Kilcullen on COIN “Persistent-Presence” vs. “Repetitive Raiding”

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

I purchased a copy of The Accidental Guerrilla, intending to read it last summer but, being buried under my own academic course work, I was forced to put it aside until recently. I am not finished yet but I can say that Col. Kilcullen has written a seminal, if idiosyncratic, work on the theory and practice of counterinsurgency – no doubt why some reviewers found The Accidental Guerrilla be difficult book to read, one that “…could be like a junior high school student’s attempting “Ulysses.” Or were aggravated by Kilcullen’s format through which he enunciated a more nuanced understanding of the war and COIN than they found politically tolerable. Most readers in this corner of the blogosphere will find The Accidental Guerrilla an intellectually stimulating book from an author well grounded in the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is the leading theorist of counterinsurgency today.

I would like to take a look at one section where Dr. Kilcullen discusses the merits of “presence” vs. “raiding” in the context of road-building operations in the Kunar and Korengal vallies of Afghanistan by American troops under, successively, LTC. Chris Cavoli and LTC. Bill Ostlund [p. 96]:

Cavoli contrasts this “permanent-presence” methodology with the “repetitive raiding” that has characterized operations at some other times and places. He argues that persistent presence is essentially a “counterpunching” strategy that relies on a cycle of defense and counterattack, in which the presence of the road and Coalition forces protecting and interacting with the population draws the enemy into attacking defended areas, causing him to come to the population and the government – the opposite of the “search and destroy” approach in which security forces “sweep” the countryside looking for the enemy within the population, as if for a needle in a haystack, and often destroy the haystack to find the needle. More particularly, search and destroy operations tend to create a popular backlash and contribute to the “antibody response” that generates large numbers of accidental guerrillas and pushes the population and the enemy together. The persistent-presence method avoids this.

My Comments:

The context that Kilcullen is writing here is a tactical one but the conceptual conflict of “presence vs. raiding” scales up easily to one of strategy and engages ( or should engage) consideration of how you want to position yourself at the mental and moral levels of war. Colonel John Boyd, in Patterns of Conflict recommended principles to create strategies and tactics that would:

  • Morally-mentally-physically isolate adversary from allies or any outside support as well as isolate elements of adversary or adversaries form on another and overwhelm them by being able to penetrate and splinter their moral-mental-physical being at any and all levels.
  • Pump-up our resolve, drain-away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted.
  • Subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s vulnerable, yet critical, connections, centers, and activities that provide cohesion and permit coherent observation-orientation-decision-action in order to dismember organism and isolate remnants for absorption or mop-up.
  • Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive

Abstractly, Kilcullen’s “persistent-presence” has superior strategic qualities – it isolates and demoralizes the enemy and daunts the latently hostile while connecting our side to the population and “pumping up” the morale of allies and sympathizers. The initiative is seized and control of the battleground is determined. Most of the time, this is an advantage, so long as the chosen ground is also tactically defensible, unlike, say at Dien Bien Phu. When Julius Caesar was carrying out his conquest of Gaul, he often divided his legions for their winter quarters, even though this entailed some risk, because doing so reinforced the political spine of Rome’s local allies in tribes of uncertain loyalty and intimidated the malcontents or secured the population against raiding by still hostile Gauls or Germans from across the Rhine. Caesar did a lot better in Gaul than did the French in Indochina.

The problem, is not Kilcullen’s theory of COIN, which seems to me to be solidly based upon his empirical observation and deep experience in counterinsurgency warfare. Nor is tactical execution by American troops the issue either; while the US/ISAF have had successes and failures, the principles of COIN seem to be widely understood, if not always perfectly implemented. The dilemma is at the intermediate level of “state building”, one Kilcullen’s primary strategic goals in Afghanistan, that is supposed to support the progress made in the villages by COIN operations.

On COIN specifically, Boyd wrote:

Counter-guerrilla campaign


  • Undermine guerrilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of people-rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.*
  • Take political initiative to root out and visibly punish corruption. Select new leaders with recognized competence as well as popular appeal. Ensure that they deliver justice, eliminate grievances and connect government with grass roots.*
  • Infiltrate guerrilla movement as well as employ population for intelligence about guerrilla plans, operations, and organization.
  • Seal-off guerrilla regions from outside world by diplomatic, psychological, and various other activities that strip-away potential allies as well as by disrupting or straddling communications that connect these regions with outside world.
  • Deploy administrative talent, police, and counter-guerrilla teams into affected localities and regions to: inhibit guerrilla communication, coordination and movement; minimize guerrilla contact with local inhabitants; isolate their ruling cadres; and destroy their infrastructure.
  • Exploit presence of above teams to build-up local government as well as recruit militia for local and regional security in order to protect people from the persuasion and coercion efforts of the guerrilla cadres and their fighting units.
  • Use special teams in a complementary effort to penetrate guerrilla controlled regions. Employ (guerrillas’ own) tactics of reconnaissance, infiltration, surprise hit-and-run, and sudden ambush to: keep roving bands off-balance, make base areas untenable, and disrupt communication with outside world.
  • Expand these complementary security/penetration efforts into affected region after affected region in order to undermine, collapse, and replace guerrilla influence with government influence and control.
  • Visibly link these efforts with local political/economic/social reform in order to connect central government with hopes and needs of people, thereby gain their support and confirm government legitimacy.


  • Break guerrillas’ moral-mental-physical hold over the population, destroy their cohesion, and bring about their collapse via political initiative that demonstrates moral legitimacy and vitality of government and by relentless military operations that emphasize stealth/fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of overall effort.


* If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides!

Arguably, we cannot realize this kind of political program without a) significantly altering the political culture of Afghanistan which is historically exceptionally hostile to an efficient, centralized state, and b) getting a better set of clients to run the state. Or, c) changing our objectives to ones that are realistic for our time frame, resources and national security interests.

Hamid Karzai is our more humane version of Barbrak Karmal, equally incompetent but more corrupt. Frankly, having stolen the last election and forfeited whatever legitimacy he had in Afghan eyes, Karzai is now a net negative on our efforts and by extending the reach of his government, we alienate every villager and tribesman with whom his officials come into contact. If we are serious, then we should either abandon state-building in Afghanistan and concentrate all our efforts on localities until we secure al Qaida’s destruction in neighboring Pakistan or we should remove Karzai from power and find more effective clients. We need to choose.

If a piece of territory, be it province or nation-state is of no particular intrinsic value to the national interests of the United States, it becomes hard to justify, except upon exigent humanitarian grounds – say, intervening to stop a genocide – a “permanent-presence” COIN operation that lasts for years. It might be better in such places if determined enemies, who are likely to be state supported or at least tolerated non-state actors, faced swiftly dispatched “repetitive raiding” but in a more robust form more properly termed a “punitive expedition“. The the infrastructure that makes the territory militarily useful is systematically and thoroughly destroyed, along with any enemy combatants who assemble to contest the field. Raids, other than neatly targeted assassinations, should not be cruise missile pinpricks but destruction on a scale that General Sherman would find recognizable.

Is state-building in Afghanistan and appeasing Pakistan’s military elite our primary national objectives in this war?

If our interest in a regime’s survival is vital, then by all means dig in with a “persistent-presence”. If not, then scale down to a more appropriate level of response.

Cross-posted at

5 thoughts on “Kilcullen on COIN “Persistent-Presence” vs. “Repetitive Raiding””

  1. One can expand the notion of raiding to the macro level. In World War I the U.S. vis-a-vis the war in Europe was “raiding”. We came, we fought, we imposed a treaty. We went home.

    In WW2 we came, we fought, we imposed a treaty, and we stayed. We created a “permanent presence”. We taught the people how democracy works.

    In Vietnam we came, we fought, we imposed a treaty, we went home. We were “raiders”.

    In Iraq we came, we fought, we imposed a treaty. But are we going to be raiders or a permanent presence?

  2. You’re asking the biggest question, the strategic question, the answer to which all else is derived, “What do we want to achieve and what are we willing to pay to achieve it?”. For me, the answer is a state stable enough within not to act as a base for Al Queda. Much beyond that is going to be vastly more expensive than we can afford and will take decades if not centuries to bring about.

    I’m not sure what can be done about corruption, I believe it’s endemic to human nature and government and at best can be kept to tolerable levels (which is always a good argument for smaller government, since the damage they do and power the corrupt officials can wield is limited).

  3. In re Corruption.
    Tacitus (a man who was proud that he could express very complex ideas in very few words) observes in his Annals: “Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges” which may be translated as “There is a positive correlation between the number of laws and the amount of corruption – one causes the other – laws cause corruption and corruption causes laws”. Therefore it follows: No laws, No corruption. Small government is always less corrupt then Big Government.

    Strategy-wise, we want to stamp out schools for terrorism. This involves building a nation in Afganistan and elsewhere that can accomplish this goal. Every time the US has maintained a permanent military base in a country, that country has supported American goals. Everytime we have taken our troops and gone home someone else has taken control of the country and American goals are not met.

    Thus “raiding” vs “permanent presence” applies not only at the village level but also at the national level. It is an application of the Principal “If you want a job done right, then do it yourself”, and of a story Jesus told of a man whose worthless estate became prosperous once he personally visited each corner on a daily basis.

  4. Sol wrote:
    Strategy-wise, we want to stamp out schools for terrorism. This involves building a nation in Afganistan and elsewhere that can accomplish this goal. Every time the US has maintained a permanent military base in a country, that country has supported American goals. Everytime we have taken our troops and gone home someone else has taken control of the country and American goals are not met.

    Your point is well taken. However, the strategic situation Afghanistan is complex, mainly due to the long borders with Pakistan and Iran and the existence of the Hindu Kush mountains. This is much different than occupying island Japan, peninsula Korea at the parallel, or even a devastated Europe. Iran alone could supply these people for decades, unless you want to open a front against them as well.

    It seems the Petraeus strategy is to clear and hold in Afghanistan and persuade the Pakis, through bribes of money and weapons, to push the Taliban and Al Queda out of the northern territories. Meanwhile, we build an Afghan army. Those limited goals will take another 5-10 years. After that point, and the wind down in Iraq, I could support maintaining bases and training facilities in both countries, provided the locals are doing the brunt of the patrols and policing. I think we’ll succeed in Iraq with that model (I’d argue we already have) but Afghanistan appears a basket case by comparison. There is much, much work to be done there.

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