Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN

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

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Who is David Kilcullen?  See his DOD biography as of May 2007; a brief biography on DNI; his entry on Wikipedia.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Brief!  Stay on topic!  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about the Iraq War

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
  2. My posts about the war
  3. Important articles about the Iraq War
  4. Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them  

7 thoughts on “Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN”

  1. Considering the third sentence of the post you link to [1] is “With this in mind, Fabius Maximus’s talk of a “Darwinian ratchet” makes no sense:,” I guess I should thank you for the shout-out! :-)

    [1] “In search of a darwinian ratchet: the ANC, the PLO, and the RAF
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your critique of my theory of the “ratchet” is like my criticism of Kilcullen’s tactical analysis: criticism is the true praise. Not only does it encourage improvement, but uncritical adulation is meaningless.

    Actually I would love uncritical adulation, which Kilcullen has mostly had until recently (note the harsh comments on Lang’s post). Or rather, I might love it if ever I received some!

  2. This sounds a lot like a TTP race.

    Luttwak provided an important insight that can be applied to this, in his book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.

    In his book about the paradox logic of war he mentioned that highly effective innovations provoke a quick and thorough reaction (it hurts to think about the costs of F-22’s with this in mind). The better innovation is the one that persists because its small effect and low visibility keep it under the reaction threshold of the adversary.

    The great innovations can be useful for a long time, though. This can be achieved by not adopting them on a grand scale or using them only sporadically. A decentralized innovation culture with slow innovation dispersion achieves this automatically (and is usually despised as inefficient).

    For more on this see “Diminishing technological advantages“.

  3. “Israel’s counter-insurgency strikes against Hamas and Hezbollah”. Except that in the case of Hezbollah, Israel got thumped. In 2006 it was not counter-insurgency, it was an all out fight between a massively well equipped, ‘modern’ western armed forces vs reasonably well equipped a local, reservist light infantry.

    And they got thumped. I repeat, they got thumped.

    Hezbollah did not use insurgency tactics against them, they fought man to man. Several villages changed hands many times, but Hezbollah forces always got them in the end. The closest example in modern times is the fighting retreat on the Kokoda trail that broke the back of the Japanese.

    Motivation, training, preparation, planning, the right equipment for the task, not some boondangle foisted on them by a corrupt and inefficient MI complex.

    All respect to Kilcullen (he’s an Aussie after all), but at times and in some areas he misses the point. He is so focussed about counter-insurgency that he misses that some groups have evolved so far beyond that, they have moved to a SAS model, the quintessential military model. 100 against 1,000 easy, 100 to 10,000 takes a bit more time. They can switch from a one on one fight to a fighting retreat (e.g insurgent model), to a Wehrmacht like counter attack, to a ….. and back and forward again and again, you get the idea.

    And they live the 7 P_s.
    (and) Practise

    So, now there is a model for others to follow around the world. Us too if we actually listened and thought a bit. Nah, will never happen we like our ‘make more money for someone who will never fight(except for their stock options of course)’ model.

    Come back Monty you are really, really, I mean really needed right now.

  4. Abu M. has a post on Hezbollah noting the decline in the group’s strategic communications since 2006 [1].

    Darwinism doesn’t weed out the slow and stupid: it weeds out those who don’t survive. In situations where being slow and stupid make sense (witness the domestication of the dog, the cat, the ferret, the human, etc), the population will trend toward that form of docility.

    [1] “Nasrallah’s Dumb Speech
    Fabius Maximus replies: Quite right, for insurgents fighting against the US “slow and stupid” are traits that lead to a short lifespan.

  5. Just to add a bit more about the wonderful talk by Jared Diamond on tribal revenge (podcast link This is a MUST LISTEN.

    In it he describes how a friend of his took years, tremendous organisation (at one point over 200 people were organised) and great expense to exact revenge on a person in another tribe who killed one of his relatives.

    The key argument is that if the State does not exist (or has collapsed or been destroyed) this is the ‘default’ level of human behaviour. I remember something like it in Glasgow in the 70’s with gangs.

    When a COIN operation moves into this (or even creates) an environment like this then you are doomed unless you are trying to build a State. Essentially you are just a big tribe there, and sure you have fear, but that just means more involved planning and organisation to get your revenge on the SOB’s that killed you father, mother, brother, sister, 3rd cousin, etc. And you will wait, if necessary for a long time to get your moment.

    Alliances are essential, but if you piss off everyone (bombs and artillery tend to do that) then they will work together to get you. And you are never safe. A couple of years later, when everything seems ok, that son, cousin, etc will stab you in the back for what you did, with a big smile, after taking you money and being your best friend for years.

    The options are bad:

    (1) Kill everyone, difficult in Iraq unless you use nukes or gas. The US does not have the troops to do it, even if industrial level death camps were built.
    (2) Turn the place into a total prison camp. Troop numbers again.

    Options (1) & (2) are really the ‘Fallujah’ option that was tried.


    (3) Restore the State. Only a State with a monopoly on violence can calm things down and bring order. But then you hit the problem of legitimacy, justice and trust. The ‘unholy’ bargain made between people and a State is that they will have the monopoly, but you trust them (which means reasonable legal systems, etc).

    By and large this works out well, because death from violence rates tumble under a State structure, so everyone feels safer. Which is why States have replaced tribal groupings just about everywhere in the World, it (by and large) is a better alternative.

    This is when a clever COIN operation can succeed. But everything has to be thought through, creating/backing a group capable of a legitimate State, bringing justice and justice systems (essential to break the Revenge cycle), aid (or at least protecting aid suppliers), training people to make a living, development, education, etc (people have to see a gain, and quick one at that, for giving up their tribal prerogatives). More police than soldiers, etc, etc.

    A very important thing is visible justice for those in your COIN operation that go astray (and they will). This is leading by example, a soldier goes amok then he has to be dealt with quickly, severely and publicly, otherwise the whole revenge thing starts again. (many baulk at that except the Aussies).

    You cannot impose Justice unless you demonstrate it by example all the time on your own people.

    Why the IRAQ occupation is Doomed

    The problem with the US occupation is that this is not a humanitarian intervention, this is an Occupation for another purpose. Unlike the occupations after WW2, where everyone just wanted to get Germany and Japan up an running again, make them peaceful and get out as fast as possible, building a valid State in Iraq would mean that it would be a competitor to the Occupation and might resist (as it does) the greater agenda.

    So COIN as we know it is irrelevant there (and in Afghanistan which has some similarities). Only in an East Timor like situation does any current COIN theory or practise have any validity, because you are trying to get a viable State up and running so that you can get out. And leave something reasonable behind.

    Iraq and Afghanistan are not that, they are an Occupation that never intends to leave.

    The closest similarity in recent history is Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. Even with their ruthlessness and huge numbers, ‘partisans’ (ie in modern language insurgents, terrorists, etc .. labels again) were a significant and ever growing problem.

    So the US in Iraq has only 2 real options as a hostile, and universally agreed endless occupier:

    (1) Leave, leaving behind a hostile nation that hates you.

    (2) Bring in the draft in the US, put 3 million troops there, build death camps, herd the men women and children into them, use tactical nukes and gas on the smaller towns and kill 90+% of the population.

    This may not succeed of course. The British, with a far larger army tried pretty much that in the 1920s and lost despite using every British Empire trick, plus area bombing and poison gas as well.


  7. Pingback: Links for 27 May 2008 « ubiwar . conflict in n dimensions

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