Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, David Kilcullen.

Scribe, 2013

When it comes to military planning, there is always the temptation to re-fight the last war instead of thinking about the next one. David Kilcullen, a former Australian soldier who has been in most of the world’s red zones and now works as a consultant to Western military agencies, has already delved deeply into the issues of political violence, terrorist warfare, and strategic thinking in books like The Accidental Guerrilla and Counterinsurgency. In Out of the Mountains he highlights the danger of over-learning the messages of the Afghanistan conflict and neglecting the likely battlefields of the future. 

He argues persuasively that the next generation of conflicts will focus on cities, especially coastal cities, and in particular the areas of slums. These megacities are already the areas of greatest population growth, but their demographic features — poor or non-existent government services, masses of people (especially bored, resentful young men), rampant crime gangs, and, for terrorists, access to marine supply lines — can make them disasters waiting to happen. 

And it has already happened. Kilcullen finds plenty of examples: Mogadishu, Mumbai, Kingston. He nominates Dhaka and Lagos as likely future trouble spots, although the complete list would be depressingly long. 

Connectivity is another crucial element. The terrorists who shot their way through Mumbai utilised some very high-grade IT, and mobile phones have been critical to the formation of self-organising swarms, whether against US Army Rangers in Mogadishu or in revolutionary opposition to oppressive regimes. Kilcullen notes that in some places people are more likely to have access to mobile phones than potable water. In the Arab Spring, several dictators tried to dispel the crowds by switching off the phone network or the internet. Bad idea: it simply turned the otherwise quiet middle class into an ignited proletariat. They didn’t like losing their Twitter and Facebook, apparently. 

Trying to fight a conventional battle in an urban sprawl is a recipe for catastrophe, says Kilcullen. He raises the idea of the “feral city,” a crowded mass of humanity which can easily turn into a formidable, self-directed paramilitary force. The fact that in these cities the government has simply given up does not mean that the places are ungoverned. They can be very intensively governed but the source of authority is likely to be a warlord or a gang leader — what Kilcullen calls a “conflict entrepreneur.” His account of how a criminal organisation called the Shower Posse has taken over a large chunk of the Jamaican city of Kingston and is evolving into a quasi-government in its own right is fascinating, in a frightening sort of way. Indeed, one of the trends of the future is the blurring of the line between terrorist outfits and criminal enterprises, and even quasi-organisations like gangs of soccer hooligans. If you think the world is complicated now, says Kilcullen, just wait a little while. Cyberwar and homemade drones: it’s a scary frontier.

Kilcullen suggests that military thinkers should start to study cities rather than countries but his ideas go much deeper. Start conceiving of cities as organisms, he suggests, and look at their internal dynamics. It can be useful to draw on local expertise, although he makes the point — gained from painful experience in Iraq — that connecting up with one group can make enemies of another. There is always a cauldron of old grudges bubbling just below the surface, and local people have proved to be very good at manipulating newcomers for their own advantage. 

Even when the quagmire of micropolitics can be avoided, there are plenty of problems in trying to apply military doctrine to this new sort of warfare. In particular, the strategy of seeking to find and destroy the enemy’s command-and-control centre makes little sense if there is no real centre, or if it is in another country (as in the Mumbai attack) and linked by satellite phone. 

Likewise, the US emphasis on control of the air is of limited use when a population is densely packed and the real targets are impossible to identify. For a long time, US commanders have sought to bypass cities by airlift, but when a city is the crux of the problem, that strategy is impossible. 

Significantly, Kilcullen is not against cities per se. Many cities in the developing world have huge potential for solving problems, and their energy is certain to play a critical role in the world’s future development. But equally, at some point the countries of the West are going to find themselves fighting in unforgiving, festering urban terrain — a humanitarian mission that spins out of control, for instance, as in Mogadishu — so they had better know what they are getting into. 

Kilcullen is somewhat skeptical of the notion of “peacekeeping”: in many cases, there is simply no peace to keep, not at least as the term is understood in the corridors of Washington and the United Nations.

A framework of predictability is what most people want, as well as the chance to improve their lot. For Western governments and agencies looking at the developing world, the message is: don’t over-promise, don’t assume you can easily get in and get out, and accept that there are some problems that can’t be fixed — not by outsiders, anyway. 

Kilcullen acknowledges that trying to predict what military options might work is a fraught exercise, but nevertheless he offers some ideas. Look at small modular teams rather than hierarchical formations, he says, and improve coastal surveillance and insertion capacities. And before starting an expedition, spend some time in the back alleys and black markets. That’s where the real action takes place, anyway. 

Out of the Mountains is a remarkable piece of work, and Kilcullen’s ability to combine the experience of a warrior with the insight of an analyst is extremely valuable. One might wish that the subject matter were not so complex and difficult, but that is the nature of the ground. At least with this book we have a map and a compass. It’s a start.