Small Wars Journal

Into the Cities; Dark, Dense, and Dangerous

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 12:56pm

Into the Cities; Dark, Dense, and Dangerous

David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, $27.95, 352 pgs, photos.

Reviewed by F. G. Hoffman

Urban conflict has been a routine working context for the American military for some time (Beirut, Los Angeles, Panama City, Baghdad, Fallujah, Kabul, etc) although it is often ignored in defense planning scenarios.  Numerous studies have recognized the simple reality that the world’s population is increasingly migrating to cities.  Both the Joint force development community and the Marine Corps used to have urban warfare centers focused on this potentially troublesome battlefield. 

Now that Operation Enduring Freedom is winding down towards advisory and tailored counter-terrorism tasks, we need to step back and look forward to the future.  That future looks increasingly urbanized.  Not just more cities, but large, more populated, denser and more dangerous megacities.  As the prophetic Ralph Peters wrote so dramatically in 1996:

Cities always have been centers of gravity, but they are now more magnetic than ever before.  Once the gatherers of wealth, then the processors of wealth, cities and their satellite communities have become the ultimate creators of wealth.  They concentrate people and power, communications and control, knowledge and capability, rendering all else peripheral.  They are also the post-modern equivalent of jungles and mountains--citadels of the dispossessed and irreconcilable.  A military unprepared for urban operations across a broad spectrum is unprepared for tomorrow.

What was evident to forward thinkers like Peters so far back is much clearer today.  We past a major tipping point in April 2008, when over half of humanity found itself living in cities.  By 2030, nearly 60 percent of the humans on this planet will live in a city, and within 100 miles of a coast.  Just about all the world’s population growth, over 2.5 billion souls, will be concentrated in the developing world.  We need to recognize both the potential for prosperity built into future trends like urbanization, and recognize the dark side in shortfalls in government, the rise of tech-savvy gangs, and fetid slums.  This is what makes this new book so by the Australian soldier/scholar David Kilcullen so timely and relevant.

Out of the Mountains paints a vivid and compelling picture of a world rushing upon us.   The author’s argument is quite simple, we face a future security environment that could be more contested, congested, and conflicted than the last decade.

Kilcullen’s central argument is not about the kinds of threats we may face in the future (the “who”).  He acknowledges the limits of prediction and the near certainty that all forms of human conflict will continue to exist.  However, the real threat will come from the environment and context itself, not any particular group or actor (the “where”).  Our future security environment will be shaped by four megatrends that Kilcullen defines as having a significant impact on our collective future, including conflict.  These include rapid population growth, extensive urbanization, littoralization (the congested clutters along coasts and waterways), and high levels of connectivity.  This rapid urban growth in coastal, underdeveloped areas overloads economic, social and governance systems, strains city infrastructure and overburdens the carrying capacity of cities.  In Kilcullen’s words:

“…the trends are clear: more people than ever before in history will be competing for scarcer and scarcer resources in poorly governed areas that lack adequate infrastructure, and these areas will be more and more closely connected to the global system, so that local conflict will have far wider effects.”

Thinking through these effects and their impact on the character of potential contingencies that might involve U.S. forces is sorely needed.  These far wider effects could influence policymakers into direct U.S. involvement, as it has in the past.

Overall, this is an engaging, well-structured book.  It is part Thomas Friedman, part Tom Barnett, with a strong dose of Robert Kaplan all rolled into one tightly researched package.  Like Friedman, Kilcullen understands the power of connectivity.  From Barnett, the notion of the undergoverned “gap” emerges, and from Kaplan one senses a new “coming anarchy.”  Kilcullen says little about the urban guerrillas themselves or what motivates them but he excels at describing their tactical prowess and ability to fuse various methods appropriate to their needs.  He includes detailed vignettes of the attacks on Mumbai, U.S. combat operations in Mogadishu, (which just passed its 20th anniversary), Libya, Egypt, and Syria.  All these conflicts underscore his conception of urban operations, the flows of urban megacities, and the tinderbox of violent potential they hold.  Moreover, these case studies show how modern media tools can be a great accelerant of progress or networked chaos.  The recent attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall makes this book’s argument even clearer.

Some may find this book dystopian, but I think you can extend its arguments on technology even further given how low the barriers to entry are becoming in so many fields including UAVs and biotechnology.  There may be only a few urban guerrilla organizations out there, but they will be more dangerous.  In fact, as noted by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their The Digital Age, “What gives terror groups in the future an edge may not be their members’ willingness to die for the cause; it might be how good their command of technology is.”

Military theorists have been searching for a unified field theory for complex operations for some time, despite the variegated contexts and forms this portion of the conflict spectrum can take.  Kilcullen draws upon some early writings of the late Bernard Fall to postulate a theory of “Competitive Control” over populations.  This theory implies that much of our traditional counterinsurgency notions (especially the social-economic underpinnings of “hearts and minds”) may need to be rethought given the altered context in which insurgencies increasingly operate within.  In Kilcullen’s theory, “the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate that population and its residential area.”  The author demonstrates how a range of current nonstate actors like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban operate across a spectrum of persuasion, services and coercion to entrap or corral a local population.  Once entrapped by the “fish trap” it is exponentially more difficult to lure the populace away from the armed nonstate group.

Kilcullen makes it clear that armed actors are increasingly able to generate coercive and disruptive power out of growing “feral” nature of urbanizing society in the developing world.

A special benefit of Out of the Mountains is his explanation of modern cities as a system.  Kilcullen offers analytical tools for conceiving of urban centers as biological organisms with distinctive “metabolic” rates.  He brings out a number of fascinating insights from the urbanist Mike Davis that should lead to further study in urban security challenges.  Kilcullen’s notions about the importance of increased resilience over stability and the dynamic disequilibrium of urban complexes offers some ideas about prevention.  Current Joint doctrine in the United States, JP 3-06 "Joint Urban Ops," is under review with an end of year revision due, and should benefit from these insights.

The author has designed the book for general readers, but a detailed appendix proposes numerous and specific force development priorities for doctrine, mobility, sustainment and force structure for a military audience, particularly Army and Marines, and perhaps the Special Operations community.  Marine thinking and investment in concepts like hybrid threats, Distributed Operations, unmanned systems, and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s work on Company Landing Team experiments are in line with the author’s recommendations.   This is a great chapter that confirms a decade of concepts and experiments, but more importantly identifies areas for detailed follow on work in light of the trends in connectivity and technology that Kilcullen has illuminated. 

The most likely conflict scenarios for the future can be easily summed up: Crowded, Complex, Connected, and Coastal.  The threats we face in this environment, when policy makers determine that U.S. interests warrant an intervention, will be on home ground. Furthermore, they will understand both the culture and urban “flows” better than we do, and will tailor a unique convergent mode of fighting that makes our nice academic categories (Traditional, Terrorist, Irregular, Criminal) meaningless.  Out of the Mountains is highly commended for its vivid portrait of tomorrow’s operating environment and its proposed tactical solutions.  This book should interest anyone who is concerned about an all too predictable and violent future.   A military unprepared for security operations in urban settings is certainly unprepared for tomorrow.

F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Defense Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University. These represent his own views and not necessarily those of NDU or the U.S. government.

About the Author(s)

Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine infantryman and veteran Pentagon policy and program analyst. The comments in his articles reflect his own positions and not those of the Department of Defense.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 3:53am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill---great comments---my heartburn with Kilcullen and others in Iraq was that they failed to notice the interaction between what I call the urban insurgency and the rural insurgency---both supported each other and led to what I refer to as a whiplash effect on the Army units on the ground but was in effect efforts by the various insurgent groups to carry out AQIs ground strategy.

We would see activity build in say Mosul causing an Army response ie movement of troops---then they would be attacked repeatedly usually via IED strikes--then suddenly all went quiet---THEN presto increased insurgent activity in Baqubah and a repeat of the previous THEN quiet and suddenly increased activity in Baghdad.

AQI understood the concept of war of movement and they kept the Army units always on the move---and we never got it!

Commanders on the ground never seemed to be able to understand this tactic and never seemed to understand that where it went quiet was in fact the busiest for the insurgents---ie weapons movements, foreign fighters coming/going, training and resupply/refit.

Glad to see the Management of Strategy being mentioned---a critical read.

Also what surprised me especially in 2007 was the strategy on the use of the internet as form of operational communications-worldwide.

As the ops tempo in Iraq increased so increased the battle video ops tempo by the various groups---the videos were telling sometimes in what was being spoken and or shown to the world--the various groups used images and symbols in all their videos and the images were a subtle form of communication.

Response by US commanders and officers--it was all propaganda and they refused to watch them.

This internet form of communication was a critical reinforcing tool to their strategy as well as a recruitment tool.

In some aspects it was the accepted form of communication between the groups in the rural and urban war fronts. It was like hey this is what we are doing in Anbar---maybe it can be copied in Baghdad.

Bill M.

Sun, 11/03/2013 - 10:52pm

After reading the e-book I wish I had bought the hardcopy of the book so I could easily refer back to it for reference. I agree with Frank Hoffman's comment, "Overall, this is an engaging, well-structured book." Then again most, if not all, of Dr. Kilcullen's writing falls in this category, even if I find myself disagreeing with some of his points. If I was to write a review on Amazon I would probably give it four of five stars. The only reason I'm hesitant to give it five stars is one aspect of his book is the growing impact of littoralization and he didn't really make a case for it in my opinion. That particular aspect of his book left me scratching my head wondering "so what" we have seen this trend unfolding for decades if not centuries. For the other trends he made a strong case for his arguments, and he added the appropriate caveats. For example, he wrote that we haven't seen the end of conflict in rural areas, but we'll be sure to see increasing conflict in megacities and then discusses the unique challenges that will present.

As Bob correctly predicted below this is not a book about strategy or counterinsurgency (thank God), but about how four trends he discusses will impact and define the operational environment we'll execute our strategy in.

I'll briefly point out a few points made in the book that I find helpful in conceptualizing current and future conflicts, and that will probably shape my future planning efforts.

1. I have recently advocated for a shift away from our narrow focus of just preparing for war and to expand our focus to address more threats to our security at large. We're the Dept of Defense, not the Dept of War, yet when you study our doctrine you may assume we're still the War Department. I feel at least partially validated by Kilcullen as he argues that security organizations like a Gendarme or Constabulary have advantages over traditional police and military organizations based on the nature of the hybrid threats we're facing today and anticipate to face in the near future. He adds, "any theory of conflict that's organized around a single type of enemy is unlikely to be helpful in a conflict environment that includes multiple overlapping threats and challenges." To me that has implications for the future force.

2. He then proposes his unified or grand theory, "theory of competitive control" which he appropriately gives credit to Bernard Fall for coining the phrase, but Kilcullen expands on it to make it a theory for the 21st century. I won't dwell on the theory since most of you will read the book, but based on my experiences and study it seems applicable to a wide range of conflicts and if accepted can hopefully move us past the debate on what an insurgency is and isn't compared to a Cartel, etc.. Having recently started to re-read, "Management of Strategy" which is one of Al-Qaeda's strategy books it fits perfectly into how they view the world also. We can see this theory playing out throughout Central America and Mexico with the various Cartels and gangs competing for control using the very means Kilcullen writes about in his book, and we can see it in Afghan, Iraq, Syria, etc. It doesn't really manner if insurgents or criminals are using it. Key concepts includes: actors creating problems and then offering solutions to gain control, establishing new normative systems, and the criticality of coercive power, etc.

3. Points out the populations are not passive in this and they develop their own strategies in response to those competing to control them. This discussion is critical to those expanding upon the concept of human domain and what it means to the military.

4. His discussion on the metabolism of cities and feral cities and how they tie into both conflict, resiliency, and disaster response theories and plans was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book for me, and one I need to re-read to fully grasp its meaning.

Bottom line well worth the read.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 10/13/2013 - 4:53pm

In fact that is what exactly occurred in Iraq especially the period 2003 through 2008 or say the VC's use of cities in Vietnam--find it interesting that one has to dust off old historical events in order to write a new theory.

There is some indicators in captured Iraqi documents that the ISI and Sunni Salafists fully understood urban warfare with an insurgent slant and sucked us literally into a rural and urban whiplash---from which we never recovered.

Regardless of what has been written over Iraq---we came in second place in that urban warfare event.

Just check the latest surge by AQI in Iraq---attack after attack in the cities.

Bill C.

Sun, 10/13/2013 - 1:46pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"... measureable positive strategic results."

Again, an attempt:

In our view, "measureable positive strategic results" are those that show that an outlier state and society has been -- much like Germany and Japan in the early 20th Century and Russia and China in the latter 20th Century -- transformed so that it:

a. Might not deter from nor stand so much in the way of optimal international commerce and trade,

b. Might, instead, better benefit from and better provide for the global economy,

c. This, thought to be the formula for achieving peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the world.

Achieving this strategic goal and standard requires that "barriers" that might stand in the way of international commerce and trade be overcome.

Prime examples of such barriers are the ways of life and ways of governance of various populations (including aspects our own) which are driven by values, attitudes and beliefs (now considered outdated, non-servicing and/or obstructing re: the wants, needs and desires of the global economy) which are often derived from previously-formulated thinking, ideology and/or religion.

Thus, the goal to "transform" outlier states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. (This model thought to be the most accommodating re: the wants, needs and desires of the global economy and, via its attributes, the achievement of international peace and prosperity).

Bill M.

Sun, 10/13/2013 - 12:04pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Agree on all your points, but I see no indicators despite Gray's counter arguments that as a nation we are capable of crafting and executing grand strategy. We are beholden to election and media cycles that drive tactical responses followed by narrative management. All for limited political gain (never waste a crisis) and probably counter to national interests in the long run. Great point about our Generals and PhDs being focused at the squad and company level, but that said Kilcullen usually has some good advice for that level that I enjoy considering.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 10/13/2013 - 10:37am

In reply to by Bill M.


I appreciate where you are coming from, if sent out to do something that is confused in purpose and strategically flawed in nearly every way, then at least lets execute sound tactics in route to failure.

As we saw in the debate over Syria, the American people are fed up with this cowboy logic. At some point we need to step off of this foolish merry-go-round. All we are being offered by these pundits such as Dr. Kilcullen and his Caerus company and Dr. Seth Jones at Rand, and I am sure several others is a chance to buy more tickets from them for another ride.

Instead of discussing the next venue to do the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong purpose in support of a flawed strategy, isn't about time to elevate the conversation to things that really matter? Let the Captains, Lieutenants and mid-grade NCOs debate tactics. But for the past 12 years all the PhDs, Generals and Colonels have been crowding around that same table, making money and promotions on tactical "successes" that are combining to undermine the credibility and wealth of our country at an accelerated rate with virtually no measurable positive strategic results. We are a generation of Squad Leaders.

There is no substitute for strategic success; and in populace-based conflicts, unlike state on state war, the sum of good tactics (or bad tactics that are well resourced and persistently pursued) will not of necessity ultimately add up to strategic success. We could do a frontal assault all the way across Europe and win WWII; but that logic does not work for managing interests in the face of the type of popular friction we face today.

It is time to pause, reframe, reassess and frankly, to relax. We are an elephant stomping on mice because we fear mice, not because mice are a real threat. The mice only win if we can't over come our fear and stomp ourselves into a state of exhaustion.

Bill M.

Sat, 10/12/2013 - 11:10pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

The artists get there first intellectually speaking because they're creators, while most make a living mimicking. In the military one can have a relatively safe career by just sticking with the current group think and buzz words that are widely accepted, and then when they're rejected you quickly remove those books from your book shelf and deny you every supported such lunacy :-)

I broke down and purchased the ebook, since this review was actually much more interesting than Kilcullen's. Maybe he was just being humble during his interview.

I think Bob made a good point that it will probably be mostly same ole, same ole, and void of strategy, but on the other hand strategy isn't everything. In a more perfect world strategy would always come first, but we don't live that world (at least not in America). Regardless of the strategy debate tactics and operational level planning are still critically important (and the supporting analysis behind these), so I'm looking forward to see what David has to say.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/12/2013 - 10:19am

Why the change of hearts-and-, er, heart?

Wouldn't this understanding have helped in Afghanistan instead of relying on dated theories arising from the US-with-NATO-90's unipolar moment or earlier colonial era tactics?

Megacities, state-to-state-to-non-state connections and globalized trade and crime, eh? What took you all so long :)?

The "feral" nature of urbanization has long been a topic of movies, books and comics, most recently the complicated nature of globalizing (can we find another word?) megacities. From 2008:

<blockquote>A high-octane adventure through the never-before-seen underbelly of Mumbai, ace CIA operative Ike Flint finds himself out of his element and out of his depth when tasked with recovering a downed NSA satellite deep within the biggest slum in Asia. None of his experience can prepare him for the wild and dangerous characters his salvage uncovers: a wheelchair-riding gangster kingpin hooked on John Wayne westerns; a brilliant bar dancer who can solve calculus problems before breakfast; a trigger-happy cop who shoots criminals with the same nonchalance as if he were grocery shopping; a religious cult that will do anything to protect its totem; and a crack team of rebels searching for the very thing Ike is seeking.</blockquote>

Poor Ike Flint needs a tan and a language lesson.


How come the artists always get there first, intellectually speaking?

(All the recent articles on Tom Clancy made me think of these comics and their topics, comics that I don't read but the titles caught my eye when I saw various newspaper reviews.)

My it's-for-free-so-don't-complain insurgency "model":

Punjab Insurgency:
1. Diaspora support overseas.
2. Internal governance issues (not just poor governance, but exploiting the issue for internal political and monetary gain).
3. Religion.
4. Language and other markers of group and ethnicity.
5. Connection to transnational and internal criminal groups.
6. Cross-border support.
7. Connection of insurgents to other transnational groups.
8. Insurgency occurring within background of certain international Cold War and post Cold War state-state relationships.
9. Connection to overseas governments (Saudi, US, UK) in terms of complicated state-to-state and diaspora relationships.

And most things you'd do as an outsider to mitigate threat will be non-military. Sorry folks who do that stuff for a living, but that's where it's at today. And, yeah, aid for social engineering is just as likely to make things worse as better. Actually, that is pretty much the entire history of a lot of our social engineering aid but our aid-givers have a hard time admitting they made things worse. Maybe because that doesn't pay or get grants.

Still, looks like an interesting book and the Amazon reviews are borderline "fanboy/fangirl" so I'll try and check it out.

This isn't directed at the author of the post or the book but why does the "thinking" community come up with stuff that just doesn't ever seem based on anything real? What's the hang up with the setting of analyst world that it comes out all weird? It's not like people in that world are all stupid or anything.


Sat, 10/12/2013 - 1:49am

Cities are like castles of old. Bypass them or take them down by siege. Most cities would be starving to death in three weeks if transport of food was stopped. Survivors would be killing themselves off in 6 weeks.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/12/2013 - 10:13am

In reply to by Bill C.

"We seek to make the land areas of the world as safe, compatible and open to international trade and commerce as are the sea areas of the world."

What are you arguing Bill? That we should do this or that is the defacto policy of much of the Western world without all its policy arms realizing it?

No body can do that, re-engineering all societies everywhere as a third party is impossible. There are things we can do to make global commerce move (like, on the sea) and that's about it.

Stick to the doable, not the fantasy land version of the world. Yes, I wrote that even as I posted a bunch of stuff from comic books! But that's for discussion, not, like, doctrine or something. Although, better to read my references than <em>Soldier Sahibs</em> or something....

Future historians will have a field day with our 2000's era collective psyche in the US and NATO and think tank/ivory tower world.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 10/12/2013 - 7:04am

In reply to by Bill C.

Commerce, far more than justice, is blind. Commerce cares little about ideology, form of governance, race or religion - and neither should US foreign policy.

We can make endless work for ourselves if we constantly crusade for "truth, justice and the American way," but this only makes us weaker, not safer. Post Cold War strategy is a dangerous, idealistic, ideological, failure. We need to recognize that fact and get back to being the type of America that allowed us to rise to power. This current type is speeding our decline.

Bill C.

Sat, 10/12/2013 - 12:29am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

An attempt re: interests, etc.:

We seek to make the land areas of the world as safe, compatible and open to international trade and commerce as are the sea areas of the world.

Large cities and mega cities are often the centers of (or potential centers of) international commerce and trade.

Accordingly, we believe that it is in our interest to see that these land areas of the world -- and especially the large cities and mega cities -- are organized, ordered, oriented, configured and governed in such a way that they might optimally provide for and optimally benefit from the global economy.

Thus to comprehend our interests today, these must be largely viewed through the lense of what is best for transnational capitalism -- and not so much from the perspective of what is best for the United States (here we, like other states and societies, are expected to make sacrifices).

Indeed, what is good for the global economy as a whole; this is the primary driver of not only our foreign but also our other policy -- and the primary focus of our military commitments and considerations as well.

Much as we believe that our future depends on successfully causing the land areas of the world -- and the large cities and mega cities -- to be transformed such that they might optimally provide for and optimally benefit from the global economy, likewise does our enemies also understand this fixation.

Thus as with the World Trade Center towers in the recent past (notably in a mega city and center of international commerce and trade), one would expect that our current and future enemies (those who choose not to have their way of life altered or destroyed to provide for the global economy) to also target large cities and mega cities for their disruptive and destructive activities.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 10/11/2013 - 8:41am

I will probably read this book, or at least give it a good scan; but I suspect my primary thought after reading the book will be similar to my primary thought now as I write this post:

"Probably true, and so what"?

What we are really talking about is a matter of scale, or degree. After all, insurgency is insurgency. I realize not all see it that way, many think that this change of venue will somehow change the nature of the dynamic itself, but I don't see any reason to think that would be true.

Big cities have always been places with large self-governed populaces and places where governmental authorities have either little or only secondary authority over the people who live there.

I suspect there will be much larger social concerns than urban insurgency as these megacities continue to grow. Malnutrition and pandemic disease come to mind. Nature has a way of returning balance to unnatural, and therefore unsustainable, conditions.

This will only be a security challenge for the US if we persist in the belief that we somehow have a duty to do something about the poor governance and horrible conditions that will surely grow along with the populations in the mega cities far from our shores. What interests will we have in these places??

I believe the projections that we will soon find out. But I am still struggling to find the interests, the duty, the necessity that will make this a problem that is ours to solve. The people will be there because they believe it is in their interest to be there rather than out in rural areas or smaller towns. People will do this knowingly and of their own volition. When they come to believe it is not in their interest they will leave.

What I do see is the COINdinista community rushing to create a new marketplace for their services. The Iraq market is closed, the Afghanistan market is closing (and those COINdinista products failed in both of those places to produce the strategic effects promised of their tactical programs and perspective on the nature of the problem). Why would we fall for this slick marketing again? Megacity COIN is the new market. My recommendation to my boss is that definitely we need to think about and prepare for how we would operate in these spaces in the emerging environment. How do we apply sound principles, how do we leverage cyber tools to be virtually where it may be impossible to be physically, etc. But I don't see a need to buy into this new market.