Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

Recently I read an article in the December 18 ’06 issue of the New Yorker by George Packer called “Knowing the Enemy“, about the involvement of anthropologists and other social scientists in developing strategic alternatives to counterinsurgency.

The article profiles the work of David Kilcullen, Australian anthropologist and Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army, who has been seconded to the US State Department as a strategist to develop counterinsurgency methods. Kilcullen’s ideas of how to approach counterinsurgency are based on his view that the “War on Terror” should be considered as an information war. This propaganda war is one that, unfortunately, the US and its allies are losing, while groups like Al Qaeda are much more savvy about setting the agenda for their message and making sure that it is heard.

Kilcullen asserts (while not directly criticising the Bush administration) that the current approach to counterinsurgency involves a number of mistakes being made, such as 1) aggregating all Jihad-inspired conflicts together so that local conflicts become part of a global problem (uniting disparate groups and not understanding the local grievances that might be causing conflict); 2) being clumsy in winning hearts and minds, due to not having enough cultural information about the populations involved in conflict; and 3) not understanding the modern sources of information to people in developing countries (ie., US Forces relying on broadcast media to provide information to local people, while insurgent groups will use text messaging, the internet etc.).

In March 2006 Kilcullen wrote the influential “Twenty Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency”, a field guide aimed at company commanders whose units have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is worth a look at for the type of approach he advocates. Whether this approach is one that the current US administration will follow is, of course, another story.

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