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Capitalizing Urbanism: On David Kilcullen’s "Out of the Mountains"

[A car bomb in Iraq. Image from Wikimedia.] [A car bomb in Iraq. Image from Wikimedia.]

“It’s a book about future conflicts and future cities.”
David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains

“…the whole fucking city was trying to kill them!”
Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down

In his book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, author David Kilcullen, describes how in 2007, just after “the worst months of the Iraq War” (19), he was drinking expensive cocktails at a fashionable Manhattan hotel with an old Australian army buddy. Kilcullen, an Australian citizen, a leading figure in the field of urban counterinsurgency, an advisor to David Petraeus and Condoleeza Rice, and a star of the liberal interventionist academic-think tank complex, is shocked when his friend, a specialist in public safety, says, “You killed the city, mate (19)." Kilcullen’s friend is referring to the Baghdad of walls, checkpoints and barbed wire, prior to the US military’s counterinsurgency (COIN) program. “Our brief drink,” Kilcullen writes, “became a long discussion: we cleared the whiskey glasses off the table, drew some maps and system diagrams, and tried to pull together the outlines of an approach (22)." That approach would combine what he had learned in Baghdad “about protecting urban populations from extreme violence with what law enforcement agencies know about community-based policing (19)." 

As this interaction with his Australian army friend suggests, Out of the Mountains emerged out of Kilcullen’s increasing sense of contemporary urban crisis. Specifically, as he relates in the first chapters of the book, he sees the world hurtling into a whirlpool of urbanization and violence that will vex the contemporary and future global (read, Western-capitalist dominated) order. Echoing Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, Kilcullen writes that by 2050, approximately seventy-five percent of the world’s population will be urbanized, an “unprecedented” growth “concentrated in low-income areas of Asia, Latin America, and Africa” (29). If this picture is not alarming enough, Kilcullen puts it even more bluntly in the next passage: “the world’s cities are about to be swamped by a human tide that will force them to absorb—in just one generation—the same population growth that occurred across the entire planet in all recorded history up to 1960” (29).  Also: many of these places will be majority-Muslim, populations (he asserts more than demonstrates) that are specifically vulnerable to Al-Qaeda type groups (29).[1]

Kilcullen shows that this global population is undergoing what he calls the four “megatrends” of climate change, urbanization, “littoralization”—movement from the interior regions (“the mountains”) to the coasts—as well as information interconnection. All of these, he says, make the kinds of intervention to which his friend on the Manhattan rooftop was referring—barbed wires, checkpoints, etc.—too blunt an instrument and often counterproductive: instead of securing the city, they kill it. For according to Kicullen, the city is a complex and living “organism.” Not simply a built environment or inert space, it is analogous to an organism, with its circulatory system and “active” role in larger, dynamic networks. He writes, for example, of the city as having its own “metabolism (41)," and the city as a “violent ecosystem (45)." Interventions which attempt to address urban violence risk being medicine that is worse than the disease—they may, as in Baghdad of the pre-counterinsurgency days—turn an already challenging situation into something much worse. Such interventions must therefore be “population-centric” and not “enemy-centric,” establishing conditions by which urban populations can lead their lives more or less normally and with a feeling of security.[2]
Kilcullen’s work reflects, as I will show in a subsequent piece on Jadaliyya, a broader trend within counterinsurgency thinking over the past two decades. This might be called with only a hint of irony, the revival of the Chicago School of urban sociology in American military theory, an approach to the urban in which the city is seen as an impersonal system, and in which “messy” aspects of human behavior, such as subjectivity or agency, are either minimized or ignored.[3] Moreover, Kilcullen’s notion of “hearts and minds” represents something of a counterdiscourse in relation to more culture-centric approaches to counterinsurgency, for example that represented by so-called Human Terrain Systems.[4] By the late 1990s, following a calamitous US intervention in a highly urbanized and littoralized Somalia, along with the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, the Army War College’s journal began suggesting 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.” More recently, websites such as and online journals such as Small Wars have been grappling with the megatrends that Kilcullen has written about in Out of the Mountains.[5]

Kilcullen constitutes a specific type of authority that frames his entire narrative. We are to read him as objective, an expert motivated by the desire to bring the gift of modernity to the benighted corners of the third world. Any resistance by these alleged beneficiaries of modernity is dismissed as irrational or entitled. These are well-trodden, even threadbare devices from the canon of orientalist and colonial representation. So is Kilcullen’s reliance on the imagery of the colonialist-adventurer bringing light to the wilderness. The bar scene exemplifies this effect: the figure of white, swashbuckling masculinity and camaraderie, its representative jetting as gallantly into rural Afghanistan as onto an upper-class Manhattan rooftop, sweeping whiskey glasses off a table, “theorizing” about the essence of “terroristic” cities. This will no doubt impress many an amnesiac liberal interventionist who yearns for facile divinations of the true meaning of the endless current wars.  

An anti-orientalist critique of Out of the Mountains will find many other, and easier targets. Throughout the 300-plus page book, Western, especially United States, interventions are represented as apolitical, well-meaning if often clumsy attempts to “help” various native peoples deal with so-called threats, often indigenous ones, to their security and livelihood. For Kilcullen, the US wars in Iraq operate under the framework of “protecting urban populations from extreme violence (19)." Throughout the text, he equates the perspective of the Western counterinsurgent with the way he does counterinsurgency in Iraq, in which “ordinary people” are “caught between nonstate violence from Sunni extremists, on the one hand, and state violence from the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi National Police, on the other (21)." The role of Western interests in the violence, that of the military and the corporations of the United States above all, is totally erased from this account, except insofar as its well-meaning clumsiness exacerbates native peoples’ supposedly inherent violence and irrational culture. 

Engaging this literature discursively, therefore, constitutes an important part of our critical arsenal. This critique might even at times borrow from the Saidian tradition, demystifying orientialist cultural and geographic representations. This can be seen, for example, in the work of Stephen Graham and Mike Davis, who have written of urban counterinsurgency, sometimes called military operations on urban terrain or MOUT, as the “highest stage of Orientalism.” However, to say that Kilcullen traffics in orientalist and, as Khalili writes in an excellent recent essay,[6] Malthusian stereotypes, which he obviously does, is not the same thing as saying that the critique of orientalism is the best framework to comprehend, and therefore effectively critique, the argument of Out of the Mountains. While I do not want to argue that anti-orientalism is not a central part of any attempt to grapple with the literature of counterinsurgency, I do however, wish to point out that even the aforementioned examples exceed the critique of orientalism and discursive critique more generally.

Take Kilcullen’s reading of Haussmann’s Paris in the latter half of the nineteenth century. To Kilcullen, Haussmann, “de facto chief of homeland security for Emperor Napoleon III (20)," was a “great civic architect” who should be a master teacher to twenty-first century counterinsurgents.

The completed “Haussman system” transformed central Paris from a wild, jungle-like thicket into a formal, manicured garden; it facilitated state control of the capital, while the process of constructing all those boulevards, buildings, and squares created jobs for disaffected workers and thus acted as a safety valve for public unrest… Many people are rightly concerned by the authoritarian tendencies that lie behind these kinds of urban systems, even while also recognizing that the alternative – as people had just lived it in Baghdad—might be even worse(21).

An anti-orientalist critique would correctly point to the role of terms such as “wild” and “jungle-like” in transforming political conflict into cultural conflict. The racist undertones of such terminology would also be a legitimate, if obvious, target. But what I think is more interesting is the use of Haussmann as a symbol of transformation: from uncertainty to certainty, from a future that is illegible (to capital, to the state) to one that is legible. In emphasizing this point, some might think I am referencing the work of James Scott in Seeing Like a State, but I am in fact more interested here in Timothy Mitchell’s work on corporations and “capitalization,” about which I will say more near the end of the essay.

As another example, take Kilcullen’s chapter on the so-called feral city, entitled “Future Cities, Future Threats.” It is here that problems with Kilcullen’s organic metaphors of the city and his elevation of the city in itself as an analytical category become especially acute.  Borrowing a term from Richard Norton of the U.S. Naval War College, Kilcullen refers to those cities in which, basically, the state no longer claims a monopoly of violence as “feral.” Quoting Norton, Kilcullen defines the feral city as one with a population over a million, where the state can no longer maintain “the rule of law” but which still functions as “an actor in the greater international system(66)." While attending to various cases in the chapter, such as Bombay and Kingston, Jamaica, Kilcullen focuses on two cases as illustrative examples of ferality: Mogadishu, especially during the US invasion of the early 1990s, and the London riots of summer 2011. Again, an anti-racist and anti-orientalist critique would rightly attack the biological and racial terminology of the feral city discourse. When Kilcullen deploys this discourse, he no longer talks about “co-designing” much of anything with “ordinary” people. Instead, the people of Mogadishu, Kingston, or the London ghetto become a voiceless yet threatening mass.

The only actual actor in the feral city discourse seems to be the city itself: “To the Americans, the dense coastal city of Mogadishu was an active living participant in the battle (74)." To illustrate this, Kilcullen quotes from Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, the famous account of the US Somalia mission: “It seemed like the whole city was shooting at them … Mogadishu was massing and closing in on them … the whole fucking city was trying to kill them! (74)." He then compares this to his own experience in Iraq: “a powerful sense of dread that seemed to seep out of the very buildings, roads, and other structures of the urban landscape itself (74)." The narrative thus moves from the counterinsurgent “killing the city” to the “city killing the counterinsurgent.” In a kind of urbanization of the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism, the city, as a product of human labor, becomes so alienated from human agency that it reappears as monstrous, diabolical, the source of metaphysical dread.[7] It is in this image of profound alienation and sudden awareness of his psychic destabilization that Kilcullen reveals perhaps most vividly the liberal’s and counterinsurgent’s sense of dread when confronted with the recalcitrant urban spaces of the Global South. So, in a way, while Kilcullen’s book is superficially about urbanism, it may in fact tell us more about the meaning of the experience of difference from the (neo)liberal Western perspective.  

These passages come uncomfortably close to outright racist stereotypes about cities and their populations. The way in which these fetishized images of population growth and urbanism operate as vehicles for deeper arguments about time and capitalism also warrants comment. As Timothy Mitchell has recently argued in a slightly different context, urban projects should be interrogated not only by asking what they “mean,” but also by asking how they operate as vectors for “capitalization.”[8] While the critique of orientalism approaches imperial epistemology as the attempt to “know” the native, in other words, to produce representations that dominate the colonial subject by making claims about what he or she is “really like”—so-called cultural knowledge—an approach operating under the sign of capitalization emphasizes calculability, predictability, and marketization. The knowledge production here, in other words, follows a corporate rather than a “power-knowledge” paradigm. This, I believe, allows us access to the deeper meaning of Kilcullen’s recurrent references to the future—“future threats, future cities”—along with his dressing up of homo economicus  as the “ordinary people” (of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) on whose behalf he claims to be speaking. Indirectly, Kilcullen reveals himself as ideologue and theorist of capitalist claims about the future condition that Davis has previously identified: one in which an urban population is literally “disincorporated” from the formal capitalist economy.  However, rather than seeing this disincorporated population as dispensable to the process of accumulation, Kicullen sees this population and its urban environment as the opposite: as the future sources par excellence of accumulation. As the website of Kilcullen’s consulting firm, Caerus Associates, says: “from complexity, opportunity.[9]

The rise of the urban as a problem in Western counterinsurgency theory in recent years is not, I believe, sufficiently grasped by pointing out the role of orientalism and racism in empire, as important as doing so remains. One reason, maybe the most important, is that the critique of orientalism rests on representational assumptions about the workings of power. To [admittedly] oversimplify: it says that in order for power to subjugate the so-called native, it must produce representations of the native as the imperialist’s “Other.” What we see in Kilcullen’s urban counterinsurgency is more complicated. A large part of the literature and the representations produced by the counterinsurgency project does indeed lend itself to anti-orientalist critique. But works such as those of Kilcullen, considered by many to be at the cutting edge of the field, are distinguished by their almost complete indifference to questions about what the “native” is like, what the contours of her culture are, and so on. Kilcullen’s is a much more behaviorist approach to power. Chomsky identified this among US modernization theorists in the 1960s, and Kilcullen, who doesn't seem to have read Chomsky, simply and without irony reproduces much of this . As Kilcullen’s counterinsurgent colleague John Nagl put it: “be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill” (Khalili 2010). If winning hearts and minds is not the priority, then, producing detailed cultural knowledge about the subject of empire is not a priority. Ensuring that you as the counterinsurgent constitute the field of power such that your target population has no choice but to go through you becomes the main objective [10]. Not hegemonic power, but disciplinary power—that is the point for Kilcullen et al. The coming age of the urban counterinsurgent, he suggests in Out of the Mountains, is an age of disciplinary power, and while the critique of orientalism will still help us understand much about the workings of empire in the coming years, we will need to complement this critique with different analytical tools for understanding power in the increasingly urbanized and littoralized word which is emerging. 



[1] Here too, he echoes Davis' alarming claims about the connection between the rise of slum populations and irrational forms of Pentecostal Christianity. See Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2007), 95-197.
[2] Laleh Khalili contrasts such "population-centric" approaches, represented by COIN thinkers such as David Petraeus, John Nagl, Montgomery McFate, and Kilcullen, with the more "kinetic" or "enemy-centric" approaches such as those of the Israeli military and its Jabotinskyite "iron wall" doctrine.  The latter operates "within the framework of overwhelming military superiority and victory achieved in a short time frame." See Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows. Confinement in Counterinsurgencies. (Stanford University Press
, 2013), 58.
[3] A classic example of this is: Robert Ezra Park, "
Human Ecology," The American Journal of Sociology XLII(1) (1936), 1-15. See also Laleh Khalili, "The New and Old Classics of Counterinsurgency," MERIP 255 (2010), and Khalili 2013, who has leveled the most consistent and detailed critique of this "Machiavellian" approach to counterinsurgency.  See also Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon 1969).
[4] It was in this context that the term Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) took on particular salience, referring to all military actions “planned and conducted on a terrain complex where man-made construction affects the tactical options available to the commander.” (Military Operations on Urban Terrain n.d.)  The mission statement of the online publication
Small Wars, which generally shares Kilcullen’s views of counterinsurgency, adds an interesting elaboration: “…we never believed that ‘bypass built-up areas’ was a tenable position warranting the doctrinal primacy it has held for too long” (emphasis original).
[5] Indeed, Kilcullen dedicated his 2010 book,
Counterinsurgency, to the editors of Small Wars, writing: “they gave the counterguerilla underground a home, at a time when misguided leaders banned even the word ‘insurgency,’ though busily losing one” (Kilcullen 2010: v).
[6] See Laleh Khalili “Pacifying Urban Insurrections” (unpublished manuscript, 2015).
[7] Timothy Mitchell, Keynote Address presented at the Architecture & Representation: The Arab City Conference, Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), Columbia University, New York, November 21, 2014. There is more than an echo here of what the anthropologist Michael Taussig described, in his classic
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism, as the transition of a non-capitalist South American rural society to a capitalist social order. Taussig shows how commodity fetishism among miners and peasants in Bolivia and Colombia was experienced as diabolical and represented through the imagery of the devil.
[8] Mitchell’s main focus in his comments here is on architectural projects and their role in the engineering of “durable structures…whose promise of future revenue can be capitalized and marketed in the present.” The concept of capitalization “directs attention to the fabrics and materials out of which inequality is engineered; but also because it allows us to connect engineering to the forms of calculation, projection and representation on which the promised durability of future revenues depends. It thus locates the problem of “meaning” not as the central question of architecture and the city, but as an aspect of urbanism’s effort to capitalize the future” (Mitchell 2014, emphasis added). 
[9] “From
Complexity, Opportunity. In Greek mythology, Caerus personifies opportunity: the Supreme Moment when anything becomes possible. In homage to our namesake, Caerus Associates is committed to creating openings for success in complex, conflict-afflicted, and disaster-affected environments. Leveraging the creativity of our design team, applying innovative technologies and research approaches, and drawing on the global reach of our field teams, we create tailored planning, assessment, and evaluation systems for vulnerable, insecure, and politically sensitive environments.”
[10] See Kilcullen’s chapter “The Theory of Competitive Control” (116-168).

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