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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. http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/articles/96spring/peters.htm
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.