This is a book on how our military should plan for future wars. David Kilcullen has a unique mindset, as he is a trained anthropologist who has served as a counter-insurgency expert to Condoleeza Rice and David Petraeus.
This book blends the kinds of ideas we have heard from Donald Rumsfeld with the thoughts of traditional writers in urban studies such as Mike Davis or Saskia Sassen-Koob. He looks at war as a battle for control in cities. To Kilcullen, fighting is an activity that is a part of the regular life of cities. But an important distinction, and one that is a basic assumption for this book, is that warring groups are not limited to nation-states. You have to recognize that there can be many factions within a city.
He draws his analysis from several cities: the civil war in Somalia, the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, the 2010 revolution in Tunisia, the intifada in Benghazi, and gang warfare in the slums of Jamaica.
Kilcullen's premise is that four transforming forces - urbanization, migration of people to coastal cities, population growth itself, and then the increasing interconnectedness made possible by electronic media - have changed how wars will be fought in the future.
"The future conflict climate, as we have seen, will be coastal, networked, and overwhelmingly urban - so that we need to orient ourselves toward conflict in connected cities...Dominant theories of international relations take the nation-state as their basic building block. We need to bring our analysis down to the city and sub-city level, understanding communities and cities a 'system under stress' in their own right, treating cities as biological or natural systems....A related insight is the need to conceive of a city as a flow and process, rather just place; with violence shaping and creating the landscape and not just happening in it."
As with almost everything else in the world, the explosion in media changes the future nature of war. One example is the 2008 Mumbai attack. This small group of terrorists in Mumbai controlled their operation from a bank of computers in Pakistan. They followed twitter updates made in Mumbai by newspapers and regular citizens to learn real-time details: where the police were arriving, where traffic was blocked, and where their partner cells were having success. With that, those planners sent texts to the soldiers on the ground. Those media, as well as facebook and youtube, were vital throughout the Arab Spring.
The mistake that could be made, he argues, is to believe that Afghanistan and Iraq will be the models for future conflicts. Modelling matters because it determines the long-range investments made by governments with their military expenditures. But recent wars - Afghanistan was a rural war (Iraq's fighting was mostly in cities) fought without navies among communities with little in the way of modern media - provide the wrong viewpoint.
Moreover, as the likely pursuant of war in foreign cities in the future, the United States should realize that it will be judged by how it conducts those efforts. War can kill a city, even if it makes it secure. For example, he believes that making Baghdad safe had the unfortunate effect of ruining the efficiency of it as a place.
This was for me one of the most thought-provoking books that I have read on the topic of war. I have read a lot of great work (Ghost Wars, The Forever War, Night Draws Near, The Looming Tower, The Good Soldiers) on the wars of the last decade, but I cannot think of one that takes so much from such a variety of disciplines to develop a systematic viewpoint on how the near future will differ from the recent past.