Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Book Review - Future Fight

George Michael

David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 351 pp. $27.95.

In his most recent book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, retired Australian Army officer David Kilcullen advances an ambitious “theory of everything” on conflict in the twenty-first century. His conclusions may surprise you. Since the start of the twenty-first century, soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers have been preoccupied with Afghanistan, but Kilcullen argues that rather than mountainous regions, the locus of future conflict will be in urban, networked, and coastal areas. To deal effectively with this new conflict environment, he counsels that we must “get ourselves, mentally and physically, out of the mountains.”

According to Kilcullen, four powerful megatrends will shape the contours of future conflict. The first is rapid population growth. By the year 2050, the globe’s population is expected to level off at somewhere between 9.1 and 9.3 billion people. The vast majority of this growth will be absorbed by cities, hence the second trend—urbanization. By 2008, the global population had passed the 50 percent urbanization mark and by 2050, this figure is estimated to reach 75 percent. Moreover, much of this growth will take place in cities on coastlines, resulting in the third trend, littoralization. The final trend—connectedness—will link these overcrowded, coastal regions with the rest of the world. As Kilcullen notes, these coastal urban sprawl areas should not be dismissed as marginal; rather, they are central to the global system as we know it.

Kilcullen conceptualizes the city as a living organism complete with its own flows and metabolism. Just as organisms transform inputs such as sunlight, food, water, and air into energy, cities circulate people and products through their environs. Urban insurgencies arise when cities lack the carrying capacity to metabolize these inputs, leading to a buildup of toxins which manifests as poverty, disease, unemployment, social injustice, and ethnic dislocation. Local armed groups have the potential to exert a chokehold on these urban areas. For example, by attacking transportation systems, they can disrupt the flows that connect cities with their hinterlands.

Connectivity is the great force multiplier in modern urban insurgencies. Kilcullen explains how connectivity enabled the Arab Spring, which commenced on December 17, 2010, when a fruit vendor immolated himself in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid to protest police corruption and harassment. Mass demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country. Members of soccer clubs, or “Ultras,” formed the hard core of the street protests. Inasmuch as they had prior experience in confronting the police in the streets, they were accustomed to mayhem. Resistance groups made extensive use of the new media and social networking sites to get their message out to fellow protesters and sympathizers in other parts of the world. For instance, members of the online group Anonymous assisted by shutting down Tunisian government websites, which contributed to a cascading loss of cohesion within the government. Finally, on January 14th, President Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. 

The success of the Tunisian protests had a demonstration effect in other Arab countries. News of Ben Ali’s fall led to immediate calls for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt. Connectivity was also a catalyst in the Egyptian uprising. Despite the authoritarian character of Mubarak’s regime, Egypt enjoyed an unusually high and unfettered degree of connectivity. As in the Tunisian conflict, Anonymous activists targeted Egyptian government servers. Mubarak responded by shutting down the Internet, but his efforts were thwarted when companies such as Google implemented a system that enabled protesters to send tweets even though the Internet in Egypt had been turned off. Mubarak’s move only further antagonized the population. Eventually, the Egyptian police refused to support Mubarak, forcing him to step down and hand over control to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, whose leaders began taking steps to transition to democratic rule.

Just four days after Mubarak resigned, protests began in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Unemployment had become an acute problem in Libya, made all the worse by the country’s youth bulge. Moreover, Muammar Gadhafi’s government had favored the communities around Tripoli, and given short shrift to those cities in the eastern region of the country. A lack of economic opportunity meant that Libyan cities—especially Benghazi—were “gradually filled with educated, politically aware, unemployed, radicalized, alienated youth,” a combustible situation to say the least. Over the years, Gadhafi had alienated virtually all of his Arab neighbors in the region. As a consequence, they were quick to support multilateral efforts for his ouster. The UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone, which effectively doomed the regime. NATO air strikes enabled the rebels to maneuver and gave them access to seaborne support. Virtually all of the fighting was urban and coastal. As in Tunisia and Egypt, Ultras served as shock troops in the Libyan civil war. Although the Libyan rebels lacked military experience, they had a good functional knowledge of technology. Finally, on the morning of October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was captured on the outskirts of the city of Sirte and killed by the rebels. With news of his death, the regime collapsed within hours.

All three of these countries—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—are heavily connected, littoralized and have experienced rapid population growth and coastal urbanization. They thus exemplify the model of conflict that Kilcullen presages will predominate in the upcoming years.

Like other scholars of warfare, including Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, and Rupert Smith, Kilcullen predicts that irregular warfare will predominate in twenty-first century conflicts. In fact, the U.S. military’s supremacy discourages adversaries from conventional military confrontations, thus leaving asymmetrical strategies the only viable option in the realm of armed conflict. For many years, the conventional wisdom was that the countryside would be the primary locus for revolutionary movements in the developing world. But in the 1960s, some Latin American revolutionary theorists, such as the Brazilian Carlos Marighella, came up with a strategy for conducting urban guerrilla warfare. His strategy was put into practice in Uruguay by a group called the Tupamaros. But after their campaign failed, the consensus was that irregular warfare would predominate in rural districts rather than cities. However, Kilcullen predicts that this pattern will reverse as more and more people migrate to cities. What is more, these irregulars will increasingly be able to draw upon advanced technologies to enhance their military potential.

To establish long-term stability, Kilcullen counsels that it is imperative for locals and outsiders to come together to jointly design approaches to solve the problems that bedevil these cities. To that end, a secure environment must first be established—one with enough predictability and sense of safety so that locals can get together and begin the work toward building a consensus on the nature of their problems. At that point, an external team—the smaller and less intrusive the better—can bring functional and technical knowledge relevant to the project. The primary goal, Kilcullen argues, is not the “project”; rather, it is the creation of a functioning community that can work together to solve problems as they arise.

To meet the challenges of this new threat environment, Kilcullen recommends that the Marines should become the force of choice, given their specialization in complex expeditionary operations. Versatility and adaptability will be important traits for these forces. In these urbanized littoralized locales, military forces will usually not have fixed installations equipped with a lavish intelligence infrastructure or constant Wi-Fi coverage of counterinsurgency operations. To adapt to this new security environment, Kilcullen advises that “Troops will have to become hikers again, not campers.”

Although presented as a “theory of everything,” Kilcullen has little to say about how armed conflict and terrorism might occur in the developed world. This is somewhat surprising, because of the centrality of connectedness in his theory. He does note, though, that nations that engage in military operations in parts of the world from which they have an immigrant population should now take into account the risk of “diaspora retaliation.” This observation has sobering implications for the United States and other NATO nations as the “long war” against radical Islam and terrorism persists, since these countries now host growing Muslim immigrant communities. An increasing number of soft targets in our interconnected societies could make terrorism carried out by self-
radicalized amateurs highly destructive in the future.

George Michael is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Westfield State University in Westfield, Massachusetts.