by David Kilcullen
Oxford University Press, 2013, 330 pp., $27.95
he capture of Kabul in 2001 and the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 are the bookends of a remarkable decade for America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF). Indeed, these two feats of arms, whatever the delay in accomplishing the second says about U.S. intelligence, may well take their place among the most famous military actions in history. Be that as it may, these events are already settled squarely in the past. What about now or, because it is already too late to do anything about today, what about the future? Linda Robinson’s One Hundred Victories says much about SOF, but little about future warfare. David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains says much about future conflict, little about SOF. Together, however, they say something about the role SOF may have in the future of American warfare.
Robinson is an established chronicler of SOF and a serious, substance-focused journalist. Her 2009 book Tell Me How This Ends studied the effort to turn the Iraq War around, and this new book provides a compelling description of SOF’s final years in the Afghanistan campaign. Focusing on the activities of a handful of SOF personnel, she recounts the slow development of Village Stability Operations (VSO). This effort put SOF in villages not only to provide security but also, and most importantly, to train local villagers to provide their own. This required SOF to win and hold the confidence of village elders, so that their training efforts could take root in village life and survive their departure. In many cases, establishing themselves locally required that SOF first engage and destroy Taliban forces. The fighting was often bloody and vicious but necessary to win hearts and minds.
The VSO effort focused on southern Afghanistan, an area neglected, according to Robinson, as U.S. forces searched for bin Laden and fought with Taliban and al-Qaeda forces along the border with Pakistan. The Taliban insurgency had come back to life in the south and VSO were a last effort to deprive the Taliban of control as the American commitment to Afghanistan wound down.
VSO had four phases: shape, build, hold and transition. In the first of these, SOF would meet with local leaders to determine if they supported a self-defense effort. This was the phase in which they attacked local Taliban units, to “reduce the insurgent presence and to create breathing room for villagers to begin to take charge of their affairs.” If the village elders responded favorably, then SOF would move into the village or nearby and begin the building process. This required more than training and equipping a local force while fighting off the Taliban. For the best results, it had to include various aid projects—a new road, for example—and the involvement of Afghan district government officials and the national police or armed forces. As village capabilities increased, the holding phase would begin. Finally, SOF would ease out of village life, allowing the fourth phase, a transition to local control, to take place as SOF moved to another village to start the process all over again.
Robinson calls VSO “political-military warfare.” Neither the term nor any summary of what it covers could do justice to this village-level war or to the skills of those who dealt with its bewildering mix of ancient prejudices, modern technology and contemporary Afghan politics. This kind of war was different from the campaign fought with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in 2001. In that case, SOF worked with and often led an organized, if sometimes poorly trained and equipped, foreign military force in conventional military engagements against another military force, defeating that force and capturing its capital city. In the village war, SOF worked with civilians to establish secure and functioning local governance.
Wholly sympathetic to SOF, Robinson does a good job of conveying what they did and how they did it. Although emphasizing successes, she does not ignore failures. Some of these occurred because SOF personnel failed. Most often, according to Robinson, failure came because the village war was embedded in a larger conflict with both U.S. and Afghan aspects, the impact of which proved as harmful to success as the Taliban. First, SOF did not “own” the areas where they operated. General-purpose force commanders, “regular” Army generals, were in charge. These commanders often did not see the village campaign as important. They failed to support SOF or tried to use them in other ways. Second, while SOF tried to focus on areas where the Taliban was strongest, Afghan politicians worked to have them deployed to areas the politicians controlled, since the village war brought money, weapons and military skills that would be important in future intra-Afghan fighting for political control. Many American military officers on the ground did not grasp at first or fully how Afghan politics affected the effort. Nor did most American politicians understand the demands and limits of political-military warfare.
SOF were likewise divided against themselves. Robinson deals only in passing with the conflict between those engaged in the village war and the SOF focused on tracking and killing or capturing high-value targets, such as the special mission unit that raided bin Laden’s compound. So important did this latter activity become after 2001 that it largely supplanted the political-military warfare that Robinson values so highly. She even offers several examples of SOF involved in VSO who longed to engage in the straight-ahead combat carried out by the special mission units and general purpose forces. If, as Robinson claims, there is something to be learned about the future of American warfare from SOF VSO in Afghanistan, it is important to understand that the command structure and operating culture of SOF are dominated by the special mission units and their alumni, not those who were part of the VSO effort. This internal conflict is a sensitive subject in the SOF community, but Robinson should have paid more attention to it. She might also have been clearer in her judgment that, however brave, bold and creative U.S. SOF have been in Afghanistan, they did not save the mission as a whole from falling short of its objectives.
Anyone familiar with the history of SOF, or the war in Vietnam and subsequent irregular conflicts, will recognize everything Robinson reports, especially the political problems. Indeed, One Hundred Victories more appropriately might have been subtitled “Special Ops and the Same Old American Way of War.” Apart from the recent technology involved, there is nothing really new in Robinson’s rather narrow, present-tense account. As already noted, it contains little about the future either, except the assurance that SOF will be relevant: SOF “have played an increasingly prominent role over the past decade in many ways, and the trend is likely to continue in the future for two reasons: technology and political preference.”
ut if SOF maintain their prominence, will they be the SOF that led the Northern Alliance to initial victory over the Taliban in 2001, the SOF of the later village war, or the SOF that killed bin Laden? David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains can help answer this question. Having made a name for himself as an Aussie counterinsurgency expert advising various U.S. government agencies, Kilcullen has now turned his attention to the trendy issue of urbanization, as interest in counterinsurgency fades.
According to Kilcullen, the future will be different: increasingly crowded, urban, networked and coastal, as the megatrends of population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness continue to shape human existence. Kilcullen illustrates this future by giving us guided tours of some densely populated, outlaw urban areas, such as San Pedro Sula, Honduras and the Tivoli Gardens “garrison community” of Kingston, Jamaica. To give his readers a sense of what conflict might be like in such areas, he also describes the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 and the fight between SOF and the forces of Mohamed Farah Aideed’s National Somali Alliance in Mogadishu, October 1993. As these examples suggest, Kilcullen believes the future is dark, feral (a word he uses often) and violent. Unless, that is, we work to prevent it. “Because we have the data”, Kilcullen writes, “we can bend the curve . . . in the direction of greater resilience, unlocking the adaptive resources that are already present in cities under stress.” (How fortunate that Kilcullen is the CEO of a consulting firm that happens to do exactly that sort of work. His firm features prominently in his book.)
Though it focuses on the new urban future that awaits us, Out of the Mountains ignores the actual data about future urbanization, and thus not only says nothing new about it, but repeats some persistent untruths. According to the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects (2011 Revision), 51 percent of the world’s population is urbanized, and that figure will rise to 59 percent in 2030 and to 67 percent in 2050. These figures hide a good deal of regional variation, however. Latin America’s population is currently 78 percent urbanized, will be 83 percent urbanized in 2030 and 86 percent urbanized in 2050. For Sub-Saharan Africa the figures are 36 percent, 45 percent and 56 percent, respectively. For the more developed world, the figures are 77 percent, 82 percent and 85 percent, but for the least developed countries they are 28 percent, 38 percent and 49 percent. So yes, urbanization will increase in the future, and the trends in all regions are upward, but even in 2050 many people will still be living in rural areas. Kilcullen’s focus on urbanization suggests that the rural VSO that Robinson touts will have no place in the future, but the data suggest otherwise.
However much urbanization may increase, does it follow that a more urbanized population will be more feral and violent? All of the megatrends Kilcullen mentions have been going on for some time. He offers no evidence that there is any correlation between these trends and increased violence and lawlessness in urban areas. A number of studies suggest the contrary: declining levels of state, civil and criminal violence over the past decades, even as urbanization has increased. Historically, insurgents and terrorists have often started their campaigns in rural areas, where the governments they oppose have less presence and it is therefore easier to hide and organize. With rural populations remaining significant in the future, Kilcullen offers no argument as to why this pattern would not persist.
What he does offer is a clutch of theories and terms to explain and discuss facts he has not established. He even confesses that there is nothing especially new in his theories or terms. For example, Kilcullen devotes a chapter of the book to what he calls the “Theory of Competitive Control” and uses it to explain what is going on in the supposedly feral cities that concern him. The Theory of Competitive Control turns out to be much the same as standard counterinsurgency theory. What’s new about it, Kilcullen seems to argue, is his recognition that once insurgents establish control and begin to adjudicate disputes, those who gain from this adjudication are locked in to the new insurgent system.
This is hardly a compelling argument, since, to simplify, people often rebel against adjudication systems (that is, governments) when they deem the costs of such systems greater than their benefits. The American Revolution would be one pertinent example. There are also numerous examples of Iraqis and Afghans willingly breaking free of insurgent “government.” One of the virtues of Robinson’s book is that it reports in detail exactly how SOF helped bring these liberations about in Afghanistan, a process that is much knottier in practice, of course, than an appeal to bloodless, cost/benefit analysis suggests.
Although the theory is not new, Kilcullen does use it effectively to explain the contests for control between states and their non-state competitors, whether political or criminal. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of analysis (the book seems intended for them) will find Kilcullen’s exposition useful. Throughout it, however, he also uses an assortment of buzzwords (“dark networks”, “swarming”, “emergent”, “web as witness”, “social netwar”) that do nothing to improve our understanding of what is going on in the world or how we should respond. Take one example: swarming, which he defines as
autonomous, rule-based maneuver . . . like the individual birds in a flock, each vehicle and its troops follow a few simple rules to maintain formation and react to the enemy. . . . [The] formation constantly shifts and changes . . . (without orders) in response to changes in the terrain and the tactical situation.
Kilcullen uses the term “swarming” to describe the fighting in Mogadishu and Mumbai, despite the differences in command and control and objectives in each case, and the others to which he applies this term. The term appears to be a synonym for small unit tactics. Applied indiscriminately, it becomes an obstacle to careful thought about what happened in each of the fights he describes. Nor does Kilcullen make any serious effort to assess the effectiveness of “swarming.” He simply assumes its effectiveness, ignoring in the case of Somalia, for example, the significance of the hugely disproportionate casualties among the swarmers, and the political context that influenced decisions in the United States after the fighting in October 1993.
ilcullen’s Out of the Mountains leaves two overall impressions. The first is that what is true in it is not new, while what is new is not true. The second is that its reach (Kilcullen claims twice that his account “is a theory of everything”) far exceeds its author’s grasp. If it were not published by a respectable house, one might think it a promotional piece for his consulting business.
Even so, Kilcullen makes some useful points. Three in particular bear on the future of SOF and American warfare. First, though Kilcullen oversells urbanization, in the future there will be more of it, and at least some of those urban areas will be dense, violent and beyond the control of the established legal order. Second, though Kilcullen does not emphasize it enough, he does acknowledge that unconventional order exists in even the most ungoverned areas. Third, to accomplish their objectives, outsiders should learn to identify various forms of order and learn how to work with those inside them.
To acknowledge that more people will be living in urban areas, and that some of these areas will be ungoverned in a formal sense, does not mean that U.S. military forces will have to operate in them. Kilcullen simply assumes they will. Based on this assumption, he devises an appendix to offer his advice about how military forces should be structured and organized to conduct urban operations in the future, and do so without completely destroying the urban environment in which they are operating.
That said, much more thought would have to be given to both the necessity and character of urban operations before redesigning our forces in that direction. Given the difficulty of such operations, it is arguably more important to sort out how to accomplish various political and security objectives without engaging in them. Even if we can avoid such major engagements most of the time, it would nevertheless be useful to have the capability to deal with terrorists or those proliferating weapons of mass destruction based in urban areas. Still, the urban area itself is not the problem but merely an environmental feature of it. An urban area provides cover under which enemies can carry out activities harmful to us, but the key remains knowing the enemy, not its cover.
SOF appear to have something to offer if we are interested in avoiding major urban operations or in dealing with particular threats like terrorism and proliferation. The same skills Robinson describes SOF using in rural Afghanistan to understand and influence village life could be just as relevant in urban neighborhoods anywhere in the world. (Urban counterinsurgency has already occurred in Iraq.) Kilcullen speaks of the need to recognize the order that exists in ungoverned areas and work with it. In brief, that is what the SOF of the village war do. Urban social and physical infrastructure differ from their rural counterparts, but these differences are not too great for SOF to navigate.
Kilcullen offers some useful starting points for how to think about urban infrastructure, particularly physical infrastructure. In calling for “pre-conflict sensing”, for example, Kilcullen is using a buzzword that captures something inherent in the everyday, year-round deployment of SOF to countries around the world. It refers to a function that SOF already try to perform, even in urban areas, by operating out of U.S. embassies. For good reasons, not the least of which are wire-crossing coordination issues, some of these operations have run into opposition from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Future efforts can avoid raising opposition and suspicion to the extent coordination difficulties can be overcome. If more than sensing and influencing became necessary, the special mission units part of SOF would provide a strike capability.
Arguing that SOF could have important roles to play in future urban and rural military operations is not to argue that they should be the model for structuring U.S. forces overall for the future. Kilcullen, like others, touts the virtues of small units. He argues for the effectiveness of aggregating and disaggregating such units to meet various operational requirements, in effect contending that we must learn to swarm to deal with our swarming opponents. This is akin to arguing that “it takes a network to defeat a network”, a well-worn mantra from the early days of the net-centric fad. Like the advice to counter-swarm, the advice to network appears useful only to the degree that we ignore the problems in what we are being told to imitate.
ore generally, SOF succeed, whether in VSO or raiding, not because they are small units but because they are units composed of unusually skilled, experienced personnel. This experience and these skills cannot be replicated across a large force, even if it is organized in small modular units. Therefore, SOF are not a model for future American forces. Nor, as Stephen Biddle has insightfully argued, is the opening campaign of the Afghan War in the late autumn of 2001 likely to be a generally applicable model of warfare.1 It will work only in the relatively small number of cases in which our opponents lack sufficient tactical skill to counter it.
The key to understanding the importance of SOF now and in the future is not in the military aspect of political-military warfare, and certainly not as a generic model for U.S. forces, but in the political aspect. This is so because in any large-scale military deployment the effect of SOF is likely to be negligible compared to the effect produced by the other larger deployed military forces. SOF are likely to have their greatest effect, and their greatest strategic utility, therefore, in peacetime or in conflicts involving much smaller military forces than we have seen in recent times. In such conflicts, as in peacetime, politics is likely to be more important to the outcome than military force. This is true even of the raiding that special mission units do. If not part of an effective political strategy, the raids amount to little more than attrition warfare, which usually turns out to be ineffective against non-state opponents who are not following attrition strategies. Robinson’s book, with its clear focus on the politics and its effect on the success of SOF, would have been more useful had she exposed and analyzed at least some of these interactions at greater length.
The politics of SOF is both domestic and foreign, too. SOF are caught between the political preferences and expectations of Americans and their leaders and those of the people and leaders of the countries in which they operate. As former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry explained in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the conflict produced by these competing preferences and expectations can defeat even the most skilled operators in the village war—a point illustrated in Robinson’s account.2 SOF can help establish security but cannot pull effective governance out of a hat in the absence of an agreement about what such governance is and a willingness on the part of in-country partners to bring it about. Similarly, SOF can train foreign forces in military skills, but they cannot create the values and preferences in a bureaucracy or within political leadership to sustain those skills.
SOF got into Afghanistan because, through unglamorous, relentless training deployments to Central Asia, they had built relationships that, with generous supplies of money, allowed them to stage from there into Afghanistan. This kind of below-the-radar military-to-military influence-building, unlikely to be chronicled, is likely to remain a critically important contribution to U.S. security, given the uncertainty about where we may need to operate in the future. Once SOF did deploy to Afghanistan, they improvised on their basic infantry and cultural skills. This improvisational skill and adaptability is also likely to be a critical contribution to U.S. security, since no one can predict the future.
Finally, the concept of what Robinson calls political-military warfare, like counterinsurgency doctrine, rests on assumptions originally articulated during the Kennedy Administration, when SOF enjoyed their first heyday. They include assumptions about the liberal thrust of history, and others drawn from liberalism’s rough academic equivalent, modernization theory, that virtually all Americans share one way or another. These assumptions need to be rethought root and branch, at least with regard to SOF, if we are to operate more effectively in the future.
1Biddle, “Allies, Airpower and Modern Warfare: The Afghan Model in Afghanistan and Iraq”, International Security (Winter 2005/06).
2Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan: The Other Side of the COIN”, Foreign Affairs (September/October, 2013).