“Counterinsurgency is 100% Political” (David Kilcullen): a look at Afghanistan.

Posted on August 10, 2014


Soldier Talks with Local Children in Afghanistan

The amount of politics required to successfully engage in a counterinsurgency campaign has been an important element in the academic debate in the field of counterinsurgency for decades. However, while under no circumstance should percentile figures on just how political counterinsurgency is as a form of warfare be taken as scientific truths, the debate does expose the dilemma that has often been faced by policy-makers and counterinsurgency practitioners alike during many campaigns during the last 60 years. Kilcullen’s quote -when read within its original context, specifically refers to counterinsurgency being ‘100% political’ as a result of the new globalised media.

His statement is entirely inaccurate, however. Indeed, the ‘100%’ figure is excessive and misleading; even if it were to be replaced by a more cautious one, like Galula’s 80%. Indeed, one figure could not apply to more than one conflict because there are a number of variables which can combine to create completely different contexts which in turn make for different types of counterinsurgency campaigns. These variables are:

  • The extent of media access in the insurgent’s host country.
  • The extent of media access in the counterinsurgent’s country.
  • Literacy rates in the insurgent’s country.
  • Literacy rates in the counterinsurgent’s country.
  • Freedom of the press and censorship levels in the insurgent’s country.
  • Freedom of the press and censorship levels in the counterinsurgent’s country.

However, Kilcullen’s figure’s coherence could only ever be discussed when media access and literacy rates are comparable and relatively high in the insurgent population country as well as the in counterinsurgent’s. The Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaign does not fulfil this requirement because of the almost total lack of media coverage throughout Afghan territory. Still, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has a considerable political element to it. Similarly to any counterinsurgent, ISAF have to strive to avoid the stigma of the invader and the fact that ISAF forces are foreign to Afghanistan makes such task even more delicate. Furthermore, because it is arguable that a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan does not constitute a matter of survival to the populations of coalition countries, ISAF governments have to fight at home for the support of their own electorates -which is when the modern global media plays its major role. However, it has been discussed how victory in Afghanistan and in any other counterinsurgency campaign will be gained by winning the population’s “hearts and minds”. That for the people is not a battle that is won solely by military means, but by carefully planning a long-term political strategy.

Ideally, in a situation like Afghanistan where the counterinsurgent is a foreign state, the hearts and minds must be won on the domestic stage too if the counterinsurgent state is to despatch a large enough number of troops so that a ‘living among the population’ strategy can be carried out effectively. Furthermore, on a coalition level, political processes must ensure that a common strategy is discussed, approved, and enforced by all allies without the hindrance of a myriad of different national caveats.