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PacificEdge | November 24, 2017

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Out of the mountains: new zones of conflict

Out of the mountains: new zones of conflict
Russ Grayson


Originally written in 2015.

COMBINE rapid population growth especially in lesser-developed countries with accelerating urbanism on the littoral, coastal plains. Add the accelerating and almost instantaneous connections brought by digital communications technologies and stir in the likely impacts of a changing climate, and what do you get?

A changed international environment, uncertainty and, perhaps, a little opportunity according to one-time Australian Army officer, later adviser to US General David Petraeus in Iraq and chief counterterrorism strategist for the US State Department, and now adviser with strategy and design consultancy, Caerus Associates, David Kilcullen.

David writes of these trends in his 2013 book, Out of the Mountains. 2013, yes, that’s three years ago. And although that might be a long time when it comes to social and international change the book remains current, even prescient.

A new type of conflict

Part of this changed international environment is the clash not so much of the old ideologies of the Cold War era but those associated with widely divergent world views. The most prominent current example is the rapid spread of Islamic State through large portions of what used to be Iraq and Syria as it attempts to set up a caliphate. The earlier example is provided by Al Quada.

Although the conflict with IS is now less an insurgency and more a conventional conflict between states for territory, populations and resources, the irregular or asymmetric conflicts David looks at in his book are clearly going to be an ongoing part of our near future. They will continue to pitch national police and militaries against an array of irregulars such as guerrillas, pirates like those operating off the West African coast and parts of SouthEast Asia, narco-militias as currently operating in Mexico, criminal gangs and proxy forces such as those supported by Russia in the Ukraine. Like the Viet Cong during the Vietnam conflict, they use local knowledge for stealthy movement and manouvre, local supporters such as corrupt police and politicians and small unit size. Their difference to the Viet Cong is that they now have all of the advantages of modern digital communications.

Where established, criminal gangs and proxy militias can set up a parallel government — a classic guerrilla warfare strategy that was employed by the Viet Cong and their NVA (North Vietnam Army) supporters in the late sixties and seventies. They thus gain local support for creating a more secure environment and protecting local people from the incursion and excesses of military or police forces attempting to disrupt their activities.


Kilcullen considers this parallel control to be a type of feudalism. Although people in areas controlled by parallel government might be free to go about their day-to-day lives providing they don’t threaten the interests of those in control, the situation can be countered by “breaking the spell” of the parallel government. Then, says Kilcullen, “populations attack their tormentors with speed.”

“Terror is a form of social system disruption that demonstrates authorities cannot help the public”, he writes. Such were the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in India. They demonstrated how the movement of attacking forces is eased when cities are situated on the littoral, how movement through densely populated cities is made easier by dense populations and how it is assisted by mobile digital communications. Some attributed that attack to militant Islamist guerrillas acting as proxies for Pakistan. That same socila system disruption applies in Western countries subject to terrorist attack, too.


“Terrorists act as a distributed swarm of autonomous small teams with low visibility and high mobility due to their equipment loads”, writes Kilcullen. This, combined with surprise, offers a tactical advantage.

They use commercially available phones and off-the-shelf GPS units and access reconnaissance information about potential targets from open sources such as Google Earth.

Netwar and network-enabled insurgency

We are already seeing how governments and those working as proxies for their own or other governments — such as the Chinese and Russian hackers who have penetrated the online systems of US government and corporate organisations and stolen information, as well as hacker collectives like Anonymous — hijack global communication systems to engage in espionage and netwar.unnamed-11

Kilcullen addresses this and expands it to include the combination of urbanisation and connectivity that allows transnational networks “to tap into the flow of connections between a home population and diasporas to create a transnational system of competitive control that mimics the functions of states and competes with them.”

That is, dissidents can call on emigrant nationals to support social change in their country of origin. We saw this during the Arab Spring and we are seeing it with supporters of Islamic State in the West.

This suggests that dissidents and militants have a de facto understanding of systems thinking. They see the home populations and diasporas as nodes in a distributed system, a network, and understand that to create change in a system you intervene at a vulnerable, open point such as the communciations channels linking those nodes.

It is not only emigrant nationals that engage in this. Non-nationals can likewise assist conflicts and social change in other countries by becoming a logistical hinterland, sourcing information and matériel, aggregating intelligence from open source sources such as media reports, running public relations campaigns and distributing selected information, images and video through education programs and crowdsourcing support through demonstrations in their country to sustain reformers or insurgents.

Kilcullen says that “activists can work together globally while maintaining local autonomy”. They create a decentralised network capable of communication, collaboration and action. This is his “network-enabled insurgency”.

The rapid spread of mobile communications enables this participatory insurgency. One-third of the global population is now online and the substantial penetration of mobile telephony in developing countries had brought communciations to many. Mobile phone penetration is now reaching 80 percent of the global population and accelerating. This manifests the 1970 prediction of media commentator and author (The Medium is the Message) Marchall McLuhan: “World War Three is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation”, according to Kilcullen.

It also brings to mind the mantra of the 1969 film, Medium Cool: “The whole world is watching”. This is even more true now that so many have a camera, both still and video, in their pocket and can livestream what they witness. It is a new element in politics and warfare, a tool used by IS to distribute video and images of their executions online to intimidate those who disagree with their worldview. Yet, this same global connctivity is a tool of democracy when abuses, crimes and corruption are exposed.


“Across much of the world this new information power sits uncomfortably upon archaic layers of corrupt and inefficient governance”, writes Kilcullen. Governments and politicians are threatened by it when their thoughtless utterances can be Tweeted instantaneously around the world. The whole world is indeed watching now, and in realtime.

Kilcullen writes also that digital, global communication enables people to self-organise into networks and use them for legal or illegal purposes. These are his “dark networks”, the “rivers of connectivity” invisible below the global flows of code though, he says, they are not necessarily nefarious.

…People see mobile phones, wifi, satellite TV, the internet as a right. Information flows in urban areas are as basic to people’s existence as water, food, energy.…

We see governments around the world struggling to come to terms with the explosion of global communications. Whether that is the NSA creating problems for itself by collecting communication metadata, dumb threats by the British government to prevent people using encryption, the censorious approach of the paranoid Chinese government blocking social networking sites, the scrambling attempts of the Turkish government to do the same and failing to realise that people simply resort to using VPNs (virtual private networks) to maintain their links with the rest of the world, or the similar attempts of the lesser despotisms and dictatorships, what has developed is a digital arms race.

“Cutting connection spreads outrage and gives the mainstream a reason to support government opponents”, Kilcullen warns. “People see mobile phones, wifi, satellite TV, the internet as a right. Information flows in urban areas are as basic to people’s existence as water, food, energy. It is provocative to cut communication”.

unnamed-13The future of our cities

“Planners have repeatedly devised solutions to problems as they exist at one particular moment, only to find those solutions overtaken by events before they can be implemented. They repeatedly develop policies that would have been adequate for a set of circumstances that no longer exist”.

To create secure and prosperous cities of the future means that planners need to focus on cities as systems of connection and not as an amalgamation of separate parts. They need to expand the carrying capacity and improve the flow of urban metabolism, a preventative measure when it comes to urban dissatisfaction especially in situations where the pace and scale of urban development “is now at a point where the ecological carrying capacity of the water cycle is insufficient for sustainable urban growth… urban areas need carrying capacity to absorb, process and deal with wastes and other toxicity or the city begins to break down”.

According to Brisbane-based placemaker, David Engwicht, the primary function of cities is exchange of all kinds. But, says Kilcullen, when public safety solutions prevent the city flowing, they are no solutions at all. “There must be a minimally acceptable level of disruption to get violence to an acceptable level and an agreed level of service'”, he writes.

“Density is an organising principle for a green future. Treat the city as a system. Find intervention and impact points to move the system in a positive, resilient direction”.

Who for?

Is this a book for military strategists? For intelligence staff? For urban planners? For journalists, bloggers and those of us working in the media or with development assistance NGOs? For the digerati? Yes, it is — for all of them.

…What makes this book different is that it comes from a source outside the networks many of us inhabit …

It is also a book for the public, for those interested in the confusing world of conflict, global trends and international affairs and for those engaged in community-based organisations.

What makes this book different is that it comes from a source outside the networks many of us inhabit and, in doing so, brings new ideas, new insights and new perspectives. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to disregard or reject information coming from outside our various milieu. This, however, is short sighted, a little arrogant in assuming ours’ is always the right answer, anti-learning and rather stupid.

There’s insight here for all in this book, for what David Kilcullen writes about is the world we all inhabit. It is our world. We live here. So let’s understand it.

Kilcullen D, 2013, Out of the Mountains, Penguin Books.

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