Small Wars Journal

New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict

Sat, 06/23/2007 - 7:16am
I asked the SWJ to pass along that I've been continuously in the field of late and haven't posted to the blog as much as I would have liked to. I am still very much engaged in the Small Wars Journal community and will be posting here again soon. In the meantime I offer up this article published in the June 2007 issue of the Department of State's eJournal. I might add that there are some excellent articles in this issue of eJournal -- well worth following the link and taking a look around.

New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict

By David J. Kilcullen

Despite our rather rosy hindsight view of World War II, there was considerable dissent at the time about the war's aims, conduct, and strategy. But virtually no one disagreed that it was indeed a war or that the Axis powers were the enemy/aggressors.

Contrast this with the war on terrorism. Some dispute the notion that the conflict can be defined as a war; others question the reality of the threat. Far-left critics blame American industrial interests, while a lunatic fringe sees September 11, 2001, as a massive self-inflicted conspiracy. More seriously, people disagree about the enemy. Is al-Qaida a real threat or a creature of Western paranoia and overreaction? Is it even a real organization? Is al-Qaida a mass movement or simply a philosophy, a state of mind? Is the enemy all terrorism? Is it extremism? Or is Islam itself in some way a threat? Is this primarily a military, political, or civilizational problem? What would "victory" look like? These fundamentals are disputed, as those of previous conflicts (except possibly the Cold War) were not.

In truth, the al-Qaida threat is all too real. But ambiguity arises because this conflict breaks existing paradigms—including notions of "warfare," "diplomacy," "intelligence," and even "terrorism." How, for example, do we wage war on nonstate actors who hide in states with which we are at peace? How do we work with allies whose territory provides safe haven for nonstate opponents? How do we defeat enemies who exploit the tools of globalization and open societies, without destroying the very things we seek to protect?

A New Paradigm

British General Rupert Smith argues that war—defined as industrial, interstate warfare between armies, where the clash of arms decides the outcome—no longer exists, that we are instead in an era of "war amongst the people," where the utility of military forces depends on their ability to adapt to complex political contexts and engage nonstate opponents under the critical gaze of global public opinion.(1) Certainly, in complex, multisided, irregular conflicts such as Iraq, conventional warfare has failed to produce decisive outcomes. We have instead adopted policing, nation-building, and counterinsurgency approaches—and developed new interagency tools "on the fly."

Similarly, we traditionally conduct state-based diplomacy through engagement with elites of other societies: governments, intelligentsia, and business leaders, among others. The theory is that problems can be resolved when elites agree, cooler heads prevail, and governments negotiate and then enforce agreements. Notions of sovereignty, the nation-state, treaty regimes, and international institutions all build on this paradigm. Yet the enemy organizes at the nonelite level, exploiting discontent and alienation across numerous countries, to aggregate the effects of multiple grassroots actors into a mass movement with global reach. How do elite models of diplomacy address that challenge? This is not a new problem—various programs were established in U.S. embassies in the Cold War to engage with nongovernmental elements of civil societies at risk from Communist subversion. But many such programs lapsed after 1992, and problems of religious extremism or political violence require subtly different approaches.

Likewise, traditional intelligence services are not primarily designed to find out what is happening but to acquire secrets from other nation-states. They are well-adapted to state-based targets but less suited to nonstate actors—where the problem is to acquire information that is unclassified but located in denied, hostile, or inaccessible physical or human terrain. Even against state actors, traditional intelligence cannot tell us what is happening, only what other governments believe is happening. Why, for example, did Western intelligence miss the imminent fall of the Soviet Union in 1992? In part, because we were reading the Soviet leaders' mail—and they themselves failed to understand the depth of grassroots disillusionment with Communism.(2) Why did most countries (including those that opposed the Iraq war) believe in 2002 that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction? Because they were intercepting the regime's communications, and many senior Iraqi regime members believed Iraq had them.(3)

Long-standing trends underpin this environment. Drivers include globalization and the backlash against it, the rise of nonstate actors with capabilities comparable to some nation-states, U.S. conventional military superiority that forces all opponents to avoid its strengths and migrate toward unconventional approaches, and a global information environment based on the Internet and satellite communications. All these trends would endure even if al-Qaida disappeared tomorrow, and until we demonstrate an ability to defeat this type of threat, any smart adversary will adopt a similar approach. Far from being a one-off challenge, we may look back on al-Qaida as the harbinger of a new era of conflict.

Adapting to the New Environment

Thus, as former U.S. Counterterrorism Ambassador Hank Crumpton observed, we seem to be on the threshold of a new era of warfare, one that demands an adaptive response. Like dinosaurs outcompeted by smaller, weaker, but more adaptive mammals, in this new era, nation-states are more powerful but less agile and flexible than nonstate opponents. As in all conflict, success will depend on our ability to adapt, evolve new responses, and get ahead of a rapidly changing threat environment.

The enemy adapts with great speed. Consider al-Qaida's evolution since the mid-1990s. Early attacks (the East African embassy bombings, the USS Cole, and 9/11 itself) were "expeditionary": Al-Qaida formed a team in Country A, prepared it in Country B, and clandestinely infiltrated it into Country C to attack a target. In response, we improved transportation security, infrastructure protection, and immigration controls. In turn, terrorists developed a "guerrilla" approach where, instead of building a team remotely and inserting it secretly to attack, they grew the team close to the target using nationals of the host country. The Madrid and London bombings, and attacks in Casablanca, Istanbul, and Jeddah, followed this pattern, as did the foiled London airline plot of summer 2006.

These attacks are often described as "home grown," yet they were inspired, exploited, and to some extent directed by al-Qaida. For example, Mohammed Siddeque Khan, leader of the July 7, 2005, London attack, flew to Pakistan and probably met al-Qaida representatives for guidance and training well before the bombing.(4) But the new approach temporarily invalidated our countermeasures—instead of smuggling 19 people in, the terrorists brought one man out—side-stepping our new security procedures. The terrorists had adapted to our new approach by evolving new techniques of their own.

We are now, of course, alert to this "guerrilla" method, as the failure of the August 2006 plots in the United Kingdom and other recent potential attacks showed. But terrorists are undoubtedly already developing new adaptive measures. In counterterrorism, methods that work are almost by definition already obsolete: Our opponents evolve as soon as we master their current approach. There is no "silver bullet." Similar to malaria, terrorism constantly morphs into new mutations that require a continuously updated battery of responses.

Five Practical Steps

In responding to this counterintuitive form of warfare, the United States has done two basic things so far. First, we improved existing institutions (through processes like intelligence reform, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and additional capacity for "irregular"—that is, nontraditional—warfare within the Department of Defense). Second, we have begun developing new paradigms to fit the new reality. These are yet to fully emerge, though some—such as the idea of treating the conflict as a very large-scale counterinsurgency problem, requiring primarily nonmilitary responses coupled with measures to protect at-risk populations from enemy influence—have gained traction.(5)

But in a sense, policy makers today are a little like the "Chateau Generals" of the First World War—confronting a form of conflict that invalidates received wisdom, just as the generals faced the "riddle of the trenches" in 1914-1918. Like them, we face a conflict environment transformed by new technological and social conditions, for which existing organizations and concepts are ill-suited. Like them, we have "work-arounds," but have yet to develop the breakthrough concepts, technologies, and organizations—equivalent to blitzkrieg in the 1930s—that would solve the riddle of this new threat environment.

There is no easy answer (if there were, we would have found it by now), but it is possible to suggest a way forward. This involves three conceptual steps to develop new models and, simultaneously, two organizational steps to create a capability for this form of conflict. This is not meant to be prescriptive, but is simply one possible approach. And the ideas put forward are not particularly original—rather, this proposal musters existing ideas and integrates them into a policy approach.

1. Develop a new lexicon: Professor Michael Vlahos has pointed out that the language we use to describe the new threats actively hinders innovative thought.(6) Our terms draw on negative formulations; they say what the environment is not, rather than what it is. These terms include descriptors like unconventional, nonstate, nontraditional, unorthodox, and irregular. Terminology undoubtedly influences our ability to think clearly. One reason why planners in Iraq may have treated "major combat operations" (Phase III) as decisive, not realizing that in this case the post-conflict phase would actually be critical, is that Phase III is decisive by definition. Its full doctrinal name is "Phase III—Decisive Operations." To think clearly about new threats, we need a new lexicon based on the actual, observed characteristics of real enemies who:

a. Integrate terrorism, subversion, humanitarian work, and insurgency to support propaganda designed to manipulate the perceptions of local and global audiences.

b. Aggregate the effects of a very large number of grassroots actors, scattered across many countries, into a mass movement greater than the sum of its parts, with dispersed leadership and planning functions that deny us detectable targets.

c. Exploit the speed and ubiquity of modern communications media to mobilize supporters and sympathizers, at speeds far greater than governments can muster.

d. Exploit deep-seated belief systems founded in religious, ethnic, tribal, or cultural identity, to create extremely lethal, nonrational reactions among social groups.

e. Exploit safe havens such as ungoverned or undergoverned areas (in physical or cyber space); ideological, religious, or cultural blind spots; or legal loopholes.

f. Use high-profile symbolic attacks that provoke nation-states into overreactions that damage their long-term interests.

g. Mount numerous, cheap, small-scale challenges to exhaust us by provoking expensive containment, prevention, and response efforts in dozens of remote areas.

These features of the new environment could generate a lexicon to better describe the threat. Since the new threats are not state-based, the basis for our approach should not be international relations (the study of how nation-states interact in elite state-based frameworks) but anthropology (the study of social roles, groups, status, institutions, and relations within human population groups, in nonelite, nonstate-based frameworks).

2. Get the grand strategy right: If this confrontation is based on long-standing trends, it follows that it may be a protracted, generational, or multigenerational struggle. This means we need both a "long view" and a "broad view".(7) that consider how best to interweave all strands of national power, including the private sector and the wider community. Thus we need a grand strategy that can be sustained by the American people, successive U.S. administrations, key allies, and partners worldwide. Formulating such a long-term grand strategy would involve four crucial judgments:

a. Deciding whether our interests are best served by intervening in and trying to mitigate the process of political and religious ferment in the Muslim world, or by seeking instead to contain any spillover of violence or unrest into Western communities. This choice is akin to that between "rollback" and "containment" in the Cold War and is a key element in framing a long-term response.

b. Deciding how to allocate resources among military and nonmilitary elements of national power. Our present spending and effort are predominantly military; by contrast, a "global counterinsurgency" approach would suggest that about 80 percent of effort should go toward political, diplomatic, development, intelligence, and informational activity, and about 20 percent to military activity. Whether this is appropriate depends on our judgment about intervention versus containment.

c. Deciding how much to spend (in resources and lives) on this problem. This will require a risk judgment taking into account the likelihood and consequences of future terrorist attacks. Such a judgment must also consider how much can be spent on security without imposing an unsustainable cost burden on our societies.

d. Deciding how to prioritize effort geographically. At present most effort goes to Iraq, a much smaller portion to Afghanistan, and less again to all other areas. Partly this is because our spending is predominantly military and because we have chosen to intervene in the heart of the Muslim world. Different choices on the military/nonmilitary and intervention/containment judgments might produce significantly different regional priorities over time.

Clearly, the specifics of any administration's strategy would vary in response to a developing situation. Indeed, such agility is critical. But achieving a sustainable consensus, nationally and internationally, on the four grand judgments listed above, would provide a long-term basis for policy across successive administrations.

3. Remedy the imbalance in government capability: At present, the U.S. defense budget accounts for approximately half of total global defense spending, while the U.S. armed forces employ about 1.68 million uniformed members.(8) By comparison, the State Department employs about 6,000 foreign service officers, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has about 2,000.(9) In other words, the Department of Defense is about 210 times larger than USAID and State combined—there are substantially more people employed as musicians in Defense bands than in the entire foreign service.(10)

This is not to criticize Defense—armed services are labor- and capital-intensive and are always larger than diplomatic or aid agencies. But considering the importance, in this form of conflict, of development, diplomacy, and information (the U.S. Information Agency was abolished in 1999 and the State Department figures given include its successor bureau), a clear imbalance exists between military and nonmilitary elements of capacity. This distorts policy and is unusual by global standards. For example, Australia's military is approximately nine times larger than its diplomatic and aid agencies combined: The military arm is larger, but not 210 times larger, than the other elements of national power.

To its credit, the Department of Defense recognizes the problems inherent in such an imbalance, and said so in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.(11) And the Bush administration has programs in train to increase nonmilitary capacity. But to succeed over the long haul, we need a sustained commitment to build nonmilitary elements of national power. So-called soft powers, such as private-sector economic strength, national reputation, and cultural confidence, are crucial, because military power alone cannot compensate for their loss.

These three conceptual steps will take time (which is, incidentally, a good reason to start on them). But in the interim, two organizational steps could prepare the way:

4. Identify the new "strategic services": A leading role in the war on terrorism has fallen to Special Operations Forces (SOF) because of their direct action capabilities against targets in remote or denied areas. Meanwhile, Max Boot(12) has argued that we again need something like the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) of World War II, which included analysis, intelligence, anthropology, special operations, information, psychological operations, and technology capabilities.

Adjectives matter: Special Forces versus Strategic Services. SOF are special. They are defined by internal comparison to the rest of the military—SOF undertake tasks "beyond the capabilities" of general-purpose forces. By contrast, OSS was strategic. It was defined against an external environment and undertook tasks of strategic importance, rapidly acquiring and divesting capabilities as needed. SOF are almost entirely military; OSS was an interagency body with a sizeable civilian component, and almost all its military personnel were emergency war enlistees (talented civilians with strategically relevant skills, enlisted for the duration of the war).(13) SOF trace their origin to OSS; yet whereas today's SOF are elite military forces with highly specialized capabilities optimized for seven standard missions,(14) OSS was a mixed civil-military organization that took whatever mission the environment demanded, building capabilities as needed.

Identifying which capabilities are strategic services today would be a key step in prioritizing interagency efforts. Capabilities for dealing with nonelite, grassroots threats include cultural and ethnographic intelligence, social systems analysis, information operations (see below), early-entry or high-threat humanitarian and governance teams, field negotiation and mediation teams, biometric reconnaissance, and a variety of other strategically relevant capabilities. The relevance of these capabilities changes over time—some that are strategically relevant now would cease to be, while others would emerge. The key is the creation of an interagency capability to rapidly acquire and apply techniques and technologies in a fast-changing situation.

5. Develop a capacity for strategic information warfare: Al-Qaida is highly skilled at exploiting multiple, diverse actions by individuals and groups, by framing them in a propaganda narrative to manipulate local and global audiences. Al-Qaida maintains a network that collects information about the debate in the West and feeds this, along with an assessment of the effectiveness of al-Qaida's propaganda, to its leaders. They use physical operations (bombings, insurgent activity, beheadings) as supporting material for an integrated "armed propaganda" campaign. The "information" side of al-Qaida's operation is primary; the physical is merely the tool to achieve a propaganda result. The Taliban, GSPC (previously, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), and some other al-Qaida-aligned groups, as well as Hezbollah, adopt similar approaches.

Contrast this with our approach: We typically design physical operations first, then craft supporting information operations to explain our actions. This is the reverse of al-Qaida's approach. For all our professionalism, compared to the enemy's, our public information is an afterthought. In military terms, for al-Qaida the "main effort" is information; for us, information is a "supporting effort." As noted, there are 1.68 million people in the U.S. military, and what they do speaks louder than what our public information professionals (who number in the hundreds) say. Thus, to combat extremist propaganda, we need a capacity for strategic information warfare—an integrating function that draws together all components of what we say and what we do to send strategic messages that support our overall policy.

At present, the military has a well-developed information operations doctrine, but other agencies do not, and they are often rightly wary of military methods. Militarizing information operations would be a severe mistake that would confuse a part (military operations) with the whole (U.S. national strategy) and so undermine our overall policy. Lacking a whole-of-government doctrine and the capability to fight strategic information warfare limits our effectiveness and creates message dissonance, in which different elements of the U.S. government send out different messages or work to differing information agendas.

We need an interagency effort, with leadership from the very top in the executive and legislative branches of government, to create capabilities, organizations, and doctrine for a national-level strategic information campaign. Building such a capability is perhaps the most important of our many capability challenges in this new era of information-driven conflict.

Tentative Conclusions

These notions—a new lexicon, grand strategy, balanced capability, strategic services, and strategic information warfare—are merely speculative ideas that suggest what might emerge from a comprehensive effort to find new paradigms for this new era of conflict. Different ideas may well emerge from such an effort, and, in any case, rapid changes in the environment due to enemy adaptation will demand constant innovation. But it is crystal clear that our traditional paradigms of industrial interstate war, elite-based diplomacy, and state-focused intelligence can no longer explain the environment or provide conceptual keys to overcome today's threats.

The Cold War is a limited analogy for today's conflict: There are many differences between today's threats and those of the Cold War era. Yet in at least one dimension, that of time, the enduring trends that drive the current confrontation may mean that the conflict will indeed resemble the Cold War, which lasted in one form or another for the 75 years between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Many of its consequences—especially the "legacy conflicts" arising from the Soviet-Afghan War—are with us still. Even if this confrontation lasts only half as long as the Cold War, we are at the beginning of a very long road indeed, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

The new threats, which invalidate received wisdom on so many issues, may indicate that we are on the brink of a new era of conflict. Finding new, breakthrough ideas to understand and defeat these threats may prove to be the most important challenge we face.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.



(1) See Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), especially pp. 3-28 and 269-335.

(2) See Gerald K. Haines and Robert E. Leggett, Watching the Bear: Essays on CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2003), especially chapters VI and VII.

(3) See Kevin M. Woods et. al, Iraqi Perspectives Project: A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam's Senior Leadership (Joint Forces Command, Joint Center for Operational Analysis), p. 92.

(4) Intelligence and Security Committee, Report Into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005 (London: The Stationery Office, May 2006), p. 12.

(5) See David Kilcullen, "Countering Global Insurgency," Small Wars Journal (November 2004) and available at ; Williamson Murray (ed.), Strategic Challenges for Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terrorism (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006); and Bruce Hoffman, "From War on Terror to Global Counterinsurgency," Current History (December 2006): pp. 423-429.

(6) Professor Michael Vlahos, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, personal communication, December 2006.

(7) I am indebted to Mr. Steve Eames for this conceptual formulation.

(8) Compiled from figures in International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance 2007, pp. 15-50.

(9) Compiled from U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, Congressional Budget Justification 2007, table 9.

(10) The U.S. Army alone employs well over 5,000 band musicians, according to a March 2007 job advertisement; see

(11) Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (2 February 2006): pp. 83-91.

(12) See Max Boot, Congressional Testimony Before the House Armed Services Committee, 29 June 2006, at

(13) See Central Intelligence Agency, The Office of Strategic Services: America's First Intelligence Agency at

(14) The seven standard SOF missions are Direct Action (DA), Special Reconnaissance (SR), Unconventional Warfare (UW), Foreign Internal Defence (FID), Counter-Terrorism (CT), Psychological Operations (PSYOP), and Civil Affairs (CA).



I don't know if you follow comments on your postings of so far back, but I am reading up on your thoughts following speaking with Ian Kuring the other day.

Within this post you noted Hank Crumpton speaking of being "on the threshold of a new era of warfare, one that demands an adaptive response. Like dinosaurs outcompeted by smaller, weaker, but more adaptive mammals, in this new era, nation-states are more powerful but less agile and flexible than nonstate opponents. As in all conflict, success will depend on our ability to adapt, evolve new responses, and get ahead of a rapidly changing threat environment."

I appreciate your writings, providing further thought or depth to what John Robb outlines in his new book "Brave New War". I would appreciate your thoughts sometime on the Jake individual fighter unit and rapid insertion of networked swarm power relative to response to outbreaks of what I term "nano-wars" within your writings.

This relates to your asking for what ideas are out there for transformational ideas. And relates to your writing above: "But in a sense, policy makers today are a little like the "Chateau Generals" of the First World War--confronting a form of conflict that invalidates received wisdom, just as the generals faced the "riddle of the trenches" in 1914-1918. Like them, we face a conflict environment transformed by new technological and social conditions, for which existing organizations and concepts are ill-suited. Like them, we have "work-arounds," but have yet to develop the breakthrough concepts, technologies, and organizations--equivalent to blitzkrieg in the 1930s--that would solve the riddle of this new threat environment."

You can imagine my frustration in development of a tactical concept with our Special Ops that is seen as transformational in today's ground maneuver by GEN A. M Gray, catalyst to future force by General Robert Scales, the basis of swarm, force insertion and stabilizing force by Col Michael Kershner and equally by General Sid Shachnow...and the fight for a home for development because it is disruptive to doctrine. Maybe you can put better voice to this concept that is outlined on the website of (which is taking this conversation to the nation because our inability to "do something" must be addressed somehow)

I am glad I met Ian and found your writings.

Russ Strong


Fri, 06/29/2007 - 12:43pm

In addition to SysAdmin, Barnett's conceptual use of The Big Bang (Iraq) and System Perturbations (9/11 and, arguably, Iraq) reassure me that the suggestions of Dr. Kilcullen and others for radical paradigm and principle reworks are both stimulating and reflecting ferment and growth. As Senators Lugar, Warner and Lieberman complete the post-Surge structuring proposals Lugar has begun to introduce, the idea that though we may have lost the campaign in Iraq, but that the seeds of success were laid in the 2007 COIN phase, may become clear.

ericmwalters (not verified)

Thu, 06/28/2007 - 1:32pm

Strategic Information Warfare versus Terrorism As Theater.

I'd submit that part of our problem in our approach here--crafting the message AFTER we conceive of our strategy/operations and clumsily trying to graft it on--is reflective of our mindset regarding the effectiveness of terrorism. What has worked for me in thinking through the problem is that terrorism must be thought of in terms of theater, or a movie. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are masters at providing compelling narratives and dramatic effect to their audiences. They always keep the audience perspective in mind--they tend to think about what it's like to watch the story unfold in the auditorium/theater/movie house seats. In contrast, we tend to get focused on the mechanics of the production--while we may have better technical mastery of lighting, staging, sound, screenplay writing, and acting, we are not able to congeal these disparate elements into a holistic storyline that is equally (and ideally even more) compelling and dramatic.

What intrigues me is how organizations like Al Qaeda are much like modern-day movie directors that allow their actors a good bit of freedom to improvise their acting and lines to achieve creative effects. When and where we tend to attempt such spans of command in storytelling, we seem more akin to Stanley Kubrick's style--a lot of rehearsals, a lot of takes, and huge attention to precision/adherence to the director's vision without as much room for improvisation. What attracts terrorist and irregular warfare "actors" is the chance to make significant "contributions" to the artistic vision/cause/storyline--and we are still stuck in our metrics regarding "success" and "failure" of individual actions.

Any insistence in centralized, rigidly coordinated, and singly-orchestrated "staying on message" is going to challenge anyone in achieving similar adaptability/creativity in addressing the terrorism problem on such theatrical/narrative terms.

Some may rail at my suggestion that violence has artistic qualities--that violence can be art. To me, that is the central organizing idea of so-called post-modern terrorism and the source of their narrative strength. I can only respond by pointing to others who have suggested the same--some from earlier eras. Yukio Mishima comes immediately to mind, but so does Akira Kurosawa and scenes from John Boorman's 1981 film, EXCALIBUR. Who has not marveled at Homer's poetic portrayal of man-to-man slaughter in THE ILIAD? Picasso's GUERNICA? Instead of the canvas, screen, or page, the terrorists prefer their narrative to be shown in the real world with real blood and real death. But the effect is the same on the audiences who perceive this on the canvas, the screen, or on the page....

Eric Walters


Tue, 06/26/2007 - 8:33am

Colonel Kilcullen

In the sad "roll call" of the heavy casualties that your brave soldiers are sustaining as a result of the initial mistakes of the occupation, your paper is most encouraging and sanguine with its fecund and rich crop of ideas and its attempt to "split the atom" of the conduct of war in the age of global borderless anarchic terror. (I will describe the meaning of these two words further down.) As you correctly point out, all the paradigms of past wars, in an era when one is fighting a shadowy not easily identified enemy clad in civilian clothes and not less infrequently in womens clothes with a deadly belt around their bi-gender midriffs, and whose mode of warfare is not to fight its foes openly and directly but stealthily, are completely obsolete. This is why the "ancien regime" of paradigms must be overthrown, since the line of their success has reached the end of its tether.

The new regime of paradigms must have as constituent parts the art of diplomacy, political virtuosity, and military might. But its parts will not have equal value. As the enemy we are engaged with is not a rational enemy, but an irrational one. Whose fighting fervour and suicidal attacks emanate from the fountainhead of God Himself. Hence, he is not prone to listen to the calls of "earthly" reason, since he only listens to the calls of an "afterlife". He cannot be pacified by diplomatic and political concessions or by economic rewards, and he will accept the latter only as a respite that will enable him to build his forces for future attacks. Nor will he be "contained" in his aggressive actions by the threat of overwhelming military force, and indeed, not even by nuclear deterrence, as a rational actor would. In such a conflict, diplomacy and politics will play an auxiliary part to the primary and vital part of the military. And in this "unholy" trinity, it will be the military that will be calling the shots. If in past, more philosophical times, the goal was for philosopher-kings to rule, in our, more down to earth times, it will be soldier-statesmen in the major part that will determine the policies and the course of war. The political elite will play the important role of (a) supplying their military the material and spiritual wherewithal, and giving its commanders on the ground the freedom and the discretion to use the appropriate armaments that will defeat the enemy. And (b) along with the fourth estate, politician will have the responsibility to unify their people behind the great task of its armed forces.

The primary and pivotal role that the military will have in this conflict rises from the nature and characteristics of this war. First, the latter is not only global but also borderless. When the terrorists or insurgents can find safe haven by crossing the borders of the country where they are waging war then those who are fighting them must pursue them over the border and destroy them. If international outlaws can cross the borders of sovereign nations then the lawful forces who are trying to apprehend them and punish them, have every right to cross these borders too. And the commanders on the ground will decide when to do so. The nations that ostensibly are against terror, must sign a covenant with those nations whose armed forces are engaged in war against it that they will allow these forces to cross their borders whenever this is necessary. Secondly, because of the simplicity in launching their lethal attacks-it takes only a girdle to spread havoc-this is an anarchic terror with no central command to plan its attacks. Every ordinary humdrum fanatic can find few brothers in their desire to pursue the seventy-two virgins. The Islamic fanatics like bin Laden and Zawahiri are not leaders in control of their forces, but sorcerers apprentices who have released the genii of terror without being able to control its actions that politically and strategically would have maximum impact. This is illustrated by many examples, the latest ones are Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, and the terrorist group in Palestine who hold the British correspondent and who refuse to obey the orders of Hamas. Of course, as you correctly point out, their leaders will use even these random actions in their propaganda to influence people in the West. And it might be true that their propaganda is on the winning side.This not because of their cleverness but by the fact of the openness and transparency of democratic societies whose political, media, and public response is so predictable. This multi-celled terror whose cells are spread in many parts of the world, both in Muslim countries and the Muslim diaspora that has flooded the West, can only be dealt effectively by military and special forces led by their commanders on the ground. Its therefore the nature of this war that makes the paramountsy of the military the sine qua non for the defeat of global terror. The question is whether the leaders of Western civilization will have the mettle and sagacity to use uncivilized methods to defeat this barbaric fanatic horde.

Finally, your concept of "anthropology", that sheds like a beacon its light upon the turbulent sea of terror, whose goal is to bring the warship of the West that is fighting it safely back to its moorings by identifying and addressing the causes of this turbulence, is most interesting. I would only couple it with its other half "anthropotheology" since this martyrdom is mainly fuelled with the fire of Allah.

I also agree entirely with Hawkwood.

Well done Dr. Kilcullen


Well said. All that I wish to add (particularly to your notion of a "new lexicon") is that the concept of "war" (a la Sun Tzu's <b>Art of War</b> and Clausewitz's "trinity" of rationality [state], probability [military command] and rage [people]) is still relevant.

The most dramatic shift has been in the <i>object</i> of warfare. While the nation-states of the world spent most of the 20th century codifying the "proper" conduct of war, they have found in the 21st century that their monopoly on the use of force to effect policy changes has waned - as has the target.

Too many professional military thinkers have allowed themselves to be confined in the nation-state v. nation-state paradigm -- an innovation deficit you have described very concisely.

So, in addition to changing the lexicon, we must also acknowledge that the shift from probability and rationality to the "rage of the people" is perhaps the greatest challenge to the methods of warfighting with which we are most familiar.

Once again, an excellent piece. Thanks for sharing (and for indulging commentary from the 'blogosphere).

sf/ shane


Sun, 06/24/2007 - 11:05pm


Maybe I pushed the envelope of your importance but to be honest there are very few Australians closer to influence on this issue than yourself, and certainly you are the only one that I know who has a clue as to the real forces at work. I dont for a moment believe that the US is unable to fundamentally change the environment or itself in order to achieve victory and I fully expect that one day the West will triumph in this struggle because we have greater intellectual resilience and energy than our opponents. However, I do believe that right now there is no question that we are incapable of making the strategic changes necessary to succeed in Iraq or the organisational changes to effectively implement the tactical ideas you have been advocating. The reason for this situational impasse are tapped by Walrus above but are best summarised as self-deception.

From your reading of Fritjof Capra you would appreciate the importance of initial conditions in setting the boundaries of complex systems growth and development. Without an accurate understanding of initial conditions trying to predict or shape complex systems is virtually impossible because you have no idea what your boundaries are. As long as the West remains in denial about how we got here there can be no positive change. We need a Winograd Report not more Yes Minister enquiries where we know the outcome before we start.

Only when we are prepared to be ruthlessly truthful with ourselves can we expect to see advances and adaptation. Only when we are prepared to revisit our base assumptions can we start to emerge from this low point. Australia could start by looking in the mirror and questioning our commitment - if this is really important then why do we choose not to fight - except in self defence. The answer is because it is not that important to the Australian people but doing something that looks good rather than effective is comforting.

As a long time soldier the only thing that interests me is winning and if winning means overthrowing the status quo then so be it. Until we have a leadership that is more interested in victory than party politics we are unlikely to be able to strategically unhinge Bin Laden/Zawhiri because they are only interested in operating at the strategic level - they have no focus other than winning the long war.

I didnt mean to downplay the resourcefulness of the US any of us who have served alongside the US understands the awesome power and creative energy that the US and its military can generate but only a person in denial can ignore the huge cultural impediments inherent in the system that block the development of tactical subtlety. The US military is an organisation designed to generate mass - in all its forms. The US combat officer who understands the concept of de-escalation is a rare beast indeed because everything, even social activity, is about aggressive posture. Great warriors problematic cultural ambassadors.

I hope, like you, that our 'Solarium Project' moment is not to far away. It will a great thing to see. A ruthless examination of things in September would certainly help things along.

I think Dr. Kilcullen has it right, I also think the commenst here are helpful.

The question I would ask is "So what do we do now, and how can we help?" The problem has been eloquently stated by Dr. Kilcullen, as has the obvious directions in which a potential solution lies.

My particular concern is that I believe that the "Freeze, Unfreeze and Refreeze" model of organisational (and institutional) change is pretty compelling. Organisations generally operate with "frozen" paradigms, making change impossible, until their is some cataclysm, (Pearl Harbor, 911, the virtual bankruptcy of the State of Victoria are three examples), for a period after the cataclysm, months, a year perhaps, the organisation "unfreezes" and almost any change is possible with virtually zero resistance. Then the organisation "refreezes" with the new set of paradigms.

In my darker hours I wonder what cataclysm is going to "unfreeze" things again, and I wonder if the various actors that pushed America in the direction of the so called "war on terror" after 911, will again be allowed to subvert Americas best interests in favor of their own agendas.

I seem to spend far too much time pushing back at the vague half truths that these actors peddle with very little success.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 06/24/2007 - 9:50am


Actually, I think you overstate both my own importance and the difficulty of the challenge.

In the first place, I am only one of many who are calling for some fundamental reappraisals of grand strategy and the capability mix (across both government and the private sector/civil society -- arguably an extremely important player here, quite probably more important than government). Secondly, we have at least two previous examples of the United States, in the face of a challenge of this magnitude, undertaking a major overhaul of its strategy and capability set.

The first is the period that Joseph M. Jones called "the fifteen weeks", in 1947 when a small group of talented people across the interagency developed the key institutions and principles that underpinned the strategy and national security architecture of the Cold War.

The second is President Eisenhower's "Solarium Project" which re-tooled and re-thought this architecture, without fundamentally departing from its principles, to meet a changed strategic environment following setbacks in China and Korea.

The key in both cases was determined leadership by senior people in the congressional and executive branch, across all parties, in the face of challenges or defeats that shook the country's confidence.

Is America still adaptive, committed and smart enough for this challenge? Only Americans can say -- but the America that I know certainly is. So I think the challenge is out there, and it's extremely tough, but it's far from insurmountable.




Sun, 06/24/2007 - 8:21am


At last someone has said it.

I know (and so do you) an ex-Australian army officer who was given the task of reviewing the officer development and selection system, he was the bravest officer I ever met. Why? Because at the end of his study he had to walk into a room with every Army General and tell them that the system that selected and produced them was fundamentally flawed.

Yes I agree if only the US and the West changed the way they think about, talk about and physically approach the conflict with Islamic extremism then everything would go a lot better. Unfortunately, the chances of this are remote.

'industrial interstate war, elite-based diplomacy, and state-focused intelligence can no longer explain the environment or provide conceptual keys to overcome today's threats

The three elements you identify above are the core of the US approach to everything and by and large every senior decision-maker involved in the war is a product of one or more of these institutional cultures. By continuing to suggest that the failures and omissions in strategy, capabilities and approaches are accidents rather than the deliberate products of the largest political and policy system in history allows the same institutions to suggest that with minor changes things can be put on track thus avoiding the necessary root and branch reform.

I also agree that winning the battle for and with information (in all its forms) is the key to the winning this conflict and to win this battle we must first be able to tell the difference between truth and fallacy. Thus we undermine our position by an inability to be honest with ourselves let alone those we wish to win over to our side. Every inaccurate report, statistic or Senate appearance that misleads the people who must fight the war as to the real state of the conflict is another nail in the coffin of victory. Here we are obviously not talking about psy-ops against the enemy but the misleading of the nation, because in democracies it is inevitable that as the obvious disconnect between government rhetoric and outcomes grows then the trust between the people and its government falls. For a great example of what is necessary for revitalisation and success people should read the Winograd Report on Israels failure in Lebanon - available, open, analytical and ruthless. Not only does this report set the conditions for future victory but it sets the conditions for a revitalisation of the Israeli peoples faith in their Armed Forces. Now contrast this with any report or coalition governmental response to any acknowledged failings in the current conflict. The lack of accuracy and transparency represents a cancer that eats away at victory.

Unfortunately, this cancer has now become imbedded in the current western strategic posture to the point that the national institutions supposed to defend the nation are now politicised/undermined to the point of being strategically ineffective. When generals, ambassadors and civil servants lie to their own institutions they aid the enemy, this is the core of Col McMasters thesis in Dereliction of Duty. Things in the west have become so dire that almost any position or idea counter to the current political agenda is seen as disloyal - to the point where telling the truth is often portrayed as taking sides against the leadership and therefore the country. So your courageous position is to be commended. You are also right to suggest that only fundamental change to the current grand-strategy and military based approach is essential to achieving victory.

It is unfortunate that defeat in Iraq, is in my opinion, now inevitable because the systemic conditions have been allowed to negatively progress for so long. But you are right to recognise that our failure is not because the coalitions soldiers cant win battles or because there are not enough resources but are because the population of the west is not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices for a leadership, as you point out, that doesnt understand the conflict in which it is engaged. The democratic cycle now drives the Iraq timetable so I dont believe your ideas have enough time for a run in Iraq but hopefully there is enough time for them to impact on the wider struggle. For me the most important consideration now is how to manage the exit from Iraq in such a way that the withdrawal does not become a rout or that this campaign failure does not fundamentally undermine the rest of the war.

Good luck in changing the institutional culture of the US.



Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 06/24/2007 - 4:54am


I agree with you -- the military has the capacity, other agencies do not, so we have tended to put these capabilities into military organizations. I think we may need to re-think this approach. I'm attracted by Tom Barnett's SysAdmin idea, though clearly there are lots of issues to work through on that score, and I also like John Nagl's recent suggestion of an advisory corps. We should also be working with local allies and partnering with local people wherever possible ("by, with and through") rather than imposing our own forces or approaches on them.

Much of this thinking has already been done over at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, too -- they have some excellent ideas. And the new Center for a New American Security is working on this stuff as a key project also.

My bottom line is that the ideas are out there: as I said in my article, there's nothing original about any of the stuff I have put forward. But what WOULD be truly innovative would be to actually get off our backsides, do something about this and make it actually happen.

As you know, I'm completely non-partisan and have no affiliation to any US political group (or any other, for that matter) but I believe what is most needed here is Congressional and Presidential leadership, working together, to make this happen. We as officials can't make it happen just at our level -- the interagency can't be any more balanced and integrated than our elected leaders want it to be, and that's exactly how things ought to be in a democracy. They are the key. The next administration, be it Republican or Democratic, will face these same challenges. If we start the snowball now, perhaps in a couple of years we could actually make some progress on this. A short-term focus could kill us -- we need a long view, and a broad view, of the problem.



Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 06/24/2007 - 4:43am


thanks for the endorsement -- it means a great deal coming from you. I have been too lazy (and too busy over here, but no excuse) to actually buy your new book yet, much less read it. But lots of people I respect have spoken very highly of it so it's at the top of my reading list for when I get back from Iraq.

all the best,


John Robb

Sat, 06/23/2007 - 9:45pm


Well done. Definitely concur with the new paradigm.


John Robb

Rob Thornton

Sat, 06/23/2007 - 11:48am

Great article. The problems of fielding the right structure and capabilities seem to be the ones that we are having difficulty discussing and finding consensus on. The paradox is that while the spending is one sided, no other existing agency has the demonstrated capability to absorb or create the functions that DoD can (albeit painfully).

Hence the call for identification of strategic services, and the creation of capabilities.

The question then I guess is what is the best path for change? Do you create those capabilities/services from within an existing agency, or do you create something new, but based on concepts drawn from relevant historical examples?

The problems with the former are competition from within the agency, resistance to change, and perspective drawn from institutional bias. The problems of creating from scratch are title infringement, recruitment of personnel from limited, existing pools, justification of a budget, and generating desired capabilities. The former will almost certainly take longer and not meet the full intent; the latter will be more painful up front and receive criticism for what are perceived to be failures or shortfalls until it gets itself sorted out . The latter will certainly require truly talented leadership that can articulate a vision, drive the organization, testify before congress and the American people, and must possess the courage and fortitude commensurate to the task. These are some the risks of the two paths. MacGregor/Murray/Knox did some great work on inter-war change, but I think this may even be a greater challenge in some ways.

If it is a zero sum gain (meaning it will compete for a portion of the budget already identified and allocated), then it requires strategic leadership and vision at the national level to provide the direction and impetus to make it happen. Who gets less, and what is the cost? Existing agencies and services can help or hinder. It starts by challenging our own assumptions about our relevancy and our ability to not only meet current demands, but to succeed. We must ask ourselves are we willing to sacrifice part of our self interests in order to field the types of capabilities/strategic services that are currently beyond us. We must step out of our biases and prejudices about how we have traditionally justified our roles. If existing agencies are unwilling to help, if the leadership is not present to arbitrate or direct, then any new service/agency or component of an existing service/agency will not only have to address the enemy from without, but the tripping and back stabbing from the enemies within.

I think that is the only way we can identify what resources can be redirected and where we can take risk. That we must assume risk is guaranteed, we cannot be good at everything. We must decide what is most important and doing this means building a clear consensus and understanding of what is the consequence of not fully addressing this dangerous and likely threat, vs. those that are more vague and unlikely. This is going to be hard and uncomfortable; after all those in the security services get paid to be skeptical and paranoid.

The military is charged with preserving and defending the constitution - this makes for a conservative culture. The only way to address this may be by fundamentally revisiting our notions of security. Self-reliance for everything is an American hallmark. Since WWII our participation in alliances and collective security arrangements have never prevented us from pursuing the means to protect our interests outside of those arrangements. A move to balance the focus on conflict prevention (outside of sheer military deterrence) and conflict termination (winning the peace) vs. one that invests disproportionately on conflict resolution is a major national strategic culture change.

As you point out, we must also ask what it means to be "decisive" today and tomorrow? Is the word "decisive" a limiting adjective outside of our own culture. Does it suggest an expectation that the problems we face can be permenantly addressed quickly, vs. the need to remain involved and perform a kind of long term maintenance. Managing expectations will have allot to do with how acknowledge and address capability gaps.

Personally, I believe your description of our way forward warrants involvement. It may be the most efficient and effective means to move forward in an age of indefinite conflict with the conditions / environment you have outlined in your essay. I only hope we don't require another catalyst on the scale of 9/11 to move forward.

Thank you sir for a very thoughtful essay.
R/S Rob