On Political Books

November/ December 2013 Guerrillas in the Midst

Why our next war will be fought in cities.

By Shawn Brimley

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla
by David Kilcullen
Oxford University Press, 352 pp.


Two years after former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates left the Pentagon, he bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” With U.S. troops home from Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan—and as the recent debate concerning potential U.S. involvement in Syria underscores—the American people are decidedly uninterested in sending their young men and women again into combat overseas.

But as Leon Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The unfortunate truth is that however unpopular the cause or circumstance, the United States will encounter war again. It is therefore incumbent on America’s leaders—both civilian and military—to prepare for what that future war might require. Those leaders ought to read David Kilcullen’s new book closely.

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla is an ambitious effort to describe how twenty-first-century conflict is migrating away from small mountain villages, farming areas, and frontier valleys of places like Afghanistan into sprawling cities like Mumbai or Mogadishu, where ubiquitous technology is enabling groups to establish networks of influence that are eroding the ability of governments to retain and exercise power and defend their citizens. Kilcullen could not have known just how timely and tragically prescient his new book would turn out to be. In the week before it was set for release, more than seventy people lay dead in an upmarket Nairobi mall, while al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali insurgent group, claimed responsibility for the attack and tweeted grisly details of the massacre.

A former Australian infantry officer with a doctorate in anthropology, Kilcullen has made quite a name for himself in recent years. Having worked for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and also for former General David Petraeus during the height of the Iraq War, and then advising Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal more recently in Afghanistan, Kilcullen now runs a consultancy specializing in understanding conflict in complex urban and rural environments. For those in the business of understanding conflict, Kilcullen is a well-known and influential expert.

The genesis of Kilcullen’s thesis—and the opening of Out of the Mountains—is an ambush in rural Afghanistan on Kilcullen and the U.S. troops with whom he was embedded. Initially, the attackers were thought to be Taliban insurgents. But Kilcullen, no stranger to being ambushed, was unimpressed with the tactical prowess on display and deduced that the assailants might be local villagers resisting the unfair distribution of aid and largess that the corrupt Afghan government was dispersing. Ultimately, Kilcullen came to believe that conventional theories of counterinsurgency fail to adequately explain that particular ambush, as well as so many other aspects of “the non-linear, many-sided, wild and messy world of real conflict.”

There are four trends that Kilcullen believes “driv[e] most aspects of future life on the planet, including conflict”—rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for populations to cluster on coastlines), and increasing connectedness (the way technology is driving social networks). These crowded, urban, coastal, and hyper-connected environments act as powerful catalysts enabling non-state actors to wield enormous power that in some cases can topple governments.

Kilcullen takes the reader on his own intellectual journey out of the Afghan mountains and into a series of what he calls “feral cities”—sprawling urban centers like Kingston, Jamaica, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Mogadishu, and Mumbai—where population growth is straining the capacity of infrastructure and government, allowing alternative licit and illicit networks to compete for influence, power, and sometimes outright control.

Kilcullen uses this framework to explore several case studies on how actors exploit or “nest” within these complex urban environments, leveraging the areas’ fragility and weakness to pursue their own ends—from the way a group of Pakistani terrorists infiltrated and violently shut down large parts of Mumbai in November 2008, to the way Somali militias operate in Mogadishu, to how a transnational criminal network operates out of Kingston, Jamaica, to how protestors in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria are challenging decades of oppression and dictatorship.

The descriptions of the underlying dynamics of the revolutions convulsing the Arab world are particularly compelling. I was working in the Pentagon and later at the White House when what began as protests in Tunisia rapidly developed into full-scale revolutions across North Africa, becoming what is arguably the most significant geopolitical development since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The potential for social revolution was anticipated by academics and intelligence analysts, but the speed and scale of what occurred took everyone by surprise. While these conflicts are still playing out, Kilcullen usefully outlines how the drivers of rapid population growth, urbanization (in most cases coastal), and the extraordinary democratization of both weapons technology and communications technology have enabled long-oppressed populations to change the course of their own history in powerful ways. Had we applied Kilcullen’s framework, we might have been able to better appreciate how fast the Arab uprisings would spread.

In 2004, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Future of Freedom that globalization was enabling the “democratization of violence” as the spread of information and technology was empowering non-state actors like terrorist groups in ways that could challenge states. Kilcullen picks up on this theme in Out of the Mountains, arguing that the emerging “democratization of connectivity” via social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Google Maps is playing a key role in world affairs. This resonated with me, as I had closely observed from the White House the way rebel groups in Libya were coordinating and communicating—swarming, really—by using these commonly available tools. Kilcullen describes how Libyan rebels, bypassing in some cases the lack of Internet connectivity by employing “mesh networks” (leveraging Bluetooth connections that eventually crossed borders onto the Internet), were being given real-time advice on targeting and tactics via experts logged in to Skype from Europe and elsewhere around the world. The way technology is sparking global change through the empowerment of populations in peace and in war is breathtaking—and it’s only just beginning.

If Kilcullen is right that what is happening in these hyper-connected, crowded, coastal cities represents a “new normal,” then the implications for America’s role in the world could be profound. Kilcullen argues that security thinkers need “to start treating the city as a unit of analysis in its own right,” taking into account how a city’s “subsystems and sub-districts fit together, as well as how that city nests within, and interacts with, regional and transnational flows and networks.”

In an appendix to the book titled “On War in the Urban, Networked Littoral” (a play on Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 classic, On War), Kilcullen outlines in disturbing detail how military forces engaging in these environments will face challenges on land, along the coastal waterways, in the air, and in cyberspace. Operating in these spaces is something most people in the U.S. military would rather ignore in favor of more classic conventional engagements, but Kilcullen suggests that military leaders adopt a more mobile, improvisational, expeditionary mentality, concluding, “It’s time to drag ourselves—body and mind—out of the mountains.”

Acknowledging that much of his book covers ground that is “complex and confronting,” Kilcullen persuasively argues that these trends do offer opportunities for partnerships and progressive problem-solving approaches. If we can find ways to apply local expertise with outside knowledge drawn from urban planning, geo-social information systems, big data analysis, and industrial systems design, Kilcullen argues that it is possible to “co-design for resilience”—to examine these crowded coastal cities as systems, and to find ways to push them “in a positive, more resilient direction.”

Out of the Mountains will appeal to a broad range of readers—social scientists, security experts and military officers, urban planners and technologists, and a general readership interested in how today’s global trends will shape tomorrow’s world. Readers who enjoy the work of Robert Kaplan or even Paul Theroux—the engaging mix of adventure writing with sophisticated social and political analysis—will find Kilcullen quite appealing.

Out of the Mountains is a challenging read, to be sure, as Kilcullen adventurously weaves personal narrative and scholarly reflection in a globe-hopping and chaotic journey. But for a book that comes close to the author’s aim of developing something akin to a “unified field theory” of how conflict will evolve, the journey is well worth undertaking.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla

Shawn Brimley is vice president of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2013 he worked as director for strategic planning on the White House National Security Council staff and as special adviser to the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

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