with some advice to military leadership and political decision makers. First, military forces in an urban insurgency mission need the ability to be flexible. They need to be able to aggregate and disaggregate quickly, meaning size and force composition needs to be adapted to a certain situation incredibly quickly. Second, they need special tools for the littoral job: basically, they need mini gunboats capable of operating in shallow waters at speed. Some Special Forces components are already making extensive use of such riverine craft, but they need to become as ubiquitous as the MRAPs in Afghanistan or Iraq. Third, troops need to make a change of mindset. Deployments will change. Whereas the last ten to fifteen years we saw the rise of enormous FOBs which were basically a city within a city (straining already taxed local resources even further) the future is probably more bare-bones. As Kilcullen says: ‘Troops need to become hikers again, not campers.’

Most importantly, troops and politicians must understand that rural counterinsurgency operations will most likely not be the new normal. They must not make the easy mistake of preparing for the last war.

Further reading and references

Chandrasekaran, R. (2006) Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone Bloomsbury Publishing

Kilcullen, D. (2013) Out of the Mountains: The Rise of the Urban Guerilla Oxford University Press

Lawrence, T.E. (1997) Seven Pillars of Wisdom Wordsworth Editions (first published in 1935)


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