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‘Out of the Mountains – the coming age of the urban guerilla’ by David Kilcullen

David Kilcullen came to prominence as a sharp military mind during the Iraq war, as part of the team that crafted the Petraeus ‘surge’ strategy. ‘Out of the Mountains’ is his response to the general question of ‘what next?’ which has been occupying military minds since cessation of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kilcullen proposes that what happens next will be shaped by 4 ‘megatrends’ which he identifies early on – urbanisation, urban crowding, littoralisation and network connectivity. Overriding the Staff course speak, everyone is moving to overcrowded coastal cities, and despite not necessarily having enough food or clean water, they will all have access to Twitter, Facebook and all the other benefits of smartphone services.

What does this mean? Kilcullen looks closely at the Arab Spring to get answers. Here, disparate groups could exchange, in real time, political and tactical information, and states could not respond effectively – any attempt to put web firewalls in place were undone by globally-distributed hacktivists who could rapidly design and distribute patches and updates. State acts of violence on dissenters were captured on camera phones and passed around the globe instantly, further undermining and subverting any attempts at repression. Surely good news for freedom, but Kilcullen also describes the attack on Mumbai, which was also co-ordinated using intelligence gained from Twitter feeds and local news. In fact, Mumbai looks to become a grim case study on what future terrorist attacks could look like. The mission was planned to fully exploit all the megatrends identified above, and fro that point of view, was a baleful success. ISIS, ISIL and Boko Haram have all shown themselves to be highly adept at maximising the ‘politics of the deed’ on social media after the event for strategic effect, but the net also provides an excellent tactical intelligence-gathering, mission planning and command and control tool.

However, what technology takes away with one hand, it gives back with the other. Kilcullen puts forward excellent examples of how austerity militaries can use wider assets when responding to humanitarian disaster responses and similar situations – somebody, somewhere, has created just the tool you are looking for, such as excellent GEOINT mapping, for example.

This book is a pretty sobering read. I am left with the distinct impression that all the factors that led to Hitler’s rise in 1920s/1930s Germany, such as lack of opportunity, grievance, extreme hardship, dissatisfaction etc, are coming to pass right now, to immense numbers of dispossesed people in megacities such as Lagos and Dhaka, ready to be exploited by any number of extremist Goebbels-a-likes with access to instant communications and media. To add to this, many of those who have been radicalised and who have taken up arms with the various extremist franchises will return to these and similar environments, to become part of any future movement, like little Bin Ladens in the larval stage.

For this reviewer, the key quote from this book lies in Chapter One: ‘you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’ (Leon Trotsky). With cessation of Ops HERRICK & TELIC, there are strong hopes in many quarters that counter-insurgency, will just go away. This reviewer can recall a lot of discussions in the Naval Service about how to get Commando Forces back into large-scale amphibious power projection after HERRICK. Kilcullen agrees, up to a point – the title of the book reflects his desire that we all get out of the mountains, tactically speaking. But we need to be wary of reverting to ‘Ops Normal’ – state-on-state warfare is looking to be an increasingly expensive and retro pastime. Since WW2, well-armed, conventional militaries have been beaten by insurgencies in French Indo-China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan. HERRICK and TELIC have at best proved to be both bloody and inconclusive. Counter-Insurgency looks here to stay, and needs to be at the forefront of people’s minds.

5/5 anchors. An excellent marker for the aftermath of the post 9/11 wars, this book needs to feature in military thinking and discussions, and as such is strongly recommended.