Preparing for the Urban Future of Counterinsurgency

Photo: Dong Wenjie/Getty Images

Bottom Line: Conflict follows humanity wherever it goes, and the world’s population is increasingly living in cities. Waning are the days of the Maoist blueprint of rural insurgents pillaging small peripheral villages and seeking refuge in the hard terrain of mountainous caverns, dense forests or expansive deserts. Soon terrorist and insurgent groups will mount operations from crowded slums and ritzy skyscrapers – not just in a dense urban landscape, but in coastal megacities that pose a unique challenge for which the U.S. military largely remains unprepared.

Background: The United Nations estimated in 2016 that some 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which will grow to 60 percent by 2030. There are 512 cities of at least one million inhabitants around the world, and this too is expected to grow to 662 cities by 2030. Over the same time period, the number of megacities – or overlapping urban landscapes home to at least 10 million residents – is expected to grow from 31 to 41. Many of these are emerging in the developing world, which will soon be economic, political, and cultural centers of gravity in the international political order.

David Kilcullen, former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the U.S. Secretary of State

“Since April 2008, the planet’s population has been more urban than rural, and analysts estimate an additional three billion urban-dwellers globally by mid-century. To put that in perspective, it took all of human history, right up until 1960, to generate that same number of people across the entire planet, so this is a dramatic acceleration of urban growth that is almost certain to have implications for urban security, as well as for every other aspect of life. In other words, war is become more urbanized because everything is becoming more urban.”

  • Crowded urban venues give would-be terrorists ample opportunity to wreak havoc. The tactics used in attacks against the Tokyo subway in March 1995, Mumbai in November 2008, the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013, the Bataclan theater in Paris in November 2015, the July 2016 Nice attack, and the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas and October 2017 devastating truck bomb in Mogadishu provide vivid examples of the damage urban militants are capable of – all with limited planning, easily attainable tools of attack, and few resources required.
  • Urban warfare, however, is not just a future phenomenon – though the characteristics of it are changing. Entire armies have faced off in cities before – the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, for example. Similarly, civil wars have involved devastating aerial and artillery sieges of entire cities housing those fighting in opposition to their governments, including battles such as Russian and Syrian 2016 air campaigns over Aleppo, Russian operations against Chechen separatists in Grozny in 1995, or Serbian bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992.
  • But simply leveling a city to the ground does little to actually address the rumblings of insurgency – it could even reinvigorate discontent and insurgent efforts, as has arguably happened in Syria, fueling a continuing revolt against the Syrian regime. Such operations require a close combat presence on the ground – a necessity the Israeli army continues to encounter in their operations in the densely crowded Gaza Strip. Perhaps a harbinger of the challenges to come with urban counterinsurgency is the French campaign in Algiers in the 1950s – leading to an estimated 350,000 Algerian civilian deaths and the cascade of decolonization.

Issue: Wars of the future will not be fighting for cities, but rather fighting within them. Counterinsurgency of the future will take place in peripheral slums, along narrow backstreets, and among a metropolis of civilians going about their days.

David Kilcullen, former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the U.S. Secretary of State

“Recent advances in sensor technology – including airborne synthetic-aperture radars that can peer through jungle foliage, satellite-based imagery and signals intelligence systems that can detect and locate radio transmissions in remote mountain areas, and platforms like drones that can stay aloft for days to maintain ‘eyes on’ a target – have made rural and remote areas much less safe for guerrillas. At the same time, rapid unplanned growth, particularly in informal slum settlements that tend to cluster around the edges of large cities, has made many cities much less ‘legible’ for governments. Jumbled houses, cluttered rooftops, narrow winding streets and crowded urban neighborhoods also make it harder for security forces to operate in urban terrain and allow guerrilla cells to disappear and re-emerge at will.”

  • Perhaps the defining characteristic of the future of counterinsurgency in megacities is the omnipresence of innocent civilians. This creates a number of implications – most notably the risk of collateral damage that could undermine the counterinsurgency efforts.
  • Air power – the strategic panacea of Western policymakers adverse to the human and financial costs of war – will no longer maintain the same usefulness that it does against rural insurgents. While “danger close” tactical drone strikes and aerial reconnaissance may have enabled the street-to-street fighting against ISIS in Sirte, Libya, such operations will be severely limited over expansive megacities. The threat of civilian casualties is often too high, even for many precision-guided munitions with limited blast radius, and buildings and layers of infrastructure often obscure a clear overhead view.
  • While the advantage of heavy weaponry a counterinsurgent force has enjoyed in the past will become limited in megacities, ground forces, such as tactical counterterrorism units or special operations forces, will encounter related challenges as a result of the physical terrain within a burgeoning metropolis. Urban canyons between skyscrapers with vantage points from windows and rooftops along bustling narrow networks of streets and alleys increase avenues of approach for insurgents to ambush troops, all while hindering the counterinsurgent’s line of sight. Subterranean layers such as subways and sewers only further this problem, allowing militants to attack and disappear at will.
  • Insurgent groups will also be able to establish mutually beneficial relationships with local groups, such as organized criminal networks. As they are already operating out of global economic centers with the necessary infrastructure, these criminal networks will provide access to established illicit trafficking routes for weapons and other vital supplies – such as perhaps commercial drones, explosives, or even biological or chemical agents – as well as a consistent means to fund insurgent operations locally.

Doug Wise, former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

“Some of the advantages of military forces comes from precision-guided munitions, precision surveillance, night operations and mobility such as helicopter insertion. However, when counterinsurgents are doing maneuver combat by neighborhood, many of our advantages are no longer available to us. Also, in a dense urban environment, you have some mobility issues, in which you either land counterinsurgents on top of buildings or you are driving or walking in the streets. Artillery strikes, air-to-ground missiles, Apache gunships, B52 bombers – all of which are tremendously advantageous to the counterinsurgent in places like Afghanistan – are likely not to be not useful at all. There are likely to be technical and tactical advantages to the insurgent as well. Small-scale versions of that – the DJI Phantom 3 equipped with a hand grenade – brings an element of what was our advantage to the insurgent. In some respects, the urban environment levels the playing field.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution

“Military planners are dismayed that the collateral damage of their military efforts often gets condemned far more vociferously and is far more politically explosive than the far greater brutality and collateral damage caused by the non-state opponents. Yet that is the political reality on which they need to count. This political reality, as well as the indispensable human rights obligation to minimize civilian casualties, inevitably limits the use of heavy weapons, artillery and air power in urban spaces by the counterinsurgents. At the same time, the ability of non-state actors these days to deploy at least unmanned air assets, such as commercial drones, for reconnaissance – and increasingly for lethal action as ISIS already began to do in Iraq and Syria – may tempt the more powerfully-armed counterinsurgents to unleash the full potential of their destructive military capacity. Yet such a temptation needs to be resisted.”

Response: Just as insurgent and terrorist groups are now adapting to operate in dense urban environments – including the megacities of the future – so are counterinsurgent forces, an evolution that requires a change in mindset about the use of unconventional military power. In anticipation of this explosive urbanization, the U.S. military needs to adapt to operating within sprawling metropolitan environments.

Doug Wise, former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

“Urban settings are a unique combat and counterinsurgency environment, so training for those unique skills in absolutely important. Leadership is also important because it can get brutal and violent quickly, and it can be easy for the counterinsurgent to use excess violence in order to deal with the insurgency. So most importantly, you have to have much stricter rules of engagement in an urban environment because there is such a dense non-combatant population.”

David Kilcullen, former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the U.S. Secretary of State

“The increasingly urban nature of conflict is generating dilemmas for the world’s armed forces, most of which prefer to avoid city fighting whenever possible. The United States and its allies – who care about minimizing civilian casualties and avoiding damage to urban infrastructure – have invested heavily in new technologies for precision close air support, small-diameter bombs, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, sophisticated intelligence and targeting systems, and vehicle self-defense suites to help forces survive and operate in cities while doing the minimum possible damage.”

  • “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas,” General Mark Milley, the Army Chief of Staffremarked in October 2016. “We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct.”
  • While urban insurgents are now able to leverage commercial technologies such as Google Earth satellite imagery and small hobby drones capable of aerial reconnaissance for maneuver, targeting, and explosives delivery, there are new technologies being developed for counterinsurgents as well. What is particularly necessary, are tools to differentiate insurgents hiding among millions of residents in order to detect and preempt their operations.
  • Given that most of the world’s megacities will emerge within the developing world, the U.S. must be able to work through host governments, providing training, equipment and on-the-ground assistance to their local partners. U.S. military operations in Mogadishu, Sadr City, Fallujah and more recently Sirte provide insight into the challenges of operating in these environments, but on a much smaller scale.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution

“Several broad implications can thus be derived for counterinsurgency operations in urban spaces and complex operations against criminal gangs ruling parts of cities. First, the development of non-lethal technologies for waging combat in such spaces is imperative. Second, despite the temptations and short-term urban battlefield exigencies, a scrupulous adherence to avoiding non-combatant casualties is vital in terms of basic human right standards, as well as political sustainability of counterinsurgency efforts and a long-term viability of pacification. That limits not only the choice of weapons, but also the choice of allies.”

David Kilcullen, former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the U.S. Secretary of State

“New insurgent capabilities, which of course are also open to state-backed operators and special forces teams that seek to operate below the radar in future cities, have prompted conventional militaries to think of fresh ways to deal with what I have described as ‘the coming age of the urban guerrilla.’ These include sophisticated biometric, facial recognition and biochemical sensing systems to detect explosive residues or track individuals in crowded spaces, as well as big-data techniques to monitor and respond rapidly to subtle but detectable changes in an urban environment. They include new counter-sniper, counter-IED, and counter-drone technologies, techniques for emplacing and employing mesh-networks of ground-based and airborne sensors, and new organizational structures – smaller, more modular but better protected units that can more effectively operate in urban areas.”

Looking Ahead: Importantly, megacities are not just big cities, but a unique and constantly adapting system of systems. They are ecosystems where the casual link between destabilizing neighborhoods rippling across the city and into the region and the world is difficult to determine.

Doug Wise, former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

“Look at Tahrir Square and the civil unrest that took place in Egypt and the effect it had on the country’s biggest industry, tourism. While this arguably had a local effect, there are number of reasonable scenarios where if you disrupted a financial hub (always found in metropolitan areas) through insurgent activity, it could have significant ripples far beyond the borders of that country.”

  • Megacities such as Lagos, Cairo, Karachi, Dhaka, Johannesburg, Luanda, Dar-es-Salaam, Kinshasa and Mumbai will be global economic hubs, with some being home to major ports, financial centers, or critical industries on which the rest of the world relies. Merely laying siege to neighborhoods within these megacities in order to rout out insurgents is not a strategically sound option and evacuating millions of innocent civilians prior to fighting is a logistical nightmare. Battles in these hubs will have significant economic and political ripple effects, as the Syrian migrant crisis currently facing Europe shows.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution

“Planning for post-combat reconstruction needs to assume it will be a long-term, expensive, and complex effort – particularly for megacities with fatally damaged economies and infrastructures. For urban slums, the planning should often be for decades, not years, and an effort needs to be made to obtain funding for such a long-term enterprise. Out of the many development challenges, creating legal jobs in slums is the most vexing one. But in the absence of serious reconstruction efforts, at best, criminal gangs and illicit economies will emerge, and at worst, new militants will move in.”

David Kilcullen, former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the U.S. Secretary of State

“All of this means that the challenge of urban conflict, and within that broad category the even more complex and demanding subset of urban insurgency and counterinsurgency, will be with us for the foreseeable future. And as the planet continues to urbanize and cities keep growing at unprecedented rates, this subset of urban warfare will almost certainly continue to be one of the most dynamic and dangerous of all.”

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13. Material from this article was first published on October 22, 2017.


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One Reply to “Preparing for the Urban Future of Counterinsurgency”
  1. I disagree with the basic premise of the brief. Urban insurgents are unlikely to be satisfied for long with controlling or operating only on the periphery. They are more likely to fight for control of the city just as national insurgents fight for control of a nation.

    Similarly, a policy of containment to the periphery would be ineffective. Like revolution on a nationwide scale, localized urban insurgency strives toward centripetal advance, beginning around the edges and moving inward.

    It won’t happen everywhere

    It is axiomatic that human conflict inevitably follows humans. We should recognize, however, that conflict and instability are predictable short-term byproducts of diversity. Megacities with relatively homogenous populations are unlikely to develop insurgency problems. Therefore, because urban insurgency is unlikely to arise everywhere, the problem will not be universal.

    The urbanization root system is fragile

    Economic opportunity and the perception of safety are essential elements underpinning urbanization. Megacities evolve because the upper class earns more money and the lower classes hope to better their lives in the city. But if their families are not safe from insurgents, then the underlying premise of the brief, that of urbanization inevitability, is called into question, as is the socio-political presumption that urbanization is desirable.

    Perpetual counter-insurgency doesn’t work

    In combating megacity urban insurgency, Killcullen would have us rely on technology. Afghanistan taught us that such reliance is misplaced. Vanda Felbab-Brown argues that counter-insurgency operations should be restrained in order to avoid collateral damage, while accepting as inevitable that collateral damage caused by insurgents is politically more acceptable to society. Both Killcullen and Felbab-Brown effectively and perhaps unintentionally argue for perpetual counter-insurgency operations. If we have learned one thing in the 21st Century it is that long-haul counter-insurgency doesn’t work.

    In Felbab-Brown’s analysis, reconciliation and reconstruction work to end insurgencies. History shows they don’t. Reconciliation and combat cessation are necessary preconditions to the effective post-combat reconstruction she envisions. The problem is that reconciliation means ceding the city to the insurgents or vanquishing them. If counter-insurgent forces do neither one and instead walk down the middle of the road, then combat continues. In reality, this is one of those either-or situations.

    Doug Wise is exactly correct

    To his analysis I would add that urban combat within the city itself is to be avoided at all costs precisely because the stricter rules of engagement needed to protect the non-combatant population always hamper counter-insurgency force mission effectiveness. In order to avoid collateral damage within the city, insurgencies must be defeated quickly on the outskirts, before they establish the living systems they need for operations within the city. Once that’s done, the intelligence community, having nipped the insurgency at the periphery, then needs to identify the struggling cells and lone wolves in the city.

    Securing megacities requires acceptance of political fallout

    Thus, for urbanization to survive alongside diversity, insurgent activity must be vanquished swiftly by all means necessary. It’s either that or rethink urbanization inevitability, because urbanization will not survive alongside never-ending war. The innocents will flee with disastrous results for the city and the national economy. With that in mind, the intelligence communities in affected nations must work to keep these wars small.