Religion and Insurgency: A Response to Dave Kilcullen

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 9 months ago

On April 15, 2007, Dave Kilcullen authored a commentary on Edward Luttwak’s commentary entitled Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice.  Kilcullen invokes this discussion in his most recent commentary entitled Religion and Insurgency at the Small Wars Journal; Kilcullen puts forward a series of interesting thoughts on the role (or lack thereof) of religion in the current insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without studying these articles, my commentary will be read in a vacuum.  It is recommended that you spend the time necessary to understand Kilcullen’s arguments before tackling my response.  In the lengthy article that follows, Smith responds to Kilcullen; first to his views concerning the relationship of Islam and the insurgency in Iraq, second to his views concerning the Peters / Luttwak position, and finally the current state of affairs concerning rules of engagement and the Petraeus letter to the troops concerning the same.

The three central theses of Kilcullen’s commentary follow:

First, there is solid field evidence that modern counterinsurgency methods, properly updated for the new environment, actually are effective against current insurgencies. Second, insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq are not actually particularly religious — certainly, they are no more religious than the societies they are attacking. Indeed, there is an empirical problem with the whole notion of a “religious? insurgency, since almost all historical insurgencies have included a strong religious dimension, so that it is not clear that discrete “religious insurgencies? actually exist as observable phenomena. And third, doctrinal publications are not templates, but generic expositions of principle; not cookbooks, but frameworks. Practitioners must populate these frameworks with current, locally accurate, deeply understood insights into the societies where they operate. There is simply no substitute for what we might call “conflict ethnography?: a deep, situation-specific understanding of the human, social and cultural dimensions of a conflict, understood not by analogy with some other conflict, but in its own terms.

As I have pointed out, the real insurgency, while routintely blamed on AQI by both the U.S. and competing forces inside Iraq, is a mixture of rogue elements, from criminal gangs to Ba’athists to Fedayeen Saddam.  In Kirkuk, for example, it is observed that “Most, if not all, the terrorists are the old Baath Party members,? Mam Rostam said. “They changed their names and became an Islamist party. But they are the same guys. They have unified with some Sunnis around the Southwest of Kirkuk because they are living in this area. They are making these attacks to make this democratic experiment after Saddam fail.?  In attributing so many incidents to al Qaeda or AQI-linked insurgents, the Multi-National Force press releases have added to the perception that the insurgency is excusively religious.  Kilcullen makes a powerful case with substantial arguments that there is a strong non-religious, or even irreligious part of the insurgency.  He summarizes by saying that “Islam is invoked by all sides as a rallying cry, not solely by the insurgents. And in fact the conflict is entirely political.” (italics mine)

But Kilcullen says too much and proves too little, and his own commentary contains the defeater for his position.  He says, “I have seen former Iraqi insurgents break down in bitter tears when they realized that guerrilla leaders they believed were true Muslims were actually tattooed habitual criminals with links to organized crime, murder-for-profit gangs and the old Ba’athist oligarchy.”  If religious devotion was not at least some part of the insurgency, this statement makes no sense and has no context.  The apparent fallacy here is one of affirming the consequent.  Kilcullen’s argument is:

  1. If there are irreligious aspects to the insurgency, then the insurgency is irreligious.
  2. Evidence shows that there are irreligious aspects to the current insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  3. Therefore, the insurgencies are irreligous.

Arguments of this form are invalid.  On a deeper level, in the intellectual wasteland of post-modern America, it has become easy to treat religion as a subset or category of anthropology or sociology.  In the wake of Rudolph Bultmann and his ilk, orthodoxy has been jettisoned and belief systems are empty.  Paul Tillich, upon inauguration as the Chair of Theology at the University of Chicago’s divinity school, in a remarkable testimony to the fact that post-modernism had nothing left to say to society or mankind in general, famously denied that theology existed.  But in a war in which we are trying to understand “hearts and minds,” the final arbiter is not largesse.  The difference between Vietnam and the jihadists, it has been said, is that the Viet Cong didn’t follow us home.  This is true, and no mere appeal to criminality, goon-ism or thugery can fully explain why men would train their whole lives in order to fly aircraft into buildings, any more than it can explain why suicide bombers still cross from Syria into Iraq.  No appeal to political power can explain the vision of the radical Mullahs in Iran who continue to supply weapons and personnel into the insurgency in Iraq.  The fact that not all of the data points to religion as the impetus and first cause doesn’t change the fact that some of it does.

To see an essentially religious element in all of man’s endeavors, in fact, is not inconsistent with the best thinkers alive today.  Alvin Plantinga, in his Advice to Christian Philosophers, says:

So the Christian philosopher has his own topics and projects to think about; and when he thinks about the topics of current concern in the broader philosophical world, he will think about them in his own way, which may be a different way. He may have to reject certain currently fashionable assumptions about the philosophic enterprise-he may have to reject widely accepted assumptions as to what are the proper starting points and procedures for philosophical endeavor. And-and this is crucially important-the Christian philosopher has a perfect right to the point of view and prephilosophical assumptions he brings to philosophic work; the fact that these are not widely shared outside the Christian or theistic community is interesting but fundamentally irrelevant … the Christian philosopher has a right (I should say a duty) to work at his own projects-projects set by the beliefs of the Christian community of which he is a part. The Christian philosophical community must work out the answers to its questions; and both the questions and the appropriate ways of working out their answers may presuppose beliefs rejected at most of the leading centers of philosophy. But the Christian is proceeding quite properly in starting from these beliefs, even if they are so rejected. He is under no obligation to confine his research projects to those pursued at those centers, or to pursue his own projects on the basis of the assumptions that prevail there.

I have pointed out before that the Armed Forces currently has a deep problem with Chaplains and even the mere idea of universal, invariant truth.  But this obscene dance with political correctness doesn’t change the fact that the deepest, most compelling cause of action in mankind remains religion, and justly so.  Until our military doctrine properly grapples with this fact and incorporates the deliverances of this category of thought, our counterinsurgency will remain barren as it regards what the data proves to be a non-trivial actor in the struggle.

Without laboring over a detailed response to Kilcullen’s views on Luttwak, I think that it is very important not to oversell the idea that Luttwak misreads history.  It is tempting to take Luttwak on tet a tet through the details of each historical lesson, and such an approach is, in my humble opinion, wrongheaded and doomed to failure.  One such example would be the Romans and their TTPs.  Luke 17 gives us a brief glimpse into the nature of Roman control over the Middle East, a glimpse that can be fleshed out by reading the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus.  I had initially intended to pile up quotes and facts from my history books, but this is not necessary, and it is likely that no one (save the incorrigible history buff) would read it.  In lieu of this, let me simple assert that the Roman legions were extremely brutal in their suppression of insurgents.  In fact, to say that they were extremely brutal doesn’t do justice to their behavior, but throwing superlatives around would take us far afield.  There was an insurgency in the time of Christ, and it should be remembered that the idea of a crucifixion was not new, and existed before and during the life of Christ for insurgents, lawbreakers and other rogue elements (to be used later against people because of religious persuasion).  The Roman brutality was remarkably successful in the supression of the insurgency.  The Romans exercised brutality especially during the third Punic war.  This prepared them for the times that lay ahead, and set the course for the nature of their brutality.  They had found something that worked, and they would continue to use it.

Further, while I have pointed out in the past that acts of brutality has worked against the aims of insurgents (the very ones who perpetrate them), it would be incorrect to assert that severe punishment for offenders doesn’t do the job of supression of the insurgency.  Take for example the recent New York Times article 3 Suspects Talk After Iraqi Soldiers Do Dirty Work.  This article catalogues an extremely effective Iraqi unit in their “questioning” of insurgents, this questioning undoubtedly saving Iraqi and U.S. lives.  Says one Iraqi commanding officer, “If the Americans used this way, the way we use, nobody would shoot the Americans at all,? Captain Hassan said. “But they are easy with them, and they have made it easy for the terrorists.?  Other examples can be cited, where the so-called Salvation Front in Anbar, ally of the U.S., has used TTPs that do not comport with U.S. rules of engagement.

In my opinion, the far better way to argue against Luttwak’s position is that it is morally wrong (when inflicted upon an innocent population), not that it doesn’t work (or that it doesn’t comport with the historical facts, a dubious claim anyway).  Again, rather than argue from the perspective of a utilitarian (subject to the next example that might contradict your own thesis), it is best to argue from a deontological perspective.  A well constructed argument never needs to be revisited, as long as your world view and value system remains unchanged.  Additionally, utilitarian arguments that brutality works or doesn’t work are inductive anyway, subject to the exigencies of the situation on the ground, and hence are always necessarily soft.  Hard arguments are deductive, and befitting of this weighty subject matter.  It should also be pointed out that even if such a thing (brutality against innocents) were ever codified into law, given the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which American was founded, the armed forces would (correctly) normally refuse to implement such a policy.  However, regarding known insurgents, I have always advocated tougher measures than we currently employ, and while any other policy gives its adherent the opportunity to preen over his moral superiority, this person has to consider the moral detriment to his soul when lack of a tougher policy costs a mother her son or a wife her husband.

But by using the term moral (or right or wrong, a term which Kilcullen uses), we are entering another domain.  For those who believe that death essentially means that the body cools to ambient temperature, there is little that they can do to define “moral” or “ethical.”  But we have used the term, and applied it to behavior of men in uniform at the behest of the U.S. government.  These are necessarily religious terms, and they have no moorings or meaning unless a religious framework is posited.

War can and should be seen in terms of a ministry, and it is possible (and required) to apply a moral framework not only to when but how we wage it.  But it should be remembered that if it is a ministry, the first ones to whom ministry belongs is the fighting man — our own warriors.  To that end I have argued in my commentaries on rules of engagement (and most particularly in Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments) for a robust set of ROE that first protects the American fighting man, while secondly attempting to minimize non-combatant casualties, and in that order.  For instance, David Danelo has documented instances where insurgents learn and use our ROE against us, by firing pre-deployed weapons, relocating, firing again, and so forth, all the while being under watch by U.S. troops who cannot return fire because of the ROE (i.e., dropping the weapon before running across the street).  Michael Fumento has posted in the comments section of my article The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement that minarets were always a thing of fear to him because snipers “hung out” there.  When he recommended that the U.S. or Iraqi troops station sentries in order to prohibit the entry of men with sniper rifles, the response came back a resounding ‘no’.  For this would not win hearts and minds.  In the same article NCOs have documented cases where strict adherence to the ROE has cost American lives.  I have also documented cases where gaurds could not act, even when cars allegedly “broke down” at the entrances to FOBs with known insurgents scouting the area for weaknesses while someone else “repaired” the car.  Again, these instances demonstrate that the insurgent is adaptable and willing and able to use our ROE against us, while our ROE are unable to be adapted.  Such is the picture that is painted when the JAGs are trusted more than the NCOs.

It is not hard, then, to imagine a deleterious affect on troop morale.  In response to this, General Petraeus issued the following statement upon taking over OIF:

I am concerned about the unintended consequences of our efforts over thepast two years to reduce injury and death to innocents within the framework of escalation of force (EOF) situations. The intentions of these efforts have been absolutely correct; however, it appears that the results, in some cases, have led to establishment of procedures that have, in effect, changed the rules of engagement for our troopers. Let me be clear: (1) No one may issue supplementary guidance that forecloses the judgment of an individual facing a split-second and independent decision whether to engage a threat. Persons committing hostile acts or exhibiting hostile intent may be engaged with all necessary force without progress through EOF measures — though, of course, progressing though EOF measures should be the case when the situation allows. (2) Leaders should strive to shape situations so that coalition forces are not pressed into making snap judgments under questionable circumstances. Warning equipment, barrier materials, and nonlethal weapons, as well as signs — well-lighted at night and understandable to Iraqis — must continue to be issued to our troops. This is easier written than done, I recognize, but we must strive to minimize the situations that result in split-second decisions when we can. (3) To remain true to our nations’ values and maintain our discipline, commanders will investigate engagements resulting in death, injury requiring hospitalization, or substantial property loss to a civilian. Other incidents will be reported according to unit standards and may be investigated at local commanders’ discretion. Despite our best efforts to minimize them — efforts that are very important-there will be EOF incidents. Learn from them, conduct the AARs that are the hallmark of a professional force, train on the lessons brought to light, and share these lessons. Your chain of command will stand with you.

These words likely ring hollow when juxtaposed with the more recent advice to turn in fellow warriors for violations of the rules.  This most recent communication was the wrong one, done at the wrong time, by the wrong person.  If something had to be communicated, it should have been done by Chaplains, and couched in terms of prevention, morality and “good wars” rather than legalities.  The goal should have been instruction and counsel, but with this letter will come a likely pall over troop morale, with warriors wondering when the next investigation will be started and by whom for what.

The more sophisticated thinkers are working towards prevention rather than prosecution.  Finally, upon disclosure of such violations, amelioration (for both the noncombatant and the warrior) is superior to retribution.  Such should be the aims of the man who thinks morally about war, what it does to the ones we war upon, and what it does to our warriors.

This article has been updated with Smith Responds (where Smith responds to his critics concerning this article).

  • kat-missouri

    I am one of those that argued that Luttwak’s points were well off because he focused solely on the use of force, as you indicate, and not on the other aspects of, say, Roman power that enabled it to reduce or eliminate insurgencies in a given area.

    I think, frankly, it is disingenuous to ignore those other aspects of Roman rule and power since it existed for over 600 years. To ignore the economic, political and even security (ie, protection of, not destruction of) of society offered by the Roman apparatus as a motivator for peoples and countries NOT to fight against Roman rule is to act as if it did not exist or did not affect at all.

    Such practices as creating legions or a constabulary from local recruits are tried and true methods throughout history , not just the Roman or current period.

    I think we conveniently ignore these aspects in order to further a particular opinion or idea on fighting insurgencies, in this case – violent and brutal suppression of insurgencies – not because they are not true.

    I point these out, not because I think that the “softly, softly” approach is the best method to win “hearts and minds” as opposed to violence, as some sort of moral or political idea, but because my experience with social networks indicate that there are many motivators within society, even those that are overtly “religious” in nature, are motivated by the same basic needs and desires as all humans: to be secure, to be economically stable (if not wealthy), to hold power or at least have a say in their existence, laws and day to day life. It may have different language associated with the differing religions, but it is still subject to human nature.

    And, as Kilcullen points out, it is about where religion sits in the over all power structure of individual societies. In that, I mean, not on a national or ethno-religious basis, but in local society like rural tribes, rural towns, suburbs and cities. In all of these, the importance, position and power of religion depends on the local power structure. For instance, does the Mosque sit above, beside (in tandem or cooperation with), or below the power of the tribal sheikh or town mayor or other power broker in the area (ie, does the mosque exist at the pleasure and with the economic support of this power broker, much as churches of the medieval period were sometimes supported by and financed by the local feudal lord)?

    Thus, our emphasis and approach to attacking the ideology or insurgency on a religious basis is dependent on its position in the social setting we are operating in.

    I find it interesting that you allude to the insurgency taking place during the time of Christ and crucifixions. I think this illustrates the entire point I am making. While the Romans may have been brutal in their suppression of such insurgents and that they had a religious nature (at least, as with in Iraq, as a unifying, organizing force across other social or power structures), the Romans had, to a large extent, co-opted the religious power structure in Jerusalem (the pharisees) by giving them some amount of power and autonomy. Not to mention setting up or supporting King Herrod as their proxy, providing at least an illusion of autonomy, though the Israelites and such were still subject to Roman tribute and rule.

    I believe this refutes the idea that Roman counterinsurgency was solely or more significantly based on brutal suppression than any other political or economic incentives. And, thus refutes the idea that our own tactics are failures because we do not mirror the illusion of Roman (or other) brutal counterinsurgency.

  • Denis

    Every time I follow a discussion on Iraq at the SWJ site, somebody interjects the proposition that Gen Petraeus does not have even half the troops he needs to implement his own strategies. Nobody ever seems to contest this assertion. Do you believe 160,000 is enough if used properly?

  • Herschel Smith

    Denis, in answer to your great question, “no.” Those in responsible charge of the U.S. efforts in the Diyala Province have requested more troops.

    kat-missouri, I updated a comment over at a SWJ post with the following comments, to be updated with a more directed response towards your issues later:

    It is frustrating to have ones views misread. I am certain that it points to a failure to communicate on my part. First, regarding Kilcullen’s views of Luttwak.

    I argue, surely less than perfectly, that any attempt to use anecdotal evidence to contradict Luttwak’s view is sure to collapse under the burden of the counterevidence — and vice versa. The evidence is a very mixed bag, with brutality towards a population working in certain instances and having unintended consequences in others, depending on a great many things too numerous to outline. This argument, therefore, is designed to fail “right out of the gate.” While in certain instances the evidence might point to failure of Luttwak’s theories, every soldier / marine / historian will have a different tale to tell. The best way to argue against Luttwak is that to brutalize a population is immoral, not that it doesn’t work. But here we are invoking religious terms in a society (and armed forces) that increasingly runs from the same. I fear that as this progresses, we increasingly lose our ability to create the ‘knock-down’ argument that is really needed against Luttwak’s views.

    As to ROE, I have not ever (that I am aware of) argued for more robust ROE as a TTP. I have not argued – and would not argue – that a change in ROE would win OIF3 (the exception might be the Brits and their stark and calamitous failure in Basra, a subject I will write on in the future). I have argued for robust ROE as a protection for the U.S. troops. I do not believe that the “soft” ROE of the Brits in Basra has won hearts and minds. Nor do I think that ROE is capable of WHAM. That isn’t the design of ROE — or at least, it shouldn’t be, so I argue.

    Finally, to the issue of Kilcullen and religion. I put forward, I believe, a fairly modest proposal, even if strongly worded. Religion is still and will always be the most compelling motivational factor in behavior. I do not believe that it is the sole motivator, and certainly there are others, some very important. Kilcullen’s argument is much less modest. The insurgency, says he, is “ENTIRELY political.” Finding even a single insurgent who fights for religious reasons, or even partially for religious reasons, disproves this statement.

    Kilcullen has as his project to demonstrate that the “jihadist” is amenable to our efforts at WHAM, contrary to the observations by some (who would claim that religion prevents any affect of our efforts). As far as this goes, this is a noble and legitimate project. It becomes much less legitimate when religion is completely dismissed as a motivator in favor of the insurgency being “entirely political.” Nothing is entirely political, not even political parties. I concur with Hoffman’s earlier post on religion and FM 3-24.

    In summary, the two most important failures in FM 3-24 in my opinion are:

    1. Failure to incorporate the things that religion can teach us in a counterinsurgency campaign, and

    2. Failure to address how protracted engagements affect troop morale and public sentiment at home (not, by the way, a failure of the Small Wars Manual as I have written about in “Observations on Timeliness from the Small Wars Manual”). I do not believe that the nation will ever again give us ten years to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign. To the extent that FM 3-24 assumes this, our proverbial heads are “in the sand.”

  • kat-missouri

    I think that we need to separate these two things in order to address them properly:

    1) Use of appropriate force in warfare, specifically, counterinsurgency.
    2) Religion in warfare

    Like a court of law, Luttwak’s reference to religious motivators in warfare (such as Spain against Joseph Bonaparte) and Hoffman’s later take up of the gauntlet, have seemed to join these two items at the hip and I don’t believe they are necessarily implicit, one with or without the other.

    I am reviewing your response and others to the post and will post my thoughts on my blog. I’ll link back here, but I do want to round up everyone’s thoughts and address specific points, good and bad, that have been made (in my humble opinion).

  • emjayinc

    Capt, I commented at SWJ’s “Around The Net” mention of your (the above) critique, here FYI:
    Smith vs. FM and Kilcullen on religion? Seems like Kilcullen ahead by several laps,if politics is still understood as negotiation of the allocation and distribution of society’s resources. If that describes politics, then religion is only one mode of political activity. Further, Smith’s “Religion is still and will always be the most compelling motivational factor in behavior” seems both simplistic and way too determinist. Religion, just for example, appears nowhere in most modern constructs of man’s motivating needs, but rather as a tool to meeting needs. That is, many people, counter to Smith’s dictum, believe that men use religion to satisfy needs, and needs motivate men to seek religious, among other possible, solutions to needs. That men can become fanatically wedded, or cause others to become wedded, to religion as tool of choice for getting their share of resources is a truism – that’s why fighting the jihadis is fundamentally about politics. If it’s about religion, then its the Christians against the Muslims, and I think that particular viewpoint indicates the jihadis have captured the initiative. Or, to put it in terms, dare I use the word, anthropology, rather than theology, we’re involved here with cultural anthropology, not merely religious anthropology.

  • Herschel Smith


    You have allowed your atheism to cloud your judgment, and your presuppositions to confuse you. Your claims are self-referentially incoherent (see Plantinga), and a more detailed response from me is due by mid-morning, Friday, May 18. Come back later.  In the mean time, this is your assignment so that you are able to understand the things I am going to say.  Read the first chapter of Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation, a book that R. J. Rushdoony claimed to be one of the best he every read.

  • emjayinc

    Not an atheist, at all. An unchurched Theist. While I respect your right to your religious perspective, at 62 years old I am quite comfortable with mine. Please consider using your time to some greater good than proselytizing one who’s already been there. And thanks to you and your son and family for your sacrifices to date.

    See Smith Responds

  • Brian H

    Is religion primary or secondary, origin or derivation, important or trivial? Sounds like that’s what’s debated at core here.

    As a battlefield, religious belief is no longer subject to the benefits and travesties of forced conversion — except in Islam. We sure can’t use it.

    As a motivator, we hope there is a pool of people (“moderates”, and dare we hope for the occasional “liberal” or “secular Muslim”) and scripture which can counter and restrain or defeat the fundamentalists and Sword Verse devotees. A thin hope, IMO.

    I suppose we can hope that the majority of the Muslim population will have the same reaction as that disillusioned dupe who cried when he saw his masters’ bloody clay feet. And crotches. Could happen.

    But as tools, Kilkullen is right. These things are subordinate to getting the economics and culture and survival concerns of the populace right. The high-fallootin’ rationalizations, religious and otherwise, will then pretty much fall in line for most people.

    BUT NOT ALL. There really is a jihadist Global Caliphate core. Many are very smart, sophisticated, and educated. They will not be deterred. So the “war” against them will be VERY “long”, indeed.

  • G. Hale Laughlin

    Neither does Kilcullen, nor mil doctrine, state that religion is, “…a non-trivial actor in the struggle…?, as mentoned by Herschel Smith in his response to Dr. Kilcullens Small Wars Journal Blog piece from 12 May 2007, “Religion and Insurgencies?. In fact, Dr. Kilcullen succinctly provides guidance that,

    “The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a “close reading? of the environment.?

    While I am not prepared with empirical evidence to support this hypothesis, I believe that the positions between the non-religious insurgency and religious insurgency schools of thought lies in the deeper theory of what religion means to the human condition. The discussion between the two schools really centers on the purpose of religion and the basic theological and ontological questions that can not be answered through empirical science at the present time. Given that no epistemological basis exists to unify the issue of religion across all of humanity, seeking to define a form of social conflict on those terms creates a condition where there will be as many definitions of conflict as there are religions in the world. On the other hand, if in an attempt to find a common ground that allows near unity of purpose, if not perfect unity of purpose, one believes that religion serves primarily a ‘political’ role in human society then the two schools can find common terms to help unify understanding to guide designs for counter insurgent strategies.
    Religion as political structure of the human culture is well accepted in the vast majority of schools spanning all sides of the human condition. Even before Aristotle defined politics as a structure in modern human society, religion as spiritual belief structures that unified and provided organizational structure to distinct cultural segments of human societies, is well accepted. The emergence of the ‘state’ correlates roughly with the introduction of ‘politics’ by Aristotle, as the art and science of government or ‘affairs of the state’. The history of mankind since the emergence of the state, and arguably likewise before, has been most definitively marked as a struggle between the faith based spiritual belief structures of human culture and political organizational structures, both vying for the ultimate unifying quest for power over people and resources. In this sense the issue becomes not one of religion or politics, but for power.
    Viewed in this way, it is not critical to accept that insurgencies are ‘religious insurgencies’ or not, but that all insurgencies are an expression of political struggle for power. Religion may or not be an element requiring strong consideration in the ‘conflict ethnography’ that Dr. Kilcullen speaks of, this being determined by the nature of the humans involved in the conflict, and determined after the ‘close read’ on the ground that Dr. Kilcullen prescribes. Albeit, ignoring religion as an important component of the dynamics operating in the structures of the insurgent quest for power, when such a component exists would be ill advised. Interestingly, Dr. Kilcullens ‘close read’ reference runs akin to the ‘thick description’ prescribed by Clifford Gertz, an Anthropologist/Social Scientist whose ethnographic methods prescribed deep study of culture to define not just the behaviour but the context of the behaviour as well. The context of the extremist Islamist insurgent is the important matter here. Islam in a moderate context does not condone suicide bombing, killing of innocent victims and destruction of other societies.
    The Islamic belief structures specifically mark the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan distinctively, with some similarities and some specific differences as well. Without getting into irresolvable discussions involving some notion concerning the ‘sui generis’ nature of religion as satisfying a spiritual requirement of the human condition, current social science recognizes the role that religion serves in political organization of a society. Accepting this, Islam is marked as a faith based belief structure that includes rules and concepts for political organization, rule making and civil governance. As such, Islam can be viewed as a political structure with ready made sets of solutions for political organization that extremists exploit by appealing to the religious structures that resonate with members of the broader faith, while seeking to obtain the broader objectives of power over people and their resources. The insurgents use Islam not so much as a religious structure but as a political structure in their quest for power. In this vein, the religion of Islam is employed by the extremists, much to the chagrin of more moderate followers of the faith, as a tool just as they use acts of terror, intimidation of individuals and segments of societies, torture and all the other litany of tools used by insurgents.
    Viewed in this way, as a political structure that seeks to organize people and resources toward objectives of centralized power, the discussion and categorization of ‘religious insurgencies’ is less amplifying and not terribly meaningful. There is a possibility that deeper study and exploration of the phenomenon may yield that there could be a psychological component operating within the individual extremist Islamist insurgent’s psyche that allows him to distance himself from the more moderate and unifying aspects of ‘Religious Islam’ that he violates through his actions, by viewing the faith through a more ‘political Islam’ lens that insulates him from the religious edicts of the faith. The political component that Islam serves is central to the issues of insurgency, especially in the current forms experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also in this light, the current military doctrine correctly approaches the subject by refraining from getting tangled in the issue of ‘religious insurgencies’, focusing instead on the more important components concerning how insurgents organize to influence the people in their quest for power.

    Speaking from inside the AO and as one who has been immersed in the theory and application of counter-insurgent and insurgent conflict for several years, my observations and experience converge in a strong urge to simplify the counter-insurgent/insurgent dynamic as defined by the simple notion that, whoever best cares for the basic subsistence and security needs of the people first and most enduringly, wins. I am resisting this urge to simplify, but the needs of the people are great and our solutions have become very complex. Conditions such as this most often require the simplicity of the elegant solution, and I am cognizant of the counter-insurgent dynamic defined by the concept that one often fortifies the resistance in proportion to the power that one wields in the peoples defense. The needs of the people, and strategic counter-insurgent endstates, may be best met by the power that one yields to their service.

  • G. Hale Laughlin

    The following edit is required for my comment number 9 above. The first line should read, “Niether Dr. Kilcullen nor mil doctrine states that religion is a trivial actor in the struggle as implied by Herschel Smith in his response to Dr. Kilcullens Small Wars Journal Blog piece from 12 May 2007, “Religion and Insurgencies?.”

    I’ll edit more carefully next time…

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    I can hardly resist a strong urge to bring a contribution and a personal point of view about this interesting debate which seems to arouse much interest and a good deal of thoughts.

    Whether you call it insurgency, revolt, uprising, or revolution, this kind of trouble may occur, in an overwhelming number of the cases, when three fundamental ingredients are reunited. Unless I have been mistaken at some point I learned from the reading of many historical examples that these ingredients are the following.

    1) DISCONTENT: a general and justified or justifiable discontent amongst the population of a given country must arise first;

    2) LEADER and NARATIVE: political parties religiously inspired or not, improvised armies and angry crowds, guerrilla groups or commandos cannot exist without leaders who arouse other’s resentment, federate and organize, and find coherent and consistent claims sustained and fuelled by a narrative which is usually based upon religion, erstwhile glorious past, hero or martyr, political doctrine, etc;

    3) EXTERIOR ASSISTANCE: logistical and financial support to the aforesaid ingredients must take place once the two first are present or likely to be created. For, no efficient insurgency, revolt, or revolution can occur without money, guns, explosives, propaganda, training, etc.

    Once, if ever, you agree about the validity of the aforementioned sine qua non preconditions, then motives and narrative that are going to be permanently presented as claims justifying the insurgency have to be accepted as mere components of a chemical-like formula. At the risk to be accused of oversimplifying the matter at hand let me picture it in saying that you’ll never make gun powder with sulfur only.

    Here follow some examples I picked up at random, which sustain my point.

    It is likely that the issue of the American Revolution would have been postponed if Beaumarchais, having obtained agreement and funds from the king Louis XVI, had not provided the American insurgents with powder, ammunitions, rifles and guns.
    No revolution could success in France in 1789 if Britain had not astutely contributed to it, in an attempt to put a definitive end to a centuries’ long cycle of wars with this country.
    No successful revolution in Russia in 1917 could take place if Lenin had not benefited of a generous financial support discreetly offered by Germany, a country which feared with reason that tsarist Russia took part in WWI on the side of its foes.
    The same scheme occurred in the case of the Algerian war of independence about which Colonel David Calula taught us a good deal on counter-insurgency. At that time, Algerian rebels and irredentists were generously fed with WWII designed German weaponry and explosives imported by less or more independent arm traders.
    Equally, North Vietnamese could be efficient and resilient warriors against the powerful forces of the United States as long as the Soviet Union provided them with weaponry, propaganda, and else.

    Unless I forget something, in history and until then, nowhere in the world the discontent or religious or political or social claims of any people has transformed itself into successful insurgency without exterior help, advices, and assistance. I accept as best example contradicting my proposition the case of the withdrawal of the British from India in 1947; even though it happened without recourse to armed insurgency.
    There is no place in this world today where obvious misery and despotism give, entirely by itself, rise to dangerous insurgency; as long as no exterior assistance occurs.
    And in no country, no would-be leader, no matter whether he is religious or not, will meet people’s attention without exterior assistance, as Lenin experienced it during the early stage of his struggle against the tsar regime, for example.
    Inversely, no significant, if ever, insurgency would occur in Switzerland, United States, Australia, Britain, Japan, Belgium, New Zealand, and many others countries, if ever an exterior actor had the idea to trigger it in parachuting sizeable quantities of arms and explosives. And in those same countries, no substantial part of the population expresses strong resentment toward to the regime in power.
    No general discontent can transform itself into preoccupying insurgency as long as the crowd does not find its leader and a consistent narrative; and if ever such leader exists, then this person will have no choice but to get somewhere else into exile until he will catch the attention of another country finding at some point a vested interest in providing him with assistance.
    And also, no religion is likely to sustain insurgency everywhere there is no social trouble or discontent directed against the power in place.

    Another important point, even though it seems obvious for many among us, is that in any case one must keep in mind that there are always two meanings behind any insurgency or general mass movements:

    1) one we may call the “formal meaning? of the leader and his narrative;

    1) and the second we may call the “true meaning;? that is the vested interest of those who provide assistance to the insurgency or revolt.

    The formal aims, (which in the frame of the matter at hand may be considered for a while as the religious considerations) and goals are for the most part or altogether either supernatural or metaphysical; “transcendental? in both cases; meaningless from the point of view of real actions in the real world of space, time, and history.
    Or, if they have some empirical meaning, those formal aims are impossible to achieve under the actual conditions of social life.

    In all cases, the dependence of the whole structure of reasoning upon such goals makes it impossible for the writer, or speaker, to give a true descriptive account of the way men actually behave. A systematic distortion of the truth takes place at some point; and obviously it cannot be shown how the goals might be reached since, being unreal, they cannot be reached!

    From a purely logical point of view, the arguments offered for the formal aims and goals may be at the same time valid and fallacious. But, except by accident, they are necessarily irrelevant to real political problems, since they are designed to prove the ostensible points of the formal structure (points of religion or metaphysics, or the abstract desirability of some utopian ideal). Thus, in Iraq, the religious argument is often authentic; but it is not the real and exclusive cause of the political problems and conflicts and that’s why it appears to be elusive while scholars attempt to circumvent it.

    That’s why I am inclined to consider that focusing one’s attention and efforts on Muslim religion as causality of insurgency may be misleading at some point since religious considerations, even though they may truly constitute an influential factor, belong to a large extent to the formal meaning and, as such, they constitute one, and only one, of the three proportionally equally important ingredients necessary for an armed insurgency to occur.

    From this on, I am logically inclined to consider that if ever our effort to understand insurgency in attempting to focus one’s attention on the degree of causality of religion found in it proved to be fruitless or too tricky; then we still have the recourse to tackle the problem through similar analysis and effort done this time about of the subject of discontent as primary cause of the insurgency, or/and about the subject of the exterior assistance.

    I am not suggesting giving up any further effort to understand the influence of religion upon insurgency in Iraq, of course. Rather, I am suggesting that efforts should be allocated in priority to the ingredients of insurgency we understand the best, and against which we are likely to counteract with the best efficiency since finding a genial solution to the problem of religion wouldn’t solve, alone, the problem of insurgency. For example, a solved religious problem would leave place for a political one since there is a need for a formal aim, anyways.

    Inasmuch as one agrees upon my “chemical-like? description of insurgency, then we can envisage that counterinsurgency does not necessarily involve an overwhelming recourse to military and armed measures inside the country where insurgency took root. At the very moment I am writing this last paragraph the following comparison spontaneously surges up in my mind.
    I cannot but remember that we have assumed for long that the persons the best fit to be astronaut were necessarily Air Force Pilots. This choice seemed obvious during the early stages of the space conquest; but soon a need for other kinds of persons, such as scientists, arose. Thus we were compelled to admit at some point that what we were looking for in space or on other planets couldn’t exclusively be found thanks to recourse to military competencies and skills.
    That’s why, back to our concern, I think that it might possibly be the same about counterinsurgency and that this way of seeing things deserves not to be neglected, since it is elaborated on sound and verifiable historical basis. In effect, while following this thread for a while we might come to imagine that urbanism, or economy, or else, might contribute to counterinsurgency to an extent perhaps greater than military or religious solutions might do.

    Thank you to those who have taken the time to read me until this last line, and renewed congratulations to you, Herschel, for the interest and serious of the subjects you offer to us.

  • Brian H

    WRL: “my observations and experience converge in a strong urge to simplify the counter-insurgent/insurgent dynamic as defined by the simple notion that, whoever best cares for the basic subsistence and security needs of the people first and most enduringly, wins.” Give in to the Force! I agree with this; the need to be aware and considerate is, at root, the observation that it’s far better not to piss off the natives. Don’t pretend to go native (e.g., Muslim); they’ll never buy it and it will complicate your life horribly.

    And Dominique, lots of good thoughts, in spite of the difficulty in disentangling your take on English grammar, which is spotty. [Random hint: “until” means up to, but not beyond, a certain point in time or event which is being emphasized or pointed out. E.g., “He was enjoying the meal very much — until the poison took effect.” In your last line, something like “up to” or “all the way to” would be better.]

    Your point about using religion as a cover for many other motivations applied, by the way, to Saddam. He was a Baathist, secularist, cynical non-believer, but found it more and more necessary and useful to agitate his masses using religion.

  • Brian H

    Sorry GHL, not WRL. Don’t know where that came from!

  • Herschel Smith

    Brian, thanks for the comments, as with my friend Dominique, who never fails to make me think. But to date, just about everyone who has read this post (and the followup, Smith Responds), has utterly missed the point. I will be updating these ideas in a new article to outline what I have not advocated (since ideas have been attributed to me that I did not profer), and what I have advocated (since, to date, no one seems to be carefully reading to see what I have proferred), along with linking some pre-9/11 military doctrine that took a different view than Kilcullen.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    WRL stands for War Resisters League, which “is actively organizing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the impact of war at home. Much of its organizing is focused on challenging military recruiters and ending corporate profit from war.?
    More about WRL on Wikipedia:

    No worries. If found in a different context, then one might assume it was a Freudian slip of the tongue. Hi, hi, hi.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    Somewhat worried by my failure to understand Herschel Smith’s point in Religion and Insurgency: A Response to Dave Kilcullen, and in Smith Responds, I went back rereading David Kilcullen’s article and the two former with more attention.

    I hope I correctly understand Herschel Smith’s point this time, as I hope this second comment will be more relevant to the matter at hand. To be honest, I have to confess that, at its beginning, my reflection owed perhaps more to the controversial character of the debate than to its subject since I overwhelmingly relied on certain assumptions I expressed in my first comment. But, since then this reflection once added to subsequent readings and rereading compel me to reconsider some cues. What’s follows is the outcome of this works and I took the decision to make it a comment in order to put it to the test and to enlighten the readers with my discoveries, if ever this prove to be worthy of further interest.

    On the basis of my second reading it did appear to me that the controversy steams to a sizeable extent from David Kilcullen’s error to “use inductive evidence to prove a universal negative,? to cite Herschel Smith, when David Kilcullen used one anecdote he personally witnessed and took as evidence sustaining his statement.

    “I have seen former Iraqi insurgents break down in bitter tears when they realized that guerrilla leaders they believed were true Muslims were actually tattooed habitual criminals with links to organized crime, murder-for-profit gangs and the old Ba’athist oligarchy,? wrote David Kilcullen in his SWJ’s article.

    From then on, and since the article from which this phrase is extracted states categorically that insurgency in Iraq, and in Afghanistan as well, are entirely based on political considerations and not at all on religion then Herschel Smith’s critics appear to be well-founded, indeed.

    Doubtless, it is true that the religious claims of the insurgents pertain to the narrative in a good deal of the cases, and I attempted to explain why and how in my first comment.
    However, it is equally true that the same religious claims constitute the main motive of these insurgents, in most cases; and the sole motive of those who go to such lengths as to sacrifice their life.

    Subsequently, we cannot but admit, indeed, that the direct and lethal effects of insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan are of religious origin; even though the real aims are to be found elsewhere in many cases, if not in a majority of the cases. Once more, the justification and explanation of this last statement of mine can be found in my previous comment.

    Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge that my comment may be misunderstood at some point because it can easily suggest that religion in insurgency has to be held as mere narrative.

    That’s why I suggest my reader to reconsider carefully my comment number 11 above on this same page above, and more particularly the following extract:

    “From a purely logical point of view, the arguments offered for the formal aims and goals may be at the same time valid and fallacious. But, except by accident, they are necessarily irrelevant to real political problems, since they are designed to prove the ostensible points of the formal structure (points of religion or metaphysics, or the abstract desirability of some utopian ideal). Thus, in Iraq, the religious argument is often authentic; but it is not the real and exclusive cause of the political problems and conflicts and that’s why it appears to be elusive while scholars attempt to circumvent it.?

    Back to David Kilcullen and Herschel Smith’s diverging opinions; both their two articles, the first being based upon experience on the field and the second being based, I assume, upon the gathering of reliable cues, lead to the same conclusion which is: religion exerts a tremendous influence upon insurgency and violence in Iraq.
    David Kilcullen says it, though unwittingly; while, wittingly this time, he attempts to demonstrate the opposite thesis in drawing our attention on the true aims of some leaders.

    In an interesting and freshly released study titled Rethinking Insurgency, Steven Metz draws our attention on the political and also economic aspects and causes of insurgency. In doing so, the author puts the emphasis on the real aims he spotted here and there; but he is nonetheless conscious that we, people of the occidental world, have a cognitive bias. For he wrote at some point:

    “Because Americans see insurgency as a form of war and, following Clausewitz, view war as quintessentially political, they focus on the political causes and dimensions of insurgency. Certainly insurgency does have an important political component. But that is only part of the picture.?

    As a matter of fact, this perception of the causes of insurgency is discernable in the latest version of the Counterinsurgency Manual:

    “Insurgent leaders often seek to adopt attractive and persuasive causes to mobilize support. These causes often stem from the unresolved contradictions existing within any society or culture. Frequently, contradictions are based on real problems. However, insurgents may create artificial contradictions using propaganda and misinformation. Insurgents can gain more support by not limiting themselves to a single cause. By selecting an assortment of causes and tailoring them for various groups within the society, insurgents increase their base of sympathetic and complicit support. Insurgents employ deep-seated, strategic causes as well as temporary, local ones, adding or deleting them as circumstances demand. Leaders often use a bait-and-switch approach. They attract supporters by appealing to local grievances; then they lure followers into the broader movement. Without an attractive cause, an insurgency might not be able to sustain itself. But a carefully chosen cause is a formidable asset; it can provide a fledgling movement with a long-term, concrete base of support. The ideal cause attracts the most people while alienating the fewest and is one that counterinsurgents cannot co-opt.?

    Whereas (and still extracted from the above mentioned manual) less attention is drawn, seemingly, on the real aims when they turn out to be authentically religious:

    (….)Islamic extremists use perceived threats to their religion by outsiders to mobilize support for their insurgency and justify terrorist tactics. As previously noted, effective insurgent propaganda can also turn an artificial problem into a real one.?

    Anyways, the indisputable seriousness and interest of the study of Steven Metz invites me to consider that he is certainly right and that this last cue confirms Herschel Smith’s opinion and David Kilcullen’s contradictory evidence as well. In such a case we can state, at least, that we enjoy the presence of a body of evidences tending to demonstrate that religion exerts tremendous influence upon insurgency in Iraq, overall. And this tends to dismiss the classic Machiavellian paradigm of religion whose role would limit to narrative in insurgency and other form of revolt and warfare. I propose here some examples picturing this way of understanding things and events:

    We think we are debating universal salvation, a unified world government, and the relations Church and State, when what is really at issue is whether the Florentine Republic is to be run by its own citizen or submitted to the exploitation of the reactionary foreign monarch.
    We think, with the delegates at the Council of Nicea, that the discussion is concerned with the definition of God’s essence, when the real problem is whether the Mediterranean world must be politically centralized under Rome or divided. We believe we are disputing the merits of a balanced budget and a sound currency when the real conflict is deciding what group shall regulate the distribution of the currency. We imagine we are arguing over the legal and moral status of the principle of freedom of the seas when the real question is who is controlling the seas. We believe we are struggling for the future of flora and fauna on earth when the real aim is to undermine the power and success of American capitalism.

    From this Machiavellian approach follows that the real meaning, the real goals and aims are left irresponsible. The real aims are accepted, even if right, for the wrong reasons.

    Now, I suggest to my reader to see the whole problem under a different angle which would adapt to the hypothesis of a religiously driven insurgency in Iraq, as taken as a whole and without consideration for the facts that religious or other motives claimed by the different factions, groups, and cells are clashing.

    So, we would assume in that case, and contrary to what Kilcullen is claiming, that violence and insurgency perpetrated in Iraq and in Afghanistan by those who are at the base of the hierarchic pyramid would be truly inspired by religious claims in more than fifty percent of the cases. Actually, in my own opinion, we may even hazard the guess that more than fifty percent of these field-men are spirited by religious motives, indeed; even though a minority of them are mosque-goers, as Kilcullen tells us.

    In this last case, it becomes clear that our attempt to address the problem with economic and social incentives or political arguments and solutions are unlikely, alone, to succeed; let alone military solutions. And, from then on, it becomes quickly obvious that we, occidentals, are unfit for finding an adapted solution in an Arabic Islamic realm.
    We are aware of that since long, in fact, and that’s why we didn’t remove the Emperor Hiro Hito from power in Japan after this country capitulated. We were just unable and unfit for to deal directly with Japanese religious questions. The Japanese emperor had to say himself to his people that he truly wasn’t the “son of the rising sun.? For, no one in Japan would have believed it from the mouth of McArthur or from this of any other American.
    Earlier during the late nineteen century and still in the same country modernization of the ruling system and the abandon of the set of medieval ruling practices and industrialization have been rendered possible because the emperor Meiji understood how such changes could be profitable for Japan. Circumstances were different, of course, but these experiences and many others seen elsewhere confirmed to us that in order to deal with religious principles and values that are not ours and which are practiced by people of ethnic origins different of ours we have to rely on empowered native people who, in most instances, make the difference between the formal aims and the real aims as we occidental use to.

    Once we understand and agree with this last fact, then we may feel compelled to consider that in the case of Iraq and of this of Afghanistan the best solution to the religious problem would just consist in finding the right charismatic and universally recognized leader. Actually, some occidental powers did rely successfully on this last solution during the progressive dawn of the colonialist era.

    In revenge, and still talking about religion, it didn’t work as well in India, for example, to the point that the need to create two new countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, arose.
    Some American policy experts and scholars have attempted to imagine a partition of Iraq in order to satisfy Sunnis, Shi’as, and perhaps Kurds; but such hypothesizes appear to be foolish since it would inequitably balkanize the country.

    Actually, we cannot compare Iraq with Japan. For, cohesion and cultural and religious consciousness which are required to set the base of a national unity were reunited in Japan whereas there is a strong cultural and religious consciousness and little cohesion in Arabic countries. That explains why parliamentary democracy doesn’t work well in Arabic countries and leave place, in many instances, to monarchies or/and to the rule of the stick. Tribal and inter-ethnic feuds in Iraq testify eloquently of this absence of coherence.

    Once more I put the accent on David Kilcullen’s statement which says that Iraqis are not as mosque-goers as one would assume; this time in order to indicate that it would be misleading to conclude on the basis of this fact on that Iraqi insurgents are unlikely to be motivated by religious considerations. As I said, if Arabs of this region lack a sense of cohesion an overwhelming majority of them, however, are spirited by strong cultural and religious consciousness, even though a minority of them goes to mosque. They are strongly respectful of the Muslim set of values they have been taught through applied principles, rules, and beliefs in their everyday life with their family, friends, etc. That fact makes their behavior and perception of things different of ours.

    As soon as a different or a disagreement between an occidental and an Arab occurs, then this Arabic consciousness is in many cases called upon as explanation and justification of the problem. However, this doesn’t necessary imply that religious considerations inescapably ensue and justify violence as a way of solving a different. Actually, this is usually when this critical moment of the conflict of interest arises that the religious argument is brought upon by another intervening party which has a vested interest in transforming the disagreement into a clash. From then on the narrative comes into place and become in turn a substitute of the true cause of disagreement. In other words, the conflict of interest becomes a religious and cultural conflict whose outcome cannot but be inspired by the enforcement of religiously inspired solutions.

    As put in the simpler way inspired by the events in Iraq:

    Step 1. Ali is sincerely grateful to John for having removed the tyrant from power in his country; for Ali is free to drive his own business the he wants now. Ali likes Coke, he is a skilled engineer and he would like to buy a Dodge Ram, eventually. Thereupon, John explains to Ali that he has to stay in the country a little while longer in order to finish his job and help setting in place a new government.

    Step 2. Although six months passed already John is still busy at training the new law enforcement apparatus and at chasing the last elements of resistance that can attempt to take the power back. Ali is losing patience because he expected to have a free hand on things earlier. There is still a lot of looting here and some covetous and influential sheikhs are actively preparing the ground in order to secure their future share of power. This generates a bit of trouble around here.

    Step 3. Ali did join the clan of a would-be local leader who explained to him that John wasn’t that sincere and that John’s country truly expected to stay here in order to make good profit of the natural resources of the country with which Ali expected to buy his Dodge Ram. Ali is very angry after John and he senses he has been fooled and humiliated in the face of his whole family and friends to whom he had repeatedly said that he would bring money at home soon.

    Step 4. Last night Ali’s group blew up an oil pipeline and he shot dead John who was guarding it. Ali expresses no regrets for that because he thinks that John deserved no mercy anyways and that he was a liar and a thief. For worse, John even did not believe in the prophet. The leader of Ali’s group is a good, pious and a dependable person. He told Ali and to everyone else in the village that John’s country has made a secret deal with the Shi’a living in the village nearby, as with all Shia’s living in the country. Ali suspected since long that Shi’a were f… traitors.

    Step 5. One year went by since John came over with all his friends. During the last two months Ali killed a lot of Shi’a and friends of John. Ali lost a brother and his best friend during a bloody skirmish. But Allah took care of Ali. Allah is great. If Allah wants it, Ali will get rid of all those infidels, but the task will be certainly harder than expected because more and more angry friends of John are coming. Now Ali knows that he will neither have his Dodge Ram, nor job, nor a happy family. Ali is forced to realize that his future is doomed and that the entire fault bears on the shoulders of this liar of John and all his friends. Ali thinks that the best thing he might do would be to drive his old truck full of those explosives his group’s leader received last week against the camp where plenty of John’s friends live. That would make Ali’s life against this of ten or twenty friends of John. Good deal. Sure that the prophet would give Ali his Dodge Ram for such a deed of bravery and devotion, let alone the nice 72 virgins his leader told him about. Allah is great!

    Readers who would like to know more about this transformational process are invited to read the authoritative The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer.

    My reader may criticize me for my unmistakable and unabashed inclination to persist in limiting the influence of religion in insurgency to “grass-root supporters.? Actually, I think that the real aims and justification of any insurgency may dramatically evolve along the course of its history.
    Doubtless, Lenin meant sincerely what he said and in the case of the insurgencies that occurred in Russia from 1904 to 1917 the formal aims were also the real ones indeed. As living detailed account of this troubled period, Ten Days that Shook the World, written by an insider, John Reed, leads to this conclusion; even if we cautiously bear in mind that Germany has been significantly influential in the success of the communist insurgency in Russia for the sake of a quite different concerns.
    But strong internecine feuds existed within the Russian revolutionary movement (Bolscheviks vs Menscheviks); and we notice the same today in the case of Arabic religiously driven insurgency. In Russia, as the years following 1917 went by, true aims proved to be utopians as the natural human drive for power took place, let alone the tremendous influence of a historical Russian tradition of despotism and serfdom. This ultimately gave way to the reappearance of the unavoidable duality real aims against formal aims, even though public access to some Russian secret archives after 1991 are unmistakably indicative that the Soviet ruling elite felt sincerely committed to the set of values which constituted the formal aims.

    Now, if we consider for a while the Soviet model as example in our attempt to understand Muslim insurgency, then we may envisage for the sake of this hypothesis that discrepancy between formal aims and true aims in Iraq is perhaps not as marked as our occidental and Machiavellian perception of politics suggests it. On the basis of what we feel compelled to exchange our usual real-aims-vs-formal-aims perception of any struggle for power against human drive for power sustaining real aims.

    In other words, and in an attempt to make my point easier to understand; the discrepancy I am attempting to underline is that drive for power underlies formal aims in the case of the classic model real aims vs formal aims, whereas drive for power sustains the formal aims in the case of the hypothesis I am proposing.
    So, in considering this hypothesis as plausible in the case of insurgency in Iraq, then we might assert that we are confronted to a true religiously driven insurgency, even in the cases where insurgency is unmistakably relevant to warfare by proxy.

    It just happens that this hypothesis fits the testimonies of David Kilcullen, Herschel Smith, Steven Mets and others. However, this last point doesn’t preclude that the real aims may evolve or even undergo dramatic changes. At this regard, Steven Metz suggests in Rethinking Counterinsurgency that such change occur in a majority of cases when he says that insurgencies have a tendency to evolve into criminal organizations motivated by greed. This is normal and partakes to some extent to the cycle of political evolution following any violent or sudden fall of regime. Moreover, we equally know that people displays less patience and has more predisposition toward violence when the expected gains seems to be within immediate reach of hand (oil, etc) than when a hopeless state of general poverty reigns.

    So, we may wonder which one of these two likely solutions that follow might be the most advantageous (even if both of them are empirical): either acting in order to preserve the religious character of the insurgency in a majority of the cases (the model of the “drive for power sustains the formal aims?); or acting so as to influence the insurgency in a way that will hasten its shift toward the classic model (drive for power underlies the formal aims)?

    As conclusion to this second approach to religion and insurgency in Iraq I remain nonetheless on my initial position as put in my comment number 11.

    About my introduction of the notion of “hierarchic pyramid? in insurgency which, I admit it, may be considered has a consequence of balance bias; not only does balance bias appear only in certain contexts, but other biases or schemas are employed when people are perceiving certain other kinds of relationships. Thus when people asked are asked about influence or dominance relations, they expect to find a hierarchical rather than a balanced pattern.
    Because many of the structures in the world are balanced, the tendency to perceive balance often serves people well. It may, of course, lead people astray when the stimuli do not fit the pattern. As example picturing this last point, this is one reason why American decision-makers were slow to recognize that two of their enemies (Soviet Union and China) were hostile to each other. And so I willingly recognize that I may be wrong at some point in my way of perceiving the organizational scheme of insurgent factions, groups and cells. I equally took in consideration the fact that insurgent’s groups and cells in Iraq are led in some cases, if not many, by persons whose allegiance and partnership may be quick to shift; thus, any attempt to understand insurgence in Iraq as a whole may prove to be misleading or of no avail.

    I conclude now on my attempt to understand the point of view of David Kilcullen on the same subject. There is, indeed, a formal logical fallacy at some point in David Kilcullen’s article titled Religion and Insurgency, published in SWJ. In my opinion, it is attributable to cognitive-affective balance, as some other facts I found eventually in David Kilcullen biography and previous statements show it.

    Robert Jervis tells us in, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, that “when cognitions are organised to produce irrational consistency, choices are easier since all considerations are seen as pointing to the same conclusion. Nothing has to be sacrified. But, since the real world is not as benign as these perceptions, values are indeed sacrified and important choices are made, only they are made inadvertently.? (page 130).

    He says also that “other problems are apparent when we examine any specific instance of irrational consistency. Decision-makers are purchasing psychological harmony at the price of neglecting conflicts among their own values and are establishing their priorities by default. For, if the world is not arranged in a benign way mirroring this consistency, the decision-maker is unknowingly sacrificing some values to reach others. Unless the cost of balancing values is terribly high or some invisible hand is operating, it will be in the decision-maker’s interest to choose explicitly. Were he aware of the costs and conflicts, he might examine his own values and the evidence more carefully, extend his research to additional alternatives, and seek creative solutions; if ever some seem available.? (page 139 – same book).

    Herschel Smith’s cognitive consistency is made up of past personal experiences, readings, and of studies and a marked interest in theology, as he told us; and so his cognitive consistency will help seeing facts another person (such as me, for example) who studied politics under a Machiavellian approach will either not perceive or downplay. In this sense both Hershel Smith’s approach and mine are influenced by our respective backgrounds, and so will be our respective conclusions; especially when the subject of religion vs realpolitik arises.

    Consistency between attitudes toward the source of a message (David Kilcullen, in that instance) and attitude toward the truth value of the message (Religion and Insurgency, published in SWJ in that instance) is also, under many circumstances, rational. While it is important to consider separately the reliability of the source, as indicated by previous record, and the inherent credibility of the message, as indicated by its compatibility with other evidence, the final judgment should rest on an evaluation of both factors.

    In consequence of what my personal opinion is that David Kilcullen’s formal logical fallacy Hershel Smith spotted in his article on religion and insurgency testifies in a striking manner, as a Freudian slip of the tongue sometimes does, of a deep and sincere commitment in the mission and responsibilities he has been endowed with; and of a personal commitment in the values of the decision-makers who endowed him with them. For, no one being endowed with such a responsibility would consciously make such a mistake in a publicly released paper.

    David Kilcullen missed to see that he did question his own statement because his point of view on insurgency in Iraq is influenced by this cognitive-affective balance. That’s what regularly happens to an overwhelming majority of us and to nearly all decision-makers as well.

  • Herschel Smith


    Your comment is fairly sweeping in its scope, and I will have to study it before responding with any deep thoughts. Your hypothesis is interesting (if I understand it correctly), i.e., that some of the upper level insurgency (leadership) is a thug-ridden ring of outlaws, while they use religious devotion as a recruiting tool. It doesn’t deny the potential religious involvement in an insurgency, and it doesn’t differ too much from Kilcullen’s position. This makes it all the more puzzling why Kilcullen would then exaggerate his conclusions to say that the insurgency is “entirely political.”

    While I discuss religion as a fundamental motivator of men (saying that it might be the most important), this doesn’t mean necessarily that religion is the primary motivator of whether men join an insurgency. For instance, let’s take a single example, say ethics (certainly a religious notion, and one of the four main divisions of philosophy, the other three being ontology, metaphysics and epistemology). Concepts of right and wrong certainly determine how man behaves in many matters, not just militarily.  In this way, religion is a motivator in how men do what they do, not just in determining what they do.

    I would settle for the modest hypothesis that some of the insurgency is at least partially motivated by some religious commitment. Note the moderation of the proposal. Kilcullen will have none of that. The insurgency, says he, is “entirely political.” This position is immoderate, in my opinion, not just of insurgency, but any other action a man takes in his life. Nothing … is entirely political. At this point, Kilcullen has jettisoned his project and taken up one that includes the radical secularization of all matters associated with an insurgency. I believe that I can offer up good speculations on why he might be persuaded to do this, but I will save this for later.

  • Dominique R. Poirier

    Meanwhile, I would like to add something in order to answer some of your first questions and to provide you with what sustains my way of reasoning. This will certainly help you getting through my previous gobbledygook.

    First of all, I am not meaning that the “upper level insurgency (leadership) is a thug-ridden ring of outlaws, while they use religious devotion as a recruiting tool.? I don’t see things that contrasted. For, it would over-simplify the “mechanism? of insurgency in Iraq. If you read carefully the example I provided about revolution in Russia, then it will exemplify my point which says that the sincere commitment to religious values of insurgency leaders doesn’t preclude at all that they are or may be helped at some point by organizations or countries which have a vested interest in that. As soon as this scheme materializes, then religious leaders who subscribe to it act unwittingly for other aims than theirs. Actually, this scheme is inescapable because, as I explain it in my comment number 11, any political or religious cause needs funds, guns, explosives, training, propaganda, etc, to fulfill its existence and objectives. From this instant on any political or religious group has hardly more than two solutions: either the local population contributes to this cause through coercive methods and through the wining of hearts and minds; or a foreign country provides assistance. There is no incompatibility between these two options, of course; not to say that the former is a corollary to all political or religious movement, anyways.

    In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq strategic considerations are so obvious that at least two different foreign countries are likely to have a play in it; and thus these foreign countries will inescapably (and tremendously, in all likelihood) influence the course of events and, in turn, the outcome. Once all the aforesaid is understood and accepted then one is free to consider whether insurgency is religiously spirited or political.

    Personally, I consider that it is largely (so, not entirely) political because in the light of all strategic considerations and known facts foreign countries that help insurgency lasting are more influential than the insurgents themselves, at least because those Arabic insurgents have an inherent fault of tremendous importance which is: lack of cohesion.

    In order to adapt those intellectual considerations to practical concerns, one who is U.S. decision-maker in Washington has to accord much importance to the political dimension of insurgency and proportionally little to its religious dimension, because he has to act at a strategic scale (i.e. in Iraq and beyond its borders); whereas one who is U.S. decision-maker at Baghdad has to accord much more consideration this time to its religious dimension because the job within the Iraqi borders is relevant to tactics (i.e. when compared to the former). The same did apply in the time of T.E. Lawrence who had to accord great importance to religion; while politics in London focused on the strategic moves of the Ottoman Empire and on those of Germany.

    Because even the strategist cannot afford to see things in black and white about religion anyways, I brushed aside the hypothesis that David Kilcullen perceived things too much under a grand-scale strategic optic before concluding that cognitive-affective balance was the most likely culprit. Beside, no matter how skilled and smart we are, we all make mistakes.

    You have a Jungian approach of men and society and, as American raised in United States, it is perfectly normal and logic to see things that way. While I accord an equal interest toward many things Freud, his challenger, said, I agree nonetheless with you about the tremendous influence of religion upon human being and I also unconditionally agree with you about the religious origin of ethics in all cases, in all times, and everywhere in the world. This is indisputable to the point that even the staunchest atheists behave in accordance with universal and religiously inspired ethics, this whichever their efforts not to do so can be. Any attempt not to go by this book inescapably leads to barbarism and ignorance. As an aside, I find ironic that the set of laws on criminality of any communist country borrows to a large extent to religiously inspired ethics (i.e. the Ten Commandments); thus putting the people who wrote them in an uncomfortable situation.

    About Muslim Arabs in particular, I attempted some months ago to understand why their religion fails sometimes to shelter them from acts of barbarism we happen to witness, while Christian religion do so.
    Still waiting for a more satisfying answer I temporarily surmise that Islam missed a step in its history Christian religion did when Renaissance and humanism came up, first in Italy and then in the whole Christian world; this despite the indisputable and promising role of Middle Eastern philosophers such as Averroes, for example, in the Islamic world. But I believe that you are much more qualified than me to answer such a question.

    Meanwhile, the basis sustaining my way to understand and to explain things as I did it in my previous comment relies overwhelmingly upon behaviorism and a Darwinist approach, and other readings in psychology and psychiatry.

    That’s why I add, as a conclusion to this comment, this extract of an entertaining correspondance I have had two years ago with an American scholar and gentleman.
    On the one hand it makes my comment quite long (again) and some readers may find that I am wandering from the subject at some point. On the other I sincerely believe that it is relevant to military considerations at some point and, as a matter of fact, I would certainly rewrite it in order to make it an introduction to the officer’s Counterinsurgency Manual of my army if I were a commander in chief. But, once more, it is all about personal opinion.

    Good reading.

    A being’s only reason for being is being, in other words, to maintain its organic structure. It must stay alive; otherwise there is no being.
    Plants can stay alive without moving around. They take their nourishment directly from the soil. And thanks to the sun’s energy they transform this inanimate matter, which is in the soil, into their own living matter.
    Animals, including man, can only stay alive by consuming the solar energy previously transformed by plants. This calls for mobility.

    They are forced to move from place to place. To move from place to place requires a nervous system. This nervous system permits action upon and within the environment, and always for the same reason… survival.

    If the action is effective, the result is a pleasurable sensation. Thus there is a drive that impels living organisms to preserve their biological equilibrium, their vital structure and stay alive. This drive will be expressed in four basic behavior patterns.

    1) Consumption behavior, the simplest. It fulfills fundamental needs; eating, drinking, copulating.

    2) Escape behavior.

    3) Combat behavior.

    4) Inhibition behavior.

    A brain’s function is not thought, but action. Evolution is a conservationist. So, in the animal brain we find very primitive forms.

    There is a “first brain”. Paul MacLean calls it the reptilian brain and so it is. It triggers immediate survival responses without which no animal can survive. Drinking and eating, by which it preserves its structure; and copulation, by which it reproduces.

    Then, when we get to mammals, a “second brain” is added to the first. McLean and others call this the affective brain, which we can call the memory brain. With no memory of what is pleasant or unpleasant, there is no question of being happy, sad, anguished, nor of being angry, or in love. We could almost say that a living creature is a memory which acts.

    Then a “third brain” is added to the two others. It’s called the cerebral cortex. In humans, it has become highly developed. We call it an associative cortex, meaning that it “connects”.
    It connects the various nerve and paths which have retained traces of past experiences.
    It connects them in a way that is different from the way they were imprinted by the environment at the moment of the experience. In other words, it enables us to create and to be imaginative.

    In humans, these 3 brains still exist, superimposed. Our drives are still primitive, coming from the reptilian brain. These three layers of the brain must function together. Therefore, they are linked by nerve bundles. One nerve bundle we might call the reward nexus; another, the punishment nexus. This one will lead to escape or to combat. A third one will cause the inhibition of action.

    For example, a mother’s caress for her child, the medal that flatters a soldier’s self esteem, applause for an actor. All this releases chemical substances in the reward nexus and result in pleasure for the object of the attention. I spoke about memory but we must understand that at birth the brain is still immature. Therefore, during the first 2 or 3 years of existence, a human being’s existence of his surroundings will be indelible. It will play a very important role in the evolution of all his future behavior. Above all, we must come to recognize that what affects our nervous system, starting at birth, perhaps even in the womb, the stimuli acting upon our nervous system comes essentially from others. We are others. Only others.

    When we die, these others, interiorized by our nervous system, and who have formed us, and formed our brain and filled it… are going to die.

    Thus our three brains are there.

    The first two function unconsciously beneath our level of awareness and drives socially-conditioned reactions. The third furnishes an explanatory language which provides reasons, excuses, alibis for the unconscious working of the first two.

    We can compare the unconscious to a deep sea, and what we call consciousness is the foam that appears sporadically on the crest of the waves. It is the most superficial part of the sea, buffeted by the wind.

    Thus we can distinguish four main kinds of behavior:

    1) Consumption behavior, which fulfills basic needs.

    2) Gratification behavior. When an action results in pleasure, we try to renew it.

    3) Behavior in response to punishment, either by escape, to avoid it, or by combat, to destroy the aggressor.

    4) Inhibition behavior. All action ceases. We wait tensely, which leads to anguish. Anguish is the impossibility of dominating a situation.

    Should you agree on comparing human behavior and animal behavior as Pavlov put it, a rat is put in a cage that is divided in two by a partition with a door in it. The floor is intermittently electrified. Before the electricity passes through the grids of the floor a signal warns the animal that 4 seconds later the shock will come. It doesn’t know at the start. It learns fast but at first it is apprehensive. It quickly sees the open door and goes through it. The same thing happens a few seconds later. Again it learns that it can avoid the punishment of the small electric shock by going back to the first compartment. This animal is subjected to this experiment 10 minutes a day, 7 days in a row. After these 7 days that way it is in perfect health. Its coat is sleek, its blood pressure is normal. It has avoided punishment by escaping. It was a pleasurable experience. It has maintained his biological equilibrium.

    What is easy for a rat in a cage is more difficult for man in society. Certain needs have been created by this society, starting in infancy, and it is rarely possible to satisfy those needs by resorting to combat when escape proves ineffective (see Civilization and Its Discontent,
    by S. Freud, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner).

    When two individuals have different goals or the same goal and are competing to attain it there is one winner and one loser. So, we are in a two player zero-sum game situation. The result is the dominance of one of the individuals over the other. Seeking to dominate in a space we may call the territory is the fundamental basis of all human behavior, though we are not conscious of our motives. There is no proprietary instinct. Nor is there an instinct to dominate. The individual’s nervous system has learned the necessity of keeping for the individual’s own use an object or person that is also desired and coveted by someone else. And he has also learned that in the competition to keep that object or that person for himself he must dominate.

    A boy in the wild, abandoned far from other people, will not grow up to be a man. He will never know how to walk or talk. He will behave like a little animal. Through language, man has been able to pass on to succeeding generations all the experience that has accumulated over thousands of years. The time is long past when a person could ensure his own survival. He needs others in order to live. He can’t know everything, or do everything.

    From infancy group survival is linked to teaching man’s young what they must know to function in society. We teach him not to soil his pants, and to pee in his potty. Then very rapidly we teach the child how to behave so as to maintain the cohesion of the group. We teach him what is beautiful, what is good, what is bad, what is ugly. We tell him what he must do, and punish or reward him accordingly, no matter what his own pleasure dictates. He is punished or rewarded according to whether his behavior conforms to the survival need of the group.

    We are just starting to understand how our nervous system works. Only in the last 30 or 40 years have we learned how the system starting with chemical molecules, which are its building-blocks, establishes nerve paths, which will be programmed, impregnated by social conditioning, and all this within an unconscious mechanism. In other words, our drives and our cultural automatisms will be masked by language, by logical discourse (a point that contradict Yung’s postulate, I admit and submit to my reader’s critics).

    Thus language only serves to hide the cause of dominance, to mask the mechanism that established it and to convince the individual that, in working for the group, he is gratifying himself. But usually all he is doing is preserving hierarchical situations, which hide behind linguistic alibis, alibis furnished by language, as an excuse.

    In another situation suppose the door between the two compartments is closed. The rat can’t escape. He will undergo punishment he cannot avoid. This punishment will provoke inhibition behavior. He learns that any action is useless. He can’t escape or fight. He stops trying.
    This inhibition, in man, is accompanied by “anguish” and creates profound biological disturbances, so profound that, if a microbe is present, whereas normally he could fight it off, now he can’t. He gets an infection. A cancerous cell, which normally he would destroy, now will develop into cancer. And his biological troubles will lead to all those illnesses called “civilized” or psychosomatic: stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, insomnia, fatigue, extreme discomfort.

    In the third situation the rat can’t escape. He will receive the same punishment but he will be confronted by another rat that will serve as adversary; and it will fight it. This combat is absolutely useless.
    It is still punished, but it has taken action. A nervous system is meant to act. This rat will have no pathological problems such as those we saw in the preceding case. He will be in excellent condition although it has received the same punishment.

    But in man’s case the laws of society usually forbid such defensive violence. The worker who is stuck with a foreman that he detests can’t punch him in the nose. He would land in jail. He cannot run away; he would be out of work. So every day and every week and every month, sometimes for years, his action is inhibited.

    Man has many ways to combat this inhibition of action. Aggression, for example.

    It is never gratuitous. It always results from other action being inhibited. An outburst of aggression rarely pays off, contrary to what we use to see in movies. But in terms of the nervous system, it is readily explained. Thus, as I said it, the person in a situation where action is inhibited, if it is prolonged, will see his health affected.
    The attendant biological disturbances will not only cause the appearance of infectious diseases but also the behavior we call “mental illness” (see Freud once more). When a person can no longer direct his aggression against others he can turn it against himself in one of two ways. He can react somatically, physiologically, aggressing his stomach, causing a hole, an ulcer. Or his heart and arteries, causing high blood pressure sometimes even acute lesions leading to severe heart disorders, heart attacks, strokes. Or he’ll develop rashes or asthma. The other way he can turn his aggression against himself is even more effective. He can commit suicide.

    When we can’t take out our aggression on others (catharsis) we can still take it out on ourselves.

    The unconscious is a formidable instrument. Not only because it holds all that we have repressed; things too painful for us to express because we would be punished by society. But also because everything is authorized and even rewarded by society has been placed in our brain since birth. We are unaware of its presence and yet it guides our actions.
    This unconscious (which is not Freud’s) is the most dangerous. What we call the personality of an individual is built up from a grab-bag of value judgments, prejudices and platitudes. As a person grows older, the grab-bag becomes more and more rigid, less and less subject to question. Take away one single stone from this edifice and it all crumbles (that’s what communists and other strive to do with war prisoners). The result is anguish. And anguish stops at nothing, neither murder, nor genocide, nor war in the case of social groups.

    We now begin to understand by what mechanism, why and how, in the past and in the present, the hierarchies of dominance have been established.

    To go to the moon we must know the laws of gravity. Knowing the laws of gravity does not make us free of gravity; it merely allows us to utilize it. Until we have shown the inhabitants of this world the way their brain functions, the way they use it until they know it has always been used to dominate others there is little chance that anything changes.

  • Herschel Smith


    Just for the sake of clarity, let’s continue this a bit further.  I do not advocate – and have never advocated in anything I have published – that we expend attention, resources, effort, largesse, or the time of our armed forces to attempt to (a) change the minds of adherents of Islam, (b) tell Muslims what the Quran says, (c) evangelize Muslims, or (d) war against Muslims because they are adherents to Islam.  I am not charging you with this misunderstanding, but some of the commenters have made this error, failing to read my prose with a clear head and open mind.

    My basic presupposition has been that there are some insurgents who are religiously motivated, mainly because they have told us so (and this, not in communications to us, but communications to themselves such as the letter from al Qaeda high command to Zarqawi that we intercepted).  This fraction is less than unity, but greater than zero.  For the sake of argument, I am willing, even, to grant my detractors the point that this fraction (FR, or fraction that is religiously motivated) is less than unity by a non-trivial amount, even though I am not sure that this is the case.  For this fraction FR, whether right or wrong, their hermeneutic forces them to do what they do under the rubric of religion.  For FR, religious commitment is more important than security or largesse.  Therefore, FR will not be amenable to our efforts at WHAM (winning hearts and minds).

    The other insurgents (fraction not religiously motivated), FNR = 1 – FR, will be amenable to WHAM under this formulation.  It pays to understand enough about the culture and religion to know how to ascertain which schools of thought the fraction FR represents and how we might identify these subsets up front.  For example, given the religious motivation of Ansar al Sunna, it is a good bet that they are in the category of FR.

    This is a simple formulation, and one that I think makes good common sense.  The readers and commenters who think I am calling for a holy war are reactionary, stolid and mentally dense.  Again, Dominique, you are not in this category, but some of my readers have been.  For those readers who are in this category, I can only say, please, try to keep up with me as the conversation advances and moves forward.  You’re slowing the train down.

    Kilcullen, on the other hand, has proposed that there are no insurgents who are religiously motivated, and thus arrives at the conclusion that all insurgents will be amenable to efforts at WHAM.

You are currently reading "Religion and Insurgency: A Response to Dave Kilcullen", entry #507 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Islamic Facism,Jihadists,Religion,Rules of Engagement,Small Wars and was published May 13th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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