[inset_left]Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban GuerrillaBy David KilcullenPublished by Hurst & Company368 pagesLondon, 2013[/inset_left]On September 21 this year—the International Day of Peace—David Kilcullen arrived in the United Kingdom to give a series of talks to promote his new book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. Little was the Australian former solider and military strategist to know that as he travelled into London, a dramatic situation was beginning to emerge in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, that would speak to the heart of his most recent work.
Kilcullen’s reputation in academic/military circles was cemented by the double whammy of being part of US General David Petraeus’ team of advisers who skilfully managed the “surge” in Iraq and his authoring of a powerful peace about modern warfare, The Accidental Guerrilla, that helped countless others better understand the framing of modern conflict.
His latest book is a macro-level and wide-ranging narrative examining the future of global conflict. Kilcullen’s starting point is four “megatrends” that he predicts will act as drivers of future life and death on the planet: rapid population growth, accelerated urbanization, littoralization (populations and activities being concentrated in coastal regions), and increased connectedness. Out of this collision of human tectonic plates emerges the kind of urban guerrillas who entered the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi on September 21 and started shooting people.
I was fascinated to read Kilcullen’s latest piece, having spent time myself living in Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East, and visiting large sub-Saharan African cities and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. All these locations fit into the Australian’s story of a new global urbanity defined by the existence of over 200,000 slums and what he describes as “feral cities.” Mass urbanization has seen the world’s population double from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in the year 2000. At current medium rates of projection for growth, there will be 9.5 billion people by 2050, and this spiraling population is increasingly urban. In 1800, 3 percent of the world’s population lived in a city of 1 million or more; by 1900 this figure was 25 percent. In 2008, we crossed the 50 percent mark. Kilcullen points out that 180,000 people per day are making the move from rural to urban lives.
Kilcullen sees cities as “living, breathing organisms” that have in many parts of the world broken down under these population pressures. The urban metabolism in cities like Mumbai, where there is one toilet per 600 residents, or Lagos, a city of 18 million people that has 68 working traffic lights, have been failed by organized urban management and planning and left to fend for themselves. Obvious consequences in the form of public health are well known: more than one million people, two-thirds of them pedestrians, cyclists and passengers, are killed in road accidents in the developing world each year. Minibuses in Lagos are known as “flying coffins.” Slums like Sadr City in Baghdad witness regular hepatitis and typhoid epidemics. Across the world, there are millions of preventable deaths through infectious disease. The author makes multiple references to Mike Davis’ book, Planet of the Slums, which talks about the death of the “formal city” and emergence of mass peri-urban poverty. Where Kilcullen goes further than your average urban geographer is in his understanding of the military consequences to this shift. To underline his own personal experience in this regard, he slightly gratuitously starts off with story of how he was ambushed in Afghanistan. Personal kudos aside, Kilcullen skilfully explains how the urbanization of world poverty has produced the urbanization of insurgency.
Looking at the next 30 years, he sees an environment of future conflict that is not defined by the political priorities of any one US president, but rather is reflective of the deep structures of a globalized connected world made up of large numbers of under-governed “feral cities.” He points out that Obama is the seventh president who has pledged but failed to end the US’s role in long-term counterinsurgency. There are several high-profile examples of this dangerous type of urban environment. Most famous, perhaps, is the 1997 operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, where slum militias inflicted 60 percent of the casualties sustained by elite US Army Rangers. These events were dramatized in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, but more importantly they led the journal of the US Army War College to declare that the future of warfare lies in the “streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world.”
Another case study that is thoroughly explored is the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Kilcullen describes the attacks, where 10 attackers arrived by boat and launched a three-day spree that killed over 160 people as “state of the art in urban littoral terrorism.” The author warns of the “democratization of technology” demonstrated by the attack, which showed how non-state armed groups could field capabilities once the sole preserve of nation-states. Kilcullen rates the attacks as vastly more technically difficult than the 9/11 attacks, pointing out in particular how the attackers used Twitter as a command and control device to stay ahead of the Indian authorities’ response.
The subject of connectivity is crucial. The book points out that today, 6.5 billion people across the world have cell phones—2 billion more than have toilets. Mobile phones, the internet, GPS navigation and a host of other communications networks have enabled and empowered “motivated, mobilized and connected populations.” Nowhere was this truer than in the Arab Spring, where multiple uprisings showed how increased connectivity is affecting urbanized conflict.
In the case of the Syrian conflict, Kilcullen explores examples of the manifestations of a connected conflict. For example, he tells of how Syrian rebels built a homemade armored vehicle that used a videogame controller to manipulate a remotely mounted machine gun. He also spoke of how the rebels use iPads and Google Earth to prepare mortar attacks and how they discuss tactics over Skype while comparing YouTube clips. He quotes academic Suzanne Saleeby, who explained that “Syrian cities served as junctures where the grievances of displaced rural migrants and disenfranchised urban residents meet and come to question the very nature and distribution of power.”
By managing a balance between the future macro, the present micro, and his own invaluable personal experience, Kilcullen has again proved himself as a thought leader of considerable caliber. The grayer areas lie around how he goes beyond academia, as well as questions about what exactly are the solutions offered by his own company in Washington. In a sense, it is important to have clarity about his professional intentions to better understand his academic work. That aside, Out of the Mountains is a fascinating analysis of the challenges of urbanization in the modern world.