Petrelli on Kilcullen, 'Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla'

David Kilcullen. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. x + 342 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-973750-5.

Reviewed by Niccolo Petrelli (Stanford University)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

David Kilcullen needs no presentation. Almost any scholar or practitioner of irregular war in the last decade has been exposed or has come across his many works about the theory and practice of counterinsurgency. Kilcullen stands as the most prolific contemporary theorist/practitioner or warrior/scholar of irregular warfare. From his first publications in scholarly journals about the nexus between “classic” counterinsurgency and the wars of the twenty-first century, his works have been often concerned with the relationship between theoretical knowledge and the reality of war. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla must be understood as a continuation and a further in-depth examination of this topic.

In the introduction the author identifies “imagining future war” as the main concern of the book (p. 16). Based on historical evidence from the twentieth century as well as on recent trends in the number of internationalized intrastate conflicts, the author concludes that this pattern will probably continue and military operations against nonstate actors will remain strategically salient in the future. At the same time, Kilcullen stresses how the environment in which these conflicts will take place will be extremely different from what, for instance, NATO has experienced in Afghanistan in the last decade. As the first chapter illustrates in fact, contemporary research on demography and economic geography suggests that future life on the planet, and therefore even conflict, will be affected by four “megatrends”: rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for things to cluster on coastlines), and increasing connectedness. Crowded, coastal, and connected cities will therefore represent the most likely battlefield of the future.

Four more chapters follow the description of the fundamental features of future war. Chapter 2 examines the interaction of conflict at various levels, from transnational terrorism through insurgency to civil war and criminal activity, with overstressed urban environments. Chapter 3 outlines a theoretical framework for understanding how nonstate armed groups compete for control over the population and terrain in irregular war. Chapter 4 looks at the Arab uprisings of the last years in order to examine the relevance of enhanced connectivity on conflict. Finally chapter 5 attempts to draw conclusions, and the appendix describes more in depth the technical and military challenges which conflicts of the future will pose for military organizations.  

The book combines the sensitivity of a practitioner for the chaotic nature of war with the analytical depth of a social scientist. In fact, the author employs an eclectic theoretical framework with the aim of conveying the complexity of the environment of future conflicts and properly conceptualizing it. Consistent with his previous works, he again resorts to conceptual categories borrowed from the scientific theories of chaos and complexity which have emerged over the past few decades to analyze the dynamics of future war. Moreover, following a more recent school of thought, Kilcullen increasingly makes use of concepts and analytical categories borrowed from disciplines such as architecture, systems engineering, urban systems, ecology, and political geography.[1]

In describing the context of the wars of the future and in particular the impact of urbanization and the increasing interconnectedness on the nature of future war and the way it will be waged, the author resumes many of insights advanced by scholars, especially John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, already at the end of the 1990s.[2] This is understandable, as the author needed to reconnect his analysis to the voluminous scholarly literature preceding the last decade of counterinsurgency-centered research. To a certain extent, however, this choice does not benefit the book. In fact, any reader already familiar with studies on the impact of the information revolution on military affairs, the development and application of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)-inspired theories by military organizations and armed nonstate groups or, more recently, cyber war, will not find Kilcullen’s descriptions of swarming tactics, the impact of advances in communication technologies on command and control, or the governance systems of criminal syndicates particularly innovative.[3] An analogous consideration is valid for chapter 4 and the analysis of the impact of new forms of connectivity on the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.  

Much more interesting and innovative is the corpus of theory elaborated in chapter 3 and further discussed in chapter 5. Based on his own field experiences, as well as on accounts of recent irregular conflicts and studies of criminal networks and urban violence, the author develops what he calls a “theory of competitive control” to explain the relationship between armed nonstate actors and populations in a conflict environment. In a nutshell, the theory predicts that in irregular conflicts the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system, namely a “set of behavioral rules correlated with a set of predictable consequences” of control, is most likely to dominate that population in its residential area (p. 132).

Understanding the process through which authority is constructed as based on the combination of coercive, persuasive, and administrative factors, the theory elaborated by Kilcullen reminds one to a certain extent of the foundational works of counterinsurgency thinking of the 1960s, such as the books by practitioners David Galula (Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 1962) and Robert Thompson (Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam, 1966) and “Rebellion and Authority” by RAND experts Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf Jr. (1970). The author, however, goes well beyond, illustrating the dynamics through which these three elements coalesce in building normative systems that, once imposed on a certain segment of the civilian population, are extremely difficult to remove. In particular, Kilcullen shows how support of the population in irregular conflicts may be an emergent phenomenon at the group, rather than the individual level, something which would in turn require going beyond attempts to affect the individual’s conscious choices (hearts and minds), as counterinsurgency theory prescribes.

The theory of competitive control, strongly indebted to the work of political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, is straightforward and well designed, and captures the fundamental elements of the relationship between armed actors and population during irregular conflicts. Its main merit is that it does not treat irregular war as a simple, linear, and uniform phenomenon, but allows for a more sophisticated and dynamic understanding of it as an aggregate of multiple conflicts of a different nature. In fact, similar to what the author had done with insurgency in his previous publications, the level of analysis of future conflicts is shifted from the level of the state to the level of the city, which is treated as a natural system. This in turn leads Kilcullen to apply models, concepts, and analytical tools borrowed from urban studies, architecture, and ecology. The theory is intellectually stimulating, in that it develops new perspectives and visual angles on operational challenges long since acknowledged by the scholarly literature. At the same time, it brings a more rigorous interdisciplinary approach into a field of study that remained for too many years extremely policy-oriented and concerned with developing lessons and prescriptions, rather than meaningful and conceptual categories for understanding the phenomena of interest.

Last but not least, in chapter 5 Kilcullen discusses the possible response to the challenges that future conflicts will pose, outlining a methodology for “co-designing” interventions in future complex environments on the part of local and external forces. In such a perspective, locals contribute insight into their environment, understanding of their social systems and culture, leadership, initiative, and motivation, whereas foreigners bring a technical understanding of the relevant disciplines, functional skills, access to knowledge, funding and resources, connectivity to international public opinion, and, most importantly, security. From an operational point of view such a methodology makes perfect sense and it undoubtedly benefits from the considerable field experience of the author. At the same time, however, it disregards the strategic dimension of future conflicts. Recent experiences, especially Afghanistan after the “surge,” have clearly highlighted the problem of misalignment of strategies between the local and the intervening foreign actors, and the limits and constraints that this might impose on the operational dimension of cooperation between the two. 

To sum up, Out of the Mountains represents a welcome and original contribution to the study of war, and especially to the theory of war. Despite some minor problems discussed above, the author manages to provide the reader an informed and intellectually stimulating study of the dynamics of future war. This work will undoubtedly represent a source of inspiration for practitioners who will be called to develop solutions for the challenges posed by future conflicts as well as for scholars struggling to understand how best to analyze the wars of the twenty-first century.


[1]. Shimon Naveh, “Asymmetric Conflicts: An Operational Critique of the Hegemonic Strategies,” in The Limited Conflict, ed. Haggai Golan and Shaul Shay (Tel Aviv: Ma’arachot, 2004), 101-145 (in Hebrew).

[2]. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars: Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001).

[3]. Among others, Emily Goldman, ed., National Security in the Information Age (London: Routledge, 2005) and P. W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2009). See also Itai Brun, “‘While You're Busy Making Other Plans’--The ‘Other RMA,’” Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 4 (2010): 535-565.

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Citation: Niccolo Petrelli. Review of Kilcullen, David, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2014.

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