A Conversation and Book Signing with Dr. David Kilcullen

Scroll to the bottom of this brief outline to
watch the entire conversation with Dr. Kilcullen

On Thursday, 14 October 2010 the Small Wars Foundation, with support
from NOETIC, the Marine Corps Association, Marine Corps Gazette, Caerus
Associates, the Columbia Group and Leinenkugel’s hosted a presentation
on Counterinsurgency by world-recognized expert on the subject, Dr David

Here is a brief outline of presentation highlights but all readers are strongly encouraged to view the videos of the event take by MCA staff photographer Ron Lunn (scroll down to watch the videos.)

Kilcullen served a 22-year long career as an Australian infantry officer with extensive service in counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and low intensity conflict operations throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific and also the Middle East.  Following his Army career, he served in Australia’s Office of National Assessments and later worked for the U.S. Department of State as the Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism and later served as Special Adviser for Counterinsurgency for Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

He served in Iraq as Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to General David Petraeus during the “Surge” strategy that was instrumental in suppressing the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq in 2007 and also served in a similar capacity in Afghanistan in 2009-2010.

He completed his PhD studies in 2000 with an academic background in the political anthropology of conflict in traditional and developing societies.

Held at the historic Gari Melchers Home and Studio overlooking the Rappahanock river in Fredericksburg, the venue was informal and interactive throughout starting with a humorous introduction of the author by Bill Nagle, one of the founding members of the Small Wars Foundation and Journal. 

Kilcullen pointed out that the SWJ was arguing for effective counterinsurgency efforts well before Donald Rumsfeld left office and that, this was one of the reasons why his new book, Counterinsurgency, was dedicated to Foundation members Dilegge and Bill Nagle.

Beginning his presentation, Kilcullen spoke authoritatively and clearly without notes or an outline. Addressing the topic of counterinsurgency, he stressed that there were two categories of importance to an understanding of COIN:

Small C    - Governments dealing with low-level discontent, insurrection and conflict
Big C    - A concept developed by the Rand Corporation in 1953 to address large, countrywide COIN efforts to deal with post colonial conflicts.

Addressing Small C first, he provided some detailed figures from a database called the “Corelates of War” which has gathered statistics about conflicts since the 1960’s about insurgencies and wars between states that frame an understanding of the environment:

To date there have been 464 wars involving the deaths of more than 1,000 people each since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

  • Most were civil wars
  • ONLY 17% were State on State actions (Wars between nation states)
  • The majority, with 386 examples, and at 83% involved non-state actors

Talking of the nature of insurgencies, he stated that they involve actual grievances and last an average of 34 years each and that the efforts to counter them take a long time with average, successful COIN effort taking between 12-15 years. He pointed out that the first year in an insurgency is crucial and that if responsive and effective efforts are made in that time frame, insurgencies can be successfully handled.

Insurgencies are organized movements with actors fanning discontent to garner support.  He drew a distinction between insurgencies and terrorist movements with the center of gravity for terrorists being the terrorist group itself while in insurgencies the center of gravity is usually the ability to manipulate the multitudes afflicted by causative grievances.

Police reform is usually an important factor in COIN efforts and improving their quality and focus of efforts often takes a decade to allow for generational change.  Kilcullen related a humorous anecdote about Secretary of State Condolezza Rice asking him how they could speed up the COIN efforts in Iraq and he indicated that you couldn’t make it go faster in the same way you cant get a baby from nine women in one month.  The COIN effort takes a long time.

He stated that the defeat mechanism in countering insurgency is the aggrieved population base and that COIN is not about being nice to an insurgent population – that after all, an insurgency is a form of war and that to wage it you had to kill people but the important thing was to kill the right people. To damage the insurgency movement, you have to target the right people.

Talking of outcomes, he pointed out that in 80% of cases, the Government prevails in the COIN efforts and that there were two key causative factors in successful COIN efforts:

COIN conducted in one’s own country (home court advantage)
Government willing to negotiate to address real or perceived grievances but from a position of strength

Addressing the difficulty of the COIN efforts he used New York City as an example.  With the best assets for dealing with COIN in the world, the New York City Police Department still has profound difficulty dealing with the multiplicity of ethnic, social, cultural and political groups and issues in the city.  He said to imagine sending Iraqi police to New York to deal with unrest.  Then he said to imagine sending Iraqi military to act as police in New York City.  That example is analogous to what the U.S. is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  COIN is intrinsically very hard but doing it in the context of another culture, language, ethos, mindset, and outlook is profoundly difficult.

Moving on to the subset of Big C he informed that the Rand corporation efforts to come up with plans to address Post Colonial Conflicts were an attempt to apply a best practices approach and that it was based largely on the French COIN effort in Algeria and that this example was of a very specific subset of insurgency that did not apply everywhere.  

Outlining other approaches to model COIN measures he related that FM 3-24 was written specifically for Iraq but does not at all apply well to the culture and environment of Afghanistan and he pointed out that there is a big difference between a tribal insurgency and a peasant insurgency.

Towards the end of his presentation, he stated that tough as COIN was and with all the errors and false starts, that Americans were orders of magnitude better at COIN than anyone else in the world.

Concluding the presentation, Dr. Kilcullen then took audience questions for an hour and then autographed books for the audience.