15 June 2010

Guest Post: Karaka Pend's Review of "Counterinsurgency"

Over the next few days, you'll see some of my work in other blogs, and you'll see others' work in this blog. Kind of like a happy flip-flop thing a few milbloggers and I have worked out.

Today, I'd like to introduce Karaka Pend, author of Permissible Arms, who will be reviewing David Kilcullen's latest book, Counterinsurgency. Take it away:
Styled as a field manual on the subject, Counterinsurgency offers much to the novice practitioner and the expert; but it struggles with keeping the thread throughout all its parts, and does not read as a manual so much as a "collected works of" Kilcullen over the last decade. That said, it should fit nicely into the corpus of "user guides" to counterinsurgency that are beginning to emerge.


The introduction largely acts as a primer for the counterinsurgency novice, defining terms and concepts in Kilcullen's trademark conversation, causal style. As this is the preface to ideas that will be fleshed out later in the book, the author leaves off some of his nuance in favor a fast-paced run-through of the practice of counterinsurgency. Even from here, however, I'm left wondering who his audience is. The novice counterinsurgent? The seasoned theorist familiar with the topic? It is not clear, and I think it suffers for that.

28 Articles

Reprinted here four years after its initial composition, where the 28 Articles gains new insight is in the copious footnotes peppered throughout the text. This is the best example of Kilcullen's conversational style: informative and anecdotal, casual yet thorough. The 28 Articles are perhaps the strongest part of this book, subject to the most outside scrutiny and probably of the most use to the practitioners of counterinsurgency.

Meant to be read alongside T.E. Lawrence's germinal "27 Articles," which gave Kilcullen his format, 28 Articles was eventually amended to FM 3-24 and is clearly valued as a teaching document. However, I think these lessons might prove even more valuable if read alongside Burgoyne and Marckwardt's "The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa." Both operational guides together do represent a glut of knowledge that must be read again and again to be effectively internalized. However, the two represent a comprehensive conceptual model that, if well followed and understood, could aid the local soldier in nearly every aspect of his or her mission.

In short, the two recurring themes are flexibility and analysis. The counterinsurgent must be prepared to change his or her actions as the situation on the ground changes; and he or she must be prepared to review and analyze that situation and all its component parts. Good advice, but more than that, essential practice for effective operation.

Measuring Progress in Afghanistan

Much of this chapter is a reiteration and expansion of casual points made in 28 Articles. Kilcullen describes an exhaustive list of potential metrics for four specific actors: the local population, the host-nation government, the security forces, and the insurgents. Kilcullen suggests that district stabilization analysis is a more effective way of analyzing situations in Afghanistan, using the three stages of assessment, triage, and audit to identify goals to which measurements can then be applied.

I think this is generally a sound policy; metrics are, in every operation either civilian or military, a necessary tool that can help to understand circumstances and trends. But they are only a tool, and they must be contextualized to be truly useful. Pairing metrics with anecdotal or observational understanding is key to making them useful and digestible.

Globalization and the Development of Indonesian Counterinsurgency Tactics

This chapter is directly related to Kilcullen's doctoral research into the Indonesian counterinsurgency operations in West Java and East Timor. From the outset Kilcullen's mode of writing is startlingly different--from casual to professional, anecdotal to research-driven. This is understandable, but jarring, like showing up for a meeting wearing jeans when everyone else is in a suit. Nevertheless it's a very interesting analysis, particularly because there is so little Western analysis of these contemporary counterinsurgency campaigns.

Kilcullen suffers a bit from being close to his subject--he was directly involved in the conflict in East Timor, and the six years he spent doing research on the subject (including much time in the field) lends a knowledgeable but biased representation of the topic. However, you can clearly see the start of many of his later more well-developed ideas in this chapter, though there is less refinement in this initial run at counterinsurgency theory.

West Java is an excellent example of the effectiveness of in-state counterinsurgency; East Timor (Timor-Leste) is an equally good example of the challenges of external state actors on a local insurgency. Kilcullen did a fine job of describing each conflict and the particulars of Indonesia's involvement in each. Worth noting is the effect of globalization in the conflict in East Timor, where the interest of much of the rest of the world was focused on the insurgent's effective perception management.

Reflections on the Engagement at Motaain Bridge

This chapter reads more like the start of a larger memoir on Kilcullen's experiences in East Timor rather than a document that fits cleanly with the other material in Counterinsurgency. But for Western readers with minimal knowledge of the conflict in East Timor, it can offer a touchstone experience for Kilcullen's discourse on Indonesian counterinsurgency. His points here are clearly the genesis for his 28 Articles.

Deiokes and the Taliban

I would sum up this chapter as: All politics are local, and all locals are swing voters.

This chapter adheres more to his conversation style revealed in The Accidental Guerilla and the 28 Articles, but would probably be better experienced as an audience member rather than a reader. It serves, again, to reiterate Kilcullen's fundamentals on counterinsurgency, but does go into more detail with a breakdown of how the Taliban have come to operate so effectively in Afghanistan despite being routed by the United States and its partners in 2001.

Countering Global Insurgency

As Kilcullen frames it, the previous chapters served as ground-level thinking; in this chapter he widens his gaze to a review of Islamic insurgency on the global stage. I am inclined to call this his "grand unifying theory of counterinsurgency." He offers bold suggests that are as compelling as they are grandiose, but this chapter should be taken with careful consideration both for the reconceptualizing he suggests and the practicalities his theory would require.

Kilcullen suggests that the takfiris have made the world their theatre of operation, with the endstate being the renewal of the Islamic caliphate and expansion of Islam to the whole of the world. Those in opposition to the takfiris--essentially everyone else in the world--are countering that effort only in a handful of places. By reconceptualizing the takfiri endstate not as terrorism, but as insurgency (an insurgency against every other state in the world) we become better equipped to counter the ever-changing and ever-expanding patronage network of the takfiris.

However, the necessary collective action is quite daunting practically--to say the least--and would require a massive interstate and interargency co-operation to even begin to act against the takfiris using holistic counterinsurgent methods. I am not certain that the rest of the world could even really come together in a way that would counter the takfiri insurgency effectively, but perhaps that is not really the point of Kilcullen's theory. The abstract idea is a forceful one, but I wonder if he gives takfiris more credit than they are worthy of. Nonetheless he presents a substantially different picture of this conflict. I hope he will expand upon and update this in future work, if only so that we might better understand what he's saying.


I went into this book thinking it would primarily be a counterpart to FM 3-24 and other teaching tools. Certainly part of it is, but Counterinsurgency acts more as a collective recording of Kilcullen's works over the last decade, loosely connected by his theory of counterinsurgency. It seems to be most helpful to the new student of counterinsurgency by relying on two or three of the chapters, saving the rest for reflection later on. For the more seasoned theorist of counterinsurgency, drawing passages from either 28 Articles or Countering Global Insurgency to support stronger points seems to be the book's best use. For the critic of counterinsurgency, questioning the fundamentals of the discipline as they are laid out and reiterated would serve the purpose well.

Kilcullen is at his best when he employs the casual, conversational style, as if he is speaking with the troops this book may educate out in the field. At its core, however, the book serves to reiterate several elementary points about counterinsurgency enumerated in the introduction. There may be different angles on the subject, but those points are a constant. Depending on the audience for this book, I would either like to see the 28 Articles published alongside The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa as a teaching tool; or the chapters on Kilcullen's experience in East Timor and Countering Global Insurgency expanded into stand-alone works.

Counterinsurgency is a quick read with much to offer, but I do not think it entirely lives up to his name. Had it been framed as a collection of David Kilcullen's recent writings rather than a pocket manual on his titular subject, I think I would have been more satisfied. Nonetheless, Counterinsurgency will likely prove a must-read for any person with interest in the discipline.
Great stuff. Don't forget to check out my review of Counterinsurgency, which you'll find in Karaka Pend's blog.


MikeF said...


So, are you suggesting that this book is not worth buying? I found your review rather deppressing.

Starbuck said...

At $10, you can't go wrong.

My biggest concern stems from the fact that I'd read bits and pieces of the writing before. If you're unfamiliar with Kilcullen, it's a must-read. If you're familiar with Kilcullen, it's a good-to-read.

After all, it's $10 and fits in your cargo pocket.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike. Yeah, by the time I got to the end of the book I felt a bit dissatisfied--the chapters don't go together cleanly, and it's not so much a manual as a collected works of.

That said, having an annotated copy of the 28 Articles, plus his introduction, which I thought was good, is valuable. You could probably find it online, as Starbuck suggests, but there's something to be said for having it so conveniently packaged.

I'd say buy it if you wanted to introduce someone to the concepts behind counterinsurgency; but for those more familiar with it, you're not going to miss much.

MikeF said...

Well, I'm gonna buy it b/c I'm a geek like that. Plus, I'll quote anything from Gordon McCormick or Kilcullen. They are my favorite modern theorists, and I enjoy challenging their assumptions. Occasionally, McCormick has actually admitted that I was right :).

I just read Starbucks' review and found your blog! Look forward to reading more from you.

Anonymous said...

I don't regret buying it--like I said, it's nice to have a copy to tote around! But I wish it had a stronger editing perspective, is all. Kilcullen has some strong ideas, and they deserve a good platform.

Hope to see you over at Permissible Arms!