Religion and Insurgency: A Response to Dave Kilcullen

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 11 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


  1. On May 15, 2007 at 11:33 pm, kat-missouri said:

    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.

  2. On May 16, 2007 at 12:22 pm, Denis said:

    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?

  3. On May 16, 2007 at 12:55 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    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.”

  4. On May 16, 2007 at 10:37 pm, kat-missouri said:

    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).

  5. On May 18, 2007 at 12:20 am, emjayinc said:

    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.

  6. On May 18, 2007 at 1:01 am, Herschel Smith said:


    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.

  7. On May 18, 2007 at 2:00 am, emjayinc said:

    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

  8. On May 28, 2007 at 1:49 am, Brian H said:

    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.

  9. On May 28, 2007 at 3:55 am, G. Hale Laughlin said:

    Neither does Kilcullen, nor mil doctrine, state that religion is, “…a non-trivial actor in the struggle…

  10. On May 28, 2007 at 10:44 am, G. Hale Laughlin said:

    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

  11. On May 29, 2007 at 9:30 pm, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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

  12. On June 4, 2007 at 12:21 pm, Brian H said:

    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.

  13. On June 4, 2007 at 12:23 pm, Brian H said:

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

  14. On June 4, 2007 at 12:47 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    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.

  15. On June 5, 2007 at 4:45 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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.

  16. On June 11, 2007 at 7:47 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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,

  17. On June 11, 2007 at 5:47 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    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.

  18. On June 12, 2007 at 9:34 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    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.

  19. On June 12, 2007 at 5:13 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    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.

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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.

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