David Kilcullen

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David Kilcullen, a former Australian infantry officer who has become a analyst of insurgency and counterinsurgency, for both the Australian and U.S. governments. After the George W. Bush Administration left office, he joined former Ambassador Hank Crumpton in forming a consultancy, the Crumpton Group, and also is a member of the Center for a New American Security.

He was a strategic advisor to the Multi-National Force-Iraq. He has had field experience in East Timor, Bougainville and the Middle East,and wrote his doctoral dissertation, in 2000, on "The political consequences of military operations in Indonesia 1945-99: a fieldwork analysis of the political power-diffusion effects of guerrilla conflict"[1]

While he was Special Advisor on Counterinsurgency to the United States Department of State, and has often been part of the "brain trust" United States Central Command chief GEN David Petraeus, he has made his position clear between the wisdom of national policies, and the responsibilities to conduct them. In a July 2008 interview about the Iraq War, he said,

The biggest stupid idea was to invade Iraq in the first place.[2]

His 2009 book, The Accidental Guerrilla, according to Andrew Bacevich, presents three Kilcullens:

  • Kilcullen the scholar
  • Kilcullen the practitioner
  • Kilcullen the apostate

By apostate, Bacevich says

With the administration whose policies he sought to implement now gone from office, Kilcullen uses Accidental Guerrilla to skewer those he served for gross strategic ineptitude. His chief finding—that through its actions the Bush administration has managed to exacerbate the Islamist threat while wasting resources on a prodigious scale—is not exactly novel. Yet given Kilcullen’s status as both witness and participant, his indictment carries considerable weight.[3]


Ecosystem of Insurgency

Some of his visual metaphors for the environment, and the dynamics, of insurgency is often cited.[4] Another recent presentation, "Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq", used evolutionary biology to describe the competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents. [5]

Kilcullen's Three Pillars

Military doctrine

As in the classic military doctrine distinctions among the different levels, from grand strategy to various levels of tactics, Kilcullen has long distinguished between militant insurgency and the tactic of terrorism: "We must distinguish Al Qa’eda and the broader militant movements it symbolises – entities that use terrorism – from the tactic of terrorism itself."[6] Drawing a distinction between terrorism and those that use it as a means of fighting war does contrast with a simple view of a war on terror.

He relates the experience in Iraq to other counterinsurgency efforts in "Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice, 2007".[7]

Tactical level

According to Kilcullen, both concepts and execution matter at the tactical level of company command. [8] There are a basic set of rules:

  1. Preparation: while only one of the rule titles contain the word "intelligence", most of them are part of what, at a much level, is called Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace
    1. Know your turf
    2. Diagnose the problem
    3. Organize for intelligence
    4. Organize for inter-agency operations
    5. Travel light and harden your combat service support
    6. Find a political/cultural adviser: this might seem an intelligence job, but it is explicitly not: it is for someone with good people skills who will mix with the locals, not spend time analyzing them
    7. Train the squad leaders and then trust them. Counterinsurgency is a small unit game, just as the cultural adviser works at a micro level
    8. Rank is nothing: talent is everything
  2. Golden hour
    1. Be there. Stay out of armored vehicles. Avoid sunglasses. Let the people see you.
    2. Avoid knee jerk responses to first impressions.
    3. Prepare for handover from Day One.
    4. Build trusted networks. "Hearts and minds" has two pieces: "Hearts means persuading people their best interests are served by your success; Mindsmeans convincing them that you can protect them, and that resisting you is pointless. Note that neither concept has to do with whether people like you. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts."
    5. Start easy: start with secure points, build outward, demonstrate success.
    6. Seek early victories. This is as much information operations or armed propaganda as direct action
    7. Practise deterrent patrolling. Establish patrolling methods that deter the enemy from attacking you.
    8. Be prepared for setbacks. Again, information operations
    9. Engage the women, beware the children. Deal with women in culturally acceptable ways, possible with your own female soldiers. "Your troops are homesick; they want to drop their guard with the kids. But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from."
    10. Take stock regularly.
  3. Groundhog day: the steady state
    1. Exploit a single narrative
    2. Local forces should mirror the enemy, not ourselves.
    3. Practise armed civil affairs. "In your company sector, civil affairs must focus on meeting basic needs first, then progress up Maslow's hierarchy as each successive need is met."
    4. Small is beautiful.
    5. Fight the enemy's strategy, not his forces.
    6. Build your own solution; only attack the enemy when he gets in the way.
  4. Getting short
    1. Keep your extraction plan secret.
  5. Whatever else you do, keep the initiative

Accidental Guerrilla

There are, indeed, worldwide or large regional insurgencies such as Jemaah Islamiya and Lashkar e-Tayyiba, which he distinguishes from global terrorist movements including al-Qaeda and Hizballah, as well as local gangs that may have the capabilities of the larger groups. He also points to "micro-actors with massive impact,"[9] or "franchise" terrorists, such as those that carried out the 2004 Madrid bombings, are largely autonomous. The return of pirates mixes old and new. There are also local issues that, when mishandled, may grow, or even merge with a broader movement. His book, The Accidental Guerrilla, deals with recognizing and preventing situations that may escalate. [10]


In the twenty-first century threat context, new actors, new technologies, and new ways of war add to the old rather than substitute. He stresses there is no single model, but offers four frameworks that, singly or jointly, deal with real-world situations:

  1. A Backlash against Globalization
  2. A Globalized Insurgency
  3. A Civil War within Islam
  4. Asymmetric warfare


Broadly, these include decolonization of the past, but also situations where local people are concerned with a cultural colonization, a fairly benign example being the Slow Food Movement that [11] protested the establishment of a McDonald's store in Rome in 1986.

Globalized insurgency

This framework looks at what was called the "war on terror" not primarily as countering the tactic of [[terrorism], but to treat its causes as an extremely large insurgency, a political ad social phenomena. He treats it as not simply al-Qaeda, but the superset of takfiri movements. Such a superset differs from other insurgencies in that the target territory is the world, and the political order to be overthrown is the relationship between the Muslims of the world (the ummah) and the rest of the world. Al-Qaeda, in the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri, is al talia al ummah, the "vanguard of the ummah", or, as Michael Scheuer characterized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "inciter in chief."[12]

Local information operations cannot capture the "hearts and minds" of those whom the insurgents would recruit, thus requiring an "unrecedented international cooperation." In the case of the US, "soft power" is no longer an adjunct to military strength, but an essential.

Muslim civil War

Al-Qaeda has a different perspective vis-a-vis its "near enemy", the Muslim world, than between the ummah and the "far enemy", the West. This model focuses on overthrowing the power structure of the Muslim world and then taking on the West; it is closer to Osama bin Laden's original view, which al-Zawahiri convinced him was less wise than first inciting the West to overreact in Muslim lands.

Al-Qaeda is Sunni-based. An alternative civil war poses a Shi'a revival, with Hizbollah as an increasingly wide-ranging associate of Iran.

Yet a third resurgence would be of Iran itself.

Asymmetric warfare

No rational enemy will try to fight the United States on conventional terms. Kilcullen sees three implications:

  1. An opponent that decides to fight will use other means, ranging from guerrilla warfare and terrorism to weapons of mass destruction
  2. The disparity is so great that any actor that does not regard the United States as benign must take steps to balance a potential threat, not necessarily because they have any intent to challenge, but in their strategic defense
  3. High-technology conventional forces may become irrelevant if no one will fight them on their terms. Andrew Bacevich writes of an "Islamic Way of War" demonstrated not by terrorism alone, but in the kind of attrition seen by Israel against Hizbollah in 2006 and now against Hamas

The US, however, has both alliance obligations and the need to hedge against a situation where conventional methods apply, but also has to consider the political realities that a substantial part of the American economy is tied to building and maintaining conventional capabilities. Taking funds away from fighters and armored vehicles, which produce large numbers of industrial jobs, and applying them to linguists, special operators, and "soft power", will run into domestic politics. Small shifts, however, may have great effect: the Defense department is approximately 210 times larger than the Agency for International Development and State Department, taken together. Even within United States Special Operations Command, the bulk of funds are committed to direct action rather than military assistance.

Al-Qaeda's Accidental Guerrilla strategy

As inciter in chief, al-Qaeda applies and reapplies four basic tactics:

Iraq War

Kilcullen was an adviser to the team planning the "Surge". He describes it as a shift from an enemy-based to a population-based strategy.

Views on drone attacks

Along with Andrew Exum, Kilcullen believes the missile strikes by armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles is counterproductive to U.S. efforts in Pakistan. While there is value to killing senior insurgent leaders, they ask whether it is worse the resources and collateral damage. Citing that killing, not by a drone, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq brought only about 18 days of decreased violence, they question if the resources would be better spent guarding the population.

They cite the use of drones in Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union, where the show of force led to popular anger against what was seen as an American show of force. The exact collateral damage in Pakistan is unclear; some press reports, which the authors do not appear to trust completely, suggest 50 civilians are killed for every guerrilla. [13]

Kilcullen and Exum have not yet commented on new reports that the accuracy is increasing. Exum did blog that even though drone strikes are not a strategy, the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, which seems likely, is a "good thing." [14]


  1. Kilcullen, David J. (2000), The political consequences of military operations in Indonesia 1945-99 : a fieldwork analysis of the political power-diffusion effects of guerrilla conflict, University of New South Wales - Australian Defence Force Academy
  2. Ackerman, Spencer (July 28, 2008), "The Rise of the Counterinsurgents", Washington Independent
  3. Andrew Bacevich (2 March 2009), "Raising Jihad", National Interest
  4. Kilcullen, David (28 September 2006). Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency. U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Conference, Washington D.C..
  5. Kilcullen, David (8 May 2008), "Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq", RAND Insurgency Board
  6. Kilcullen, David (2004), Countering Global Insurgency: A Strategy for the War on Terrorism
  7. Kilcullen, David (2007), Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice, 2007
  8. Kilcullen, David (May-June 2006), "Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency", Military Review
  9. A term coined by Hank Crumpton
  10. David Kilcullen (2009), The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195368345, pp. 5-6
  11. Who we are, Slow Food Movement
  12. Michael Scheuer (28 April 2005), "Coalition Warfare, Part II: How Zarqawi Fits into Bin Laden's World Front", Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation
  13. David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum (May 17, 2009), "Op-Ed Contributors: Death From Above, Outrage Down Below", New York Times
  14. "Abu Muqawama" (Andrew Exum) (August 6, 2009), Mehsud Dead?