Urban Combat: ‘Cities Are Sponges That Soak Up Troops’

By David Kilcullen

David Kilcullen is the former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008 after serving as senior Counterinsurgency Advisor, Multinational Force – Iraq in 2007. He was Chief Strategist in the U.S. State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, the lead author for the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Handbook, and founded the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team in 2009 in Afghanistan, where he served as advisor to Commander ISAF and on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Afghanistan program. Kilcullen is now CEO and President of the research and operations firm Cordillera Applications Group and a Senior Fellow in the Future of War Program at New America, a Washington D.C. think-tank.. He is the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, 2013).

In October 2017 – as Iraqi forces mop up in Mosul, fighting rages round Raqqa and Deir Ezzour in Syria, the United States resumes bombing ISIS strongholds near the Libyan city of Sirte, and combat continues in Avdiivka, a frontline town near the city of Donetsk in Ukraine – it’s obvious that conflict is becoming increasingly urbanized. The battle of Mosul alone, with 1.2 million civilians in the city during the fighting, and over 100,000 combatants engaged, was not just the biggest urban battle since the World War II, but the largest of any kind, worldwide, since the start of the century. Even the war in Afghanistan, which for much of the past 15 years has been largely rural, has become increasingly urbanized in recent years. And if conflict in Korea kicks off, nuclear or not, the heaviest destruction will almost certainly fall on the 26 million people of the Seoul-Incheon metropolitan area.

At one level, this is a trivial observation: wars happen where people live. 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.

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