I have recently finished reading the new book by David Kilcullen entitled Counterinsurgency. This groundbreaking work sets a very different focus than his other excellent book The Accidental Guerrila. I have been reading Kilcullen since 2006 when I came across his outstanding “28 Articles,” that he wrote while consulting for the United States government in Iraq as a collection of “what to do and what not to do” ideas for junior officers in the Middle East. What he suggests for wartime situations is almost perfectly applicable for peacetime parallels in a political and social movement.
David’s audience for the book are the war fighters and policy makers involved in fighting what he calls the “global Islamist jihad” and he makes a very sophisticated description of radical Islam’s role in world affairs today. However in order to fight a “global Islamist jihad” conventional counterinsurgency theory leaves a lot wanting. Classical counterinsurgency theory was not designed to the task of waging a counterinsurgency in the globalized world we live in today. So he attempts to address those shortcomings by sharing his own knowledge and first hand experience of insurgencies waged throughout the world. Personally I think the subject of counterinsurgency theory is an extremely interesting subject. I think the whole “canon” of this literature should be required reading for any political activist worth their salt for the telling reason is that is is the guidebook for governments to respond to movements (like ours) that challenge the fundamental values of the government we live under. Incidentally reading David Kilcullen is like following a map to the often bewildering variety of ideas presented by John Robb at his Global Guerrilas blog. I won’t delve into to much about what the rest of the book is about other than mention I am rereading and underlining all the important parts.
For me one of the mind expanding concepts in the book was the authors affinity for complex systems theory as a tool to better understand the basis of social movements on a systematic level. A system is defined as:
“A complex system is a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties (behavior among the possible properties) not obvious from the properties of the individual parts.“
Complex systems doesn’t stop there, there is a class of “Complex adaptive systems are special cases of complex systems. They are complex in that they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements (and so a part of network science) and adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.”
It should be obvious that a social movement or a race of people can be seen as a complex adaptive system.
With my technology background I have long been a fan of network theory as a means to better understand the dynamics of a social groups. Complex systems is like a meta-network in that it is another abstraction of real world events to understand not just competing social networks but competing systems in a political struggle.
So with this theory we can understand how systems (e.g., social movements) become stronger or weaker over time. According to Kilcullen insurgencies require a certain kind of “food” in order to grow that he calls Inputs. Inputs include grievances, ideology/culture, doctrine/techniques, money, material, and people (recruits, supporters, specialists, leaders). In an insurgency these Inputs create Outputs including: propaganda, doctrine/techniques, further grievances, climate of insecurity, and casualties of physical/economic damage.
These actions can be analyzed according to the local, district, national, regional, and global level and a feature of a complex system is an “emergent” adaptation and evolution of behaviors. For example, Kilcullen describes how bomb making techniques in Iraq appear to have originated from Pakistani and Chechen groups.
One of the most fascinating lessons from historical examples covered by Kilcullen is the descriptions of how and why an insurgency is successful or how it becomes defeated by a government. I don’t have the time to summarize all of his conclusions but the most telling is exactly how insurgencies appear to win.
He calls this the Theory of Competitive Control: “In irregular conflicts (i.e., conflicts in which at least one warring party is a nonstate armed actor), the local armed actor that a given population perceives as most able to establish a normative system for resilient, full-spectrum, control over violence, economic activity, and human security is most likely to prevail within that population’s residential area.”
For the purposes of our political goals I have elsewhere called a liberated area a National Autonomous Zone (NAZ) where the self-determination of a nationality is sacrosanct over all higher authorities.
Counterinsurgency is the theory a government applies to make sure a NAZ does not become established and if it does to utterly destroy its threat to State hegemony in the area.
A primary principle of counterinsurgency strategy that you are sure to have heard before is to “win hearts and minds” of a given population. The way governments do this is through construction efforts, community services, addressing grievances, and other actions designed to make sure the people will actively encourage loyalty to the regime or at the least not oppose it. Invariably it is vital for insurgents to do the same thing. Kilcullen stresses that knowing the language and culture, including customs, of the population in an insurgency is vital for government forces. Just because insurgents may share the same ethnicity, religion, or other values that is not enough to get the Political Capital from a given group of people. Even Mao admonished the revolutionary cadre of the Communist Party of China to be kind and considerate to the people and going so far as to pay peasants who had livestock confiscated for Communist consumption. For Nationalists in a modern Western society that would translate into not intimidating the population with speech, styles, or manners that are unacceptable in civil society.
I called this article Complex Systems and Political Capital because complex systems are like a map on how to deliver political capital, the “goods” that define leadership of a given community. Mao has a maxim that the revolutionary is “a fish in the sea of the people.” If the fish is taken out of the sea, it dies. The means that being ostracized has the real world effect of denying you leadership over a given community. For comparison see the vast numerical difference between the ethnic supporters of Al Sharpton compared to the ethnics of David Duke: one has distinctly larger appeal among his ethnic group than the other. An example that had lethal consequences was how Al Qaeda became isolated from the Iraqi people when in 2007 certain tribes they tried to dominate turned to the government for support. The effect that essentially isolates the insurgents from there community is an essential goal of counterinsurgency that is designed to isolate, weaken, and discredit the political objective of a social movement.
In order to gain Political Capital words don’t account for much. Think about it, a given population will support and even help protect a foreign nations occupational troops due to them helping build a school or a hospital and fix or improve things in their lives. Soldiers (and the civilian counterpart of political activists) are not well received by repeating talking points to the natives but by the delivery of Political Capital. We need to be doing the same thing in our communities and we can do that with a better understanding of the complex society we live in. The inspiration that our beneficial actions can provoke with the current generation can and will be world shaking if we do our job right. Let’s not fail them by being unequal to the task.