Book review: Counterinsurgency, by David Kilcullen, 2010.

Coalition partners and security force members aim towards the location of concealed opponents during a drill on navigating difficult terrain during military training in Erbil, Iraq, Jan. 23, 2018.  (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Anthony Zendejas IV)

“Insurgents tend to ride and manipulate a social wave of grievances, often legitimate ones, and they draw their fighting power from their connection to a mass base. This mass base is largely undetectable to counterinsurgents, since it lies below the surface and engages in no armed activity” – David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency

D. Kilcullen’s book (2010) can well be the continuation of D. Galula’s work (Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 1964).

Kilcullen’s main contribution is the scrutiny of global Jihadism, globalization and telecommunications in the activities of contemporary insurgency and counterinsurgency; I am inclined to adhere to his empirical approach (28 principles) in a judiciously and skeptically manner (D. Kilcullen, 2010: 30), for I am a believer of particularity of cases (relativity)

Even though he uses four cases to illustrate the pragmatism of his ideas, I believe that a general approach to his (28) commandments for any situation would add value to his theory; i.e. he could have suggested a basic planning process for commanders of counter-insurgency groups, beginning with the analysis of the internal (the counter-insurgency unit) and external (the insurgency) situations, continuing with the establishment of objectives, strategies, tactics, and finally the assessment of possible required adjustments to the plan. Simple, effective, and efficient tools could be employed, i.e. to carry out the first part, a S.W.O.T. analysis; a S.M.A.R.T. technic to establish the objectives, etc. The application of such a procedure would make the choice of his propositions, a more educated than a folkloric one (Kilcullen, 2010: 30). In this sense, he does not include in his book occurrences that he mentions in his article from 2006, i.e.: insurgents might seek to preserve the “zeitgeist”, a political correspondence contrary to a classical approach could happen (counter-insurgents looking for revolutionary change), failure of the state could be the origin of insurgency, or insurgents can be older than governments.

The first part (first five chapters) is more of a collection of articles (except for chapter 6), therefore the lack of a method (except for chapter 3 that refers to his PhD. dissertation). This part reads as non-connected events, topics, especially when reading chapter 4 (Engagement at Motaain Bridge). Other shortcomings include Kilcullen’s case of insurgency smashed in Indonesia (50s, 60s) in which he does not explain that it was achieved without (much) support of the population (one of his postulates: win the hearts and minds of the people). The moment Darul Islam’s Kartusuwiryo was caught, the group started to fall apart, but he doesn’t explain what was done once the actions fell on civilian hands. 

The second part of the book proposes a method (a complex system analysis) to destabilize and defeat what he calls global insurgency. I agree globalization has a direct effect on insurgency and COIN (Counter-insurgency) actions, however, I am not sure that even after the author explains the difference and links between the concepts of insurgency and terrorism, I agree that global insurgency is happening nowadays. Kilcullen considers bin Laden’s call to arms from August 1996 enough to classify al-Qaeda as an insurgent movement, however, he affirms that terrorists are “psychologically and morally flawed, with personal (psychopathic) tendencies towards violence, whilst insurgents use violence within an integrated politico-military strategy where violence is instrumental, not central to their approach…” (Kilcullen, 2010: 188); It doesn’t seem to me that al-Qaeda uses violence instrumentally, at least not at the tactical-operational level; it seems more to be a psychopathic behaviour, which can explain some of the attrocities carried out by members of this group.

Towards the end of part two, Kilcullen affirms that language is “intimately connected” to culture (Kilcullen, 2010: 222), but Language is not only “connected” as an independent factor; it is the most important element of culture (language is the main provider of identity: language is identity is a popular idea). Language also determines how human beings make sense of the world (how we think and structure ideas), it defines us, therefore, he could have elaborated more on understanding the language as the key to understanding two elements of “takfirism” (Kilcullen, 2010: 251). If language is that significant, understanding even subtle differences in the way of conceiving and using it, in different cultures (since culture is everything and anything that humans create within a group), becomes not only useful at the tactical level, but strategic. Speaking the language of insurgents is just the tip of the iceberg to understanding the how’s and why’s of their struggle. Logic thought is on the side of Kilcullen’s work; it could add depth at some parts. 

A Staff Sgt. works with local Iraqis and cultural advisors outside an entry control point before running patients to the Air Force Theater Hospital for treatment at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.

Another idea in which he could elaborate, is when he implies that there is no magic solution (to defeat insurgent forces); it is a permanent matter of thought, creativity, and adaptability: “the imperative is to understand each environment, in real time […], in ways that would be understood by the locals -and not by analogy with some other conflict, […] some universal template or standardized rule-set.” (Kilcullen, 2010: 2). He mentions Vietnam as a (misunderstood) case of counterinsurgency success, from the part of the U.S., however, the fact is that the U.S. was expelled by the Viet Cong and far from applying much thought, creativity and adaptability, at some points they copied some tactics already proved wrong, applied by the French, before them.

I can relate this book to the findings of E. Shills et M. Janowitz (1948), where they assert that primary group life conditions was a key factor in the willingness of German soldiers to continue or discontinue the war effort towards the end of WWII, I believe this principle can apply with civilian populations willing (or not) to fall on the side of the state in Kilcullen’s ideas. If moral and physical integrity of civilian populations are guaranteed by the state, indigenous people support of COIN forces, can be achieved.

I can make other connections between this work and E. D. Swinton’s book (1986): both works are manuals based out of experience (originally dreams in Swinton’s case). Both attribute importance to the understanding of the elements that can disrupt their groups’ efforts to prevail, i.e. both mention how and why the flow of information between local populations and insurgents, must be avoided , like when they mention women and children (not fraternizing with them). Both suggest a series of actions to prevail (28 with Kilcullen’s, 22 with Swinton’s). Whilst Swinton’s book asserts that small infantry units can be more effective than large groups, Kilcullen’s focus on the possibility that small insurgents’ groups get isolated and defeated at the systemic level.


Galula, D. (2006). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Santa Barbara, California, USA: Praeger. (Original work published in 1964)

Kilcullen, D. 2006. Counter-insurgency Redux. Survival, Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 48, Issue 4, 111-130.

Kilcullen, D. 2010. Counterinsurgency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shils, E. and M. Janowitz 1948. “Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II,” The Public Opinion Quarterly Vol.12, No.2 (Summer 1948), 280-315.

Swinton, E. D. (1986). The Defence of Duffer’s Drift. Wayne: Avery Publishing. (Original work published in 1904)

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