Future historians will be after to follow our efforts in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars relying only on the works of David Kilcullen, Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State, officer in the Australian Army, anthropologist, top expert in counter-insurgency. (See below for a bio). His writing, along with that of a small number of other COIN theorists, has driven much of our strategy and tactics. His latest presentation will, I hope, continue to do so. it may prove one of his most important.
“Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“, RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008 (posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis). Here are excerpts, a few titles of the slides. This is a brilliant and subtle presentation, which a summary cannot capture.
Opening slide: An unforgiving environment that punishes error — Leading to Darwinian pressure on both sides…
Slide 16: Hypothesis: counterinsurgents adapt slowly, insurgents evolve quickly?
Slide 17: Hypothesis: mechanisms for insurgent evolution
- General evolutionary effect
- Leadership evolution (destruction-replenishment cycle)
- Bell Curve effect
Slide 52: Conclusions
- In a counterinsurgency, insurgent groups and security forces appear to engage in time- and resource-competitive processes of adaptation, driven by the Darwinian pressure imposed by a complex, hostile “conflict ecosystem” that operates on the edge of chaos
- Counterinsurgents appear mainly to adapt, insurgents to evolve – but insurgent groups whose network and organizational structure is tighter may behave in a more purposeful adaptive manner (e.g. JAM)
This presentation describes and explains one of the most important dynamics of COIN, an advantage of insurgents which I call “the Darwinian Ratchet”. Analysis of insurgency using biological metaphors has long been an important aspect of Kilcullen’s analysis, going back to one of his best (and under-appreciated) works: Countering Global Insurgency“, The Journal of Strategic Studies (August 2005). In this he developed a model of insurgencies as biological systems, a sophisticated extension of the traditional “enemy as disease” imagery. (e.g,, Kennan’s “World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue.” in The Long Telegram.) He has used this “dinosaurs versus mammals” metaphor in several recent presentations.
Arriving at a similar conclusion by a different path, I wrote in September 2003 …
By all accounts opposition attacks steadily grow more sophisticated. Note the increasing number and sophistication in opposition use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). War is the ultimate form of Darwinian evolution. Guerrillas learn swiftly; only the most capable survive.
This was the basis of my Fall 2003 forecasts that the Iraq insurgency would prosper despite the worst we could do to them. Our wealth, our technology, our overwhelming military forces, and our sophisticated interrogation techniques – all these would only force the insurgency to more rapidly evolve. in later reports I described this dynamic at work in several modern insurgencies, such as this excerpt from The Fate of Israel:
Sixth, the success of Israel’s counter-insurgency strikes against Hamas and Hezbollah have resulted in a “Darwinian ratchet”.
Israel’s security services cull the ranks of the insurgency. This eliminates the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. “Best” in the sense of those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of insurgents. The more severe Israel’s efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more ruthless the survivors. Hence the familiar activity pattern of a rising sine wave, seen in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and a dozen other places: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but bigger and more effective.
… The security services cull the pack of insurgents. They eliminate the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. That is, those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of more effective insurgents. The more severe our efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more ruthless the survivors.
Hence the familiar activity pattern of a rising sine wave, seen in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and a dozen other places: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but bigger and more effective.
Kilcullen discusses this dynamic, and how COIN can work to offset this inherent advantage of insurgents. I hope this receives the attention it deserves. So far the only discussion of this was by Dan Tdaxp, who gave an interesting critique in “In search of a darwinian ratchet: the ANC, the PLO, and the RAF“, posted at his blog on 24 October 2007.
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For more information about the Iraq War
- The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
- My posts about the war
- Important articles about the Iraq War
- Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them