Cities of War A counterinsurgency expert argues that the future belongs to those who control the cities

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla

By David Kilcullen (Oxford University Press, 2013), 294 pages plus notes and index

You have now lived more of your life since 9/11 than before it. For some readers that statement may not be true (not quite yet for me). It is, however, overwhelmingly true for most of today’s undergraduates. This generational fact, once I realized it several months ago, troubled me, because it seemed reasonable to expect that the dominant way young people today have to relate to war has been through the paradigm created by 9/11—one that assumes war is an endless chess match between American intelligence and terrorist cowardice (as in Showtime’s dramatic series Homeland, 2011-present) or between professional soldiers and out-matched insurgents (as in HBO’s war drama Generation Kill, 2008). I felt my students needed a more textured intellectual history of how we got to where we are, and so recently I decided to offer a new course, “Forever War,” about the putative interminability of contemporary war. In order to think critically about the fatigue students feel from the on-going War on Terror—a fatigue registered with great success in journalist Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War (2009) about the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—I imagined it made sense first to look back over “endless” war’s more recent history in cultural texts such as Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman’s great science-fiction novel, The Forever War. Students’ living present as understood through the past just outside their reach seemed to me a simple yet elegant pedagogical strategy. I only realized once I read David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla that I had forgotten the other side of forever war: the future.

Out of the Mountains bills itself as a rumination about the future of warfare. In large part, it is certainly that—a book that worries whether governments and policy makers (and perhaps humanities academics like myself) have become complacent in how they imagine and subsequently anticipate armed group conflict. The Western approach has largely been counterinsurgency campaigns in remote and difficult terrain such as Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden was supposed to be hiding. It turns out he wasn’t in the mountains, but America’s mindset still is. The rural landscape of war that 9/11 helped to bring about is now obsolete, and as a result quite dangerous because it continues to inform our ideas about where the danger truly lies more than a decade after the Twin Towers fell. The first problem Kilcullen wants to correct is the 9/11 way of thinking about the War on Terror that I also worried about with my students, albeit for different reasons. Lawrence Wright ends The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, his exhaustive study published in 2006 on the roots of modern Islamic militancy, with the image of “[Ayman al-]Zawahiri and … masked Arabs disappear[ing] into the mountains.” Kilcullen would argue we have been stuck in the hills hunting them ever since, all the while leaving unaddressed the more likely theaters of war to come in coastal megacities that are growing at unsustainable rates. Like it or not, the Wars of 9/11 are over (or about over)—the Wars of the City are next.

The early chapters of Out of the Mountains analyze what Kilcullen identifies as the four interrelated “megatrends” that bring him to such a conclusion: Rapid population growth, an increase in that population growth dwelling in urban environments (including not only urban cores but also “periurban” zones and slums), the tendency for urban areas to be “littoral” (i.e., near the coasts of oceans), and the technological advances that make people more connected than ever before. Most population growth will occur in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and “cities are expected to absorb all the new population growth on the planet by 2050, while simultaneously drawing in millions of migrants from rural areas” (29). Furthermore, “ … in 2012, 80 percent of people on the planet lived within 60 miles of the sea, while 75 percent of large cities were on a coast” (30). That first statistic probably does not surprise many readers. Population growth lingers in our collective anxiety as a slow burn, like global warming, but such cancers are too gradual for us to worry about every day. The second demographic fact, however, surprised me, although in hindsight perhaps it should not have. Oceans and waterways make economic life possible, and since people will gravitate to those places where they can make a living, the developing world can expect more and more for displaced farmers and marginalized populations to swarm into large coastal cities.

My further surprise was discovering that much of the book wants to theorize the city rather than war per se. Kilcullen prefers to leave strategy and tactics aside (although he does provide some speculative advice in the Appendix, such as rethinking traditional chains-of command structures). To understand the future of war, we must first understand the way huge coastal megacities work, and Kilcullen understands them not as places but rather as systems. People, products, energy, and waste come in. They are “metabolized” and work their way out. Or not, as the case may be, which is when armed group violence happens. As Kilcullen argues in examples such as San Pedro Sula, Honduras (statistically the most violent place in the world), violence between non-state armed groups occurs when cities exceed their “carrying capacity,” that is, when governments, police, schools, and health care networks can no longer provide for the people. Peace in this book is not our natural human state. Peace is rather the product of a healthy humming machine—the consequence of processing people such that they are convinced they are safe, happy, and well fed. If these systems fail and their carrying capacity overloads, the city becomes “feral,” wild, and ungovernable. Kilcullen focuses on several feral cities, in particular the free-for-all state in Mogadishu that is the cause of “Blackhawk Down” in 1993, and the decades of corruption in Kingston, Jamaica, that led to the rise of the Shower Posse, a drug gang in the garrison neighborhood known as Tivoli Gardens that acts as a surrogate government for local residents.

Kilcullen is at his best not when he prophesying but when he is analyzing. A representative case in point is the violence in Mumbai in November 2008 which was orchestrated by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The raiding party who carried out those attacks disembarked from Karachi, a megacity of over 21 million whose port is one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world (“26 million tons of freight per annum” (61)). The port’s extreme congestion allowed the terrorists to slip out unnoticed to the open sea where they soon kidnapped a large tanker. The captain of that ship, who was quickly killed, offered little resistance, probably because he took the terrorists for smugglers or kidnappers. Criminals of this sort who are involved in illicit dark networks are part of “the normal background environment” (61) for large coastal networked zones; one small boat of angry men did not seem unusual. When LeT eventually came ashore in Mumbai, a city of approximately 20 million people, they landed in the coastal slums where they also failed to stand out. Only then did they move through the city center to target a Jewish community center and two Western hotels (56). Small assault teams moved independent of one another without any clear leader. The nominal field commander, Abu Dera Ismail Khan, was running diversionary attacks before the main assaults took place and was killed early in the operation, yet the mission continued because the actual command center was back in Karachi where an operations room communicated by Skype and SMS text messages. Twitter feeds made visible (if not viral) the spectacle of the attacks while also informing the terrorists of Indian police and military movements. Eventually there would be 172 people killed and damage over $18 million.

If this kind of violence is the tea leaves of war’s future, how can it possibly be stopped? If decentralized swarms of armed men, who sometimes are proxies for states and sometimes act alone, can bob and weave undetected amidst the great unknown social networks of the megaslum’s multitude, what real chance is there? Kilcullen offers the “Theory of Competitive Control,” which, in brief, revolves around a central premise: all people have many systems of authority constantly competing for them to be recognized as “in control,” such as the state, tribal governments, mafia and criminal rings, and local gangs. Some systems are institutional and some are ad hoc. Which system wins is determined by which organization provides the most predictable and most secure future. “Predictable” importantly does not mean preferred. Kilcullen points out that the Taliban is so intractable in Afghanistan today not because the people like their rules, but because there are rules, and those rules are clear. Justice is swift, predictable and, importantly, enforced. “Support follows strength, not vice versa” (125), Kilcullen notes. In order to control the cities, the United States and its allies must learn the local systems, offer alternatives to the illicit networks that sustain feral populations, and all the while show force to indicate we will back up our promises of a better life. This theory complements Kilcullen’s other ideas on counterinsurgency. He served as an advisor to General David Petraeus during the Surge in Iraq, and his “28 Articles” is a popular field guide for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Competitive control is persuasive in the abstract, and yet I don’t see how it promises more success than our counterinsurgency efforts have over the past decade. It is one more (nuanced) version of a strategy advocated since at least the days of the Vietnam War: Learn the people so you can win their hearts and minds.

But what if “the people” cannot be learned anymore? The underlying condition that Kilcullen does not address enough is how the future megacity interferes with our collective ability to imagine “the people” (let alone “the enemy”). Megacities are exceeding their carrying capacity to sustain their populations, but so too are megacities exceeding the carrying capacity of our political imagination, which has been restricted to the nation-state for centuries. The analogy I kept making while reading was to my own childhood spent in Fairbanks, Alaska, a city whose surrounding population totals around 100,000. It is a mid-size city, although the population is scattered across a land mass about the size of Vermont. There is a lot of land and not a lot of people (at least it felt that way to me), and as a child who was raised in this sparsely populated, land-locked, completely cut-off and disconnected rural environment (we lived in a house outside of town on a few acres), I wanted to get out. I wanted to see the world, but I couldn’t imagine what that world could look like. Try as I might, the biggest I could dream was Seattle. Seattle! A lovely city, but, as it turns out, not the ends of the world. Looking back on my former self, I can see how small and immature my political imagination truly was, and my capacity to think beyond the West Coast only improved after I left the state and the political environments around me changed. I came to see that there was a world beyond what I could think, and megacities with tens of millions of people will force America to rethink whether there is a world beyond the nation-state—and whether the megacity is the new sovereign.

Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities that the nation emerged as a political fiction at the end of the 18th century because technological advancements such as the newspaper allowed a slave owner in South Carolina to read about the price of tea in Boston Harbor and imagine himself alongside a Northerner he had never met. That slave owner would not relate to the nation the same if Boston had 50 million people. Nor would we today. Furthermore, the technology of connectedness has changed since the salad days of the newspaper, and with that change, the cohesion of the nation has arguably further been destabilized. In Mumbai, digitally connected terrorists operated outside of nation and plead allegiance to no state. We might imagine them from afar as criminals or terrorists, but those judgments are themselves rooted in the comfort a nation-state provides: criminals must be anarchists (deniers of the state) and terrorists only attack objects and symbols of the state (the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the Pentagon) since they surely hate “our” freedoms—freedoms which only a national Constitution and Bill of Rights can provide. When such freedoms fail, as in the case of the recent disclosure that the NSA is spying on Americans, the failure is registered as a temporary violation of a permanent covenant. It’s all right because that’s not how America normally conducts business, and someday we will return to who we really are. Yet businesses only stay in business if they adapt their model to stay “competitive” (to return to Kilcullen’s own language), and I am left with the feeling after reading Kilcullen that the boundaries of the nation-state may be as obsolete as my childhood self. “Governments such as that of the United States that draw sharp distinctions between warfare and law enforcement and between domestic and overseas legal authorities will experience great difficulty, and may find it impossible to act with the same agility as irregular actors who can move among these artificial categories at will” (112). While I do not suggest Kilcullen explicitly is defending NSA snooping, I take his larger point that in counterinsurgency as in the wars of the future, we waste our time by fighting to return a foreign population to what they were before. Rather, we should teach “resiliency rather than stability” (258), since in huge cities, “there is no status quo, no ‘normal’ to which to return, no stable environment to police” (241). Out of the Mountains demands us to consider whether the same lessons apply to the future of the United States.