Sun Tzu for our times? Kilcullen’s teachings from counter-insurgency operations

When I describe David Kilcullen to people I describe him as a ‘mash up’. In his look, Kilcullen is a cross between Steve Irwin and an American Football coach on R&R, replete with blazer and chinos. He’s an academic but he also spent 21 years in the army. He’s Australian but he worked for the American military.

He’s not terribly well-known in the UK, but in the States he’s revered as one of the architects of ‘The Surge in Iraq. His area of expertise, as an scholar and a soldier, is counter-insurgency. He’s a very good speaker and a talented writer, receiving plaudits from citizens and military-types alike for his 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Guerilla’, which packs essential reading on CT theory alongside explosive first-hand accounts of a hugely complex and dangerous area of warfare that most of us will thankfully only gawp at.

Having read ‘Accidental Guerilla’, I turned with interest to an earlier 2007 paper, ‘Twenty-Eight articles’ a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. One sentence early on stayed with me: ‘what does all the theory mean, at the company level?’ This tickled an idea in my head.

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, written in the 6th century BC, has been applied ad nauseam to the business world. Maybe in Kilcullen we’ve got a latter day strategist who’s lessons from modern wars can better guide us in the current day. What if we swap out the army’s ‘company’ for civvy-street’s ‘organisation’? And consider ‘out-moded ways of thinking’ and ‘conventional wisdom’ our ‘enemy’ and ‘insurgent’?

As I reread ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ through this lens, I started to think ‘yes, there is something to this’; especially for managers in my trade. Public sector managers are finding themselves working in alien conditions. There are new ambitious bosses demanding more results with less resources. Money is one thing, but staff numbers have taken a hammering, and managers are finding their feet in new teams and often with new management structures on top. That’s not a complaint, it is a fact of [working] life. At the same time as doing ‘more for less’, many of these managers are trying to embed new ways of working amongst their staff and, crucially, their colleagues working around them.

It’s essentially a bit of fun and it’s comparison I make advisedly but I do believe that there are attitudes, principles and even practical lessons to be gleaned from Kilcullen’s counter-insurgency teachings for those trying to manage and deliver in tough times while also trying to bring about change.

You’ll have to read ‘Twenty-Eight Articles’ to make an informed judgement for yourself. You’ll see the limits (no.19 is a prime example) but I’ve picked out some quotes to give a sense of what I’m leaning at and will leave you to make the translations. As Kilcullen says himself in sign-off:

Like any folklore it needs interpretation, and contains seemingly contradictory advice. Over time, as you apply unremitting intellectual effort to study your sector, you will learn to apply these ideas in your own way, and will add to this store of wisdom from your own observations and experience.

1. Know your turf

‘Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance… Share out aspects of the operational area among platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers: have each individual develop a personal specialization and brief the others. Neglect this knowledge, and it will kill you.’

2. Diagnose the problem
‘…in theater, situations will arise too quickly for orders, or even commander’s intent. Corporals and privates will have to make snap judgments with strategic impact. The only way to help them is to give them a shared understanding, then trust them to think for themselves on the day.’

3. Organize for intelligence
‘Your operations will be intelligence driven, but intelligence will come mostly from your own operations, not as a ‘product’ prepared and served up by higher headquarters… put the smartest soldiers [on intelligence duty]… you will have one less rifle squad: but the intelligence section will pay for itself in lives and effort saved.’

4. Organize for inter-agency operations
‘…everything important – from policing to intelligence to civil-military operations to trash collection – will involve your company working with civilian actors and local indigenous partners you cannot control, but whose success is essential for yours. Train the company in inter-agency operations…’

5. Travel light and harden your CSS
‘…ruthlessly lighten your load and enforce a culture of speed and mobility… But in lightening your load, make sure you can always reach back to call for firepower or heavy support if needed.’

6. Find a political/cultural adviser
‘…[Find someone] able to speak the language and navigate the intricacies of local politics… Don’t try to be your own cultural adviser: you must be fully aware of the political and cultural dimension, but this is a different task.’

7. Train the squad leaders – then trust them
‘The commander on the spot controls the fight. You must train the squad leaders to act intelligently and independently without orders.’

8. Rank is nothing: talent is everything
‘Anyone can learn the basics, but… ‘naturals’ do exist. Learn how to spot these people and put them into positions where they can make a difference.’

9. Have a game plan
‘…develop a game plan: a mental picture of how you see the operation developing. You will be tempted to try and do this too early. But wait: as your knowledge improves, you will get a better idea of what needs to be done, and of your own limitations… One approach is to identify basic stages in your operation… Make sure you can easily transition between phases, both forward and backward in case of setbacks.’

10. Be there
‘…[establish] a residential approach… establish links with the locals, who see you as real people they can trust and do business with, not as aliens who descend from an armored box.’

11. Avoid knee jerk responses to first impressions
‘…you need time to learn what normality looks like… Unless you happen to be on the spot when an incident occurs, you will have only second-hand reports and may misunderstand the local context or interpretation… Of course, you cannot avoid making judgments. But if possible, check them with an older hand or a trusted local.’

12. Prepare for handover from Day One
‘…you will not resolve the insurgency on your watch. Your tour will end, and your successors will need your corporate knowledge… keep good back-ups and ensure you have hard copy of key artifacts and documents.  This is boring, tedious and essential. Over time, you will create a corporate memory…’

13. Build trusted networks
‘Conduct village and neighborhood surveys to identify needs in the community then follow through to meet them, build common interests and mobilize popular support. This is your true main effort…’

14. Start easy
‘Don’t try to crack the hardest nut first… Instead, start from secure areas and work gradually outwards. Do this by extending your influence through the locals’ own networks. Go with, not against, the grain of local society…’

15. Seek early victories
‘…achieve a victory by resolving long-standing issues your predecessors have failed to address, or co-opting a key local leader who has resisted cooperation with our forces… achieving even a small victory early in the tour sets the tone for what comes later, and helps seize the initiative…’

16. Practise deterrent patrolling
‘Establish patrolling methods that deter the enemy from attacking you… the aim is to keep the enemy off balance, and the population reassured, through constant and unpredictable activity ñ which, over time, deters attacks and creates a more permissive environment.’

17. Be prepared for setbacks
‘…don’t lose heart. Simply drop back to the previous phase of your game plan and recover your balance.’

18. Remember the global audience
‘Beware the “scripted enemy”, who plays to a global audience and seeks to defeat you in the court of global public opinion. You counter this by training people to always bear in mind the global audience, assume that everything they say or do will be publicized, and befriend the media.’

19. Engage the women, beware the children
‘Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population… children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy, and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from…  Harden your heart and keep the children at arm’s length.’

20. Take stock regularly
‘…you still need to develop metrics early in the tour and refine them as the operation progresses… Use metrics intelligently to form an overall impression of progress – not in a mechanistic traffic light fashion… nothing as a snapshot – trends over time are the true indicators of progress in your sector.’

21. Exploit a “single narrative”
‘…you do this in baby steps, by getting to know local opinion-makers, winning their trust, learning what motivates them and building on this to find a single narrative that emphasizes the inevitability and rightness of your ultimate success.  This is art, not science.’

22. Local forces should mirror the enemy, not ourselves
‘The natural tendency is to build forces in our own image, with the aim of eventually handing our role over to them.  This is a mistake. Instead, local indigenous forces need to mirror the enemy’s capabilities, and seek to supplant the insurgent’s role.’

23. Practise armed civil affairs
‘It is how you restructure the environment to displace the enemy from it. In your company sector, civil affairs must focus on meeting basic needs first, then progress up Maslow’s hierarchy as each successive need is met.’

24. Small is beautiful
‘Keep programs small: this makes them cheap, sustainable, low-key and (importantly) recoverable if they fail. You can add new programs – also small, cheap and tailored to local conditions – as the situation allows.’

25. Fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces
‘…it is normal, even in the most successful operations, to have spikes of offensive insurgent activity late in the campaign… At this point the tendency is to go for the jugular and seek to destroy the enemy’s forces in open battle. This is rarely the best choice… Instead, attack the enemy’s strategy…’

26. Build your own solution – only attack when the enemy when he gets in the way
‘Try not to be distracted, or forced into a series of reactive moves, by a desire to kill or capture the insurgents… Your approach must be environment-centric (based on dominating the whole district and implementing a solution to its systemic problems) rather than enemy-centric.’

27. Keep your extraction plan secret
‘…you must protect the specific details of the extraction plan, or the enemy will use this as an opportunity to score a high-profile hit, re-capture the population’s allegiance by scare tactics that convince them they will not be protected once you leave, or persuade them that your successor unit will be oppressive or incompetent.’

28. Whatever else you do, keep the initiative
‘…the initiative is everything. If the enemy is reacting to you, you control the environment. Provided you mobilize the population, you will win.’

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