Understanding Kilcullen’s metrics of counterinsurgency

The NATO/Afghan coalition in the Helmand province reported the first significant resistance of Operation Moshtarak today. It is foreseeable that Taleban fighters can and will use asymmetrical means of warfare – snipers, booby-traps, and civilian-shields, among others – to slow down the advance and sap coalition resources. In these circumstances, it is worth taking a moment to assess how the success of the operation should be judged.

Fortunately, counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen, a former Australian infantry office and civilian adviser to the US military on COIN operations, is on hand to provide some insight. A bullet-point summary of his recent paper on evaluating counterinsurgency ops appears in five parts on US foreign policy analyst Tom Ricks’ blog. The entire series of short summaries is valuable and important reading. A few salient points:

In the first entry, on how not to evaluate a counterinsurgency campaign, Kilcullen decries the use of body counts, military accessibility, attacks on coalition forces (SIGACTS), and “input metrics” (number of patrols conducted, projects initiated, etc.), among others, as useful data points.  It is worth keeping in mind that some variation of these often leads media reporting on military operations.

The second entry, how to evaluate the effect of operations on the civilian population, lists eleven metrics, only two of which – voluntary reporting (good tips on insurgent activities from locals) and IEDs reported versus found (again, a measure of locals willingness to give good intelligence) – can be measured during the coming days or weeks of Operation Moshtarak.  The other nine cannot or should not be measured before an interval of weeks or months.

The fourth entry, on evaluating Afghan police and military, is perhaps most relevant to Operation Moshtarak.  It features twelve success metrics, of which eight can be evaluated during the span of the operation: kill ration (as distinct from body count); win/loss ratio; kill vs. wound/capture ratio; four mini-metrics – night/small-unit/dismounted ops and duration of operation; combined action operations; driving technique (really); reliance on air and artillery support; pattern-setting and telegraphing moves to the enemy; and possession of higher ground at dawn.

Ricks points out that it is significant that Kilcullen leaves how to evaluate the enemy until last (COIN ops being at least as much as about the relationship between the coalition military and the civilian population as between the coalition and the insurgents). Most of the metrics are about gauging the effectiveness and nature of the insurgent force, but two stand out for judging the success of Operation Moshtarak – kill/capture v. surrender, which indicates insurgent morale, and mid-level insurgent casualties, the valuable officers, trainers, specialists, etc, who can turn a band of Kalashnikov-wielding amateurs into an insurgent force. Kilcullen points out that lower-level insurgents should ideally be captured alive, as they may later be candidates for reintegration.

Those are the immediate, primarily military indicators by which Operation Moshtarak might be evaluated. That, of course, does not tell the whole story. Indeed, as has been written on this blog, the actual success of Operation Moshtarak, and the entire Afghan operation, lies in a sustained commitment to the civilian population and its government. For those metrics, see the nine population metrics not listed above, and the entirety of the third entry, which deals with evaluating government officials. These will tell the real story of success or failure in Afghanistan, and it will be some time before any trajectory there can be determined.

2 Responses to “Understanding Kilcullen’s metrics of counterinsurgency”

  1. Solomon Hughes

    I would be a bit wary of relying too much on Kilcullen’s analysis – he is a sharp mind, but also very enthusiastic about the Vietnam war. He especially likes “Operation Phoenix”, which consisted of (1) handing out cooking oil to Vietnamese (2) forcing them to live in “barb wire village” settlements (3) Assassinating “the enemy” using covert militias.
    Kilcullen’s most influential paper on the War on Terror announced
    “somewhat counterintuitively, Vietnam War methods appear to address the full spread of attack methods.” Kilcullen added that “counterinsurgency in Vietnam was highly effective.”

  2. Frank Spring

    Kilcullen’s argument that Vietnam wasn’t a total counterinsurgency wash is an important and, as you point out, influential one; it is also, as he himself admits, counterintuitive, considering how that war turned out. This is a fair point to bring up, but there’s value in examining the Vietnam conflict for occasions where there was real cooperation between American/SV forces and the civilian population and determining what, if any, lesson can be applied to Afghanistan (and Iraq).

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