Sgt. John Hunt from Blackshear, Georgia, left, and Spc. Brian Kolessar from Middletown, New York, right, both from the 293rd Military Police Company out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, U.S. play jump rope with local children during a patrol in Kandahar City, so
Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
For a whole generation of Americans, the very word counterinsurgency had the tang of vulgarity, when it was spoken at all. Our last attempt at it, in Vietnam, left a lingering bad taste. And if traditionalists had their way, counterinsurgency would have died a flaming death in Saigon.

So the latest thinking on counterinsurgency took root in foreign soil, far from the Pentagon. In 1993, Kilcullen, then a young captain and anthropologist in the Australian Army, moved to a West Java city to study the Indonesian language. One day, he noticed a military museum there, and inside he found a display about a decades-old war between the Indonesian government and a Muslim insurgency called Darul Islam. Somehow Kilcullen – a student of military history – had never heard of it, and he wondered why. His generation knew counterinsurgency only as an utterly failed idea. But here, under glass, he had found evidence that it could succeed on a large scale: The Indonesian government had handily defeated the rebel movement. He threw himself into researching the conflict and eventually focused his doctoral thesis on counterinsurgency as applied against Darul Islam.

He made this discovery at a time when almost no one else knew, or cared, about counterinsurgency. So by day, Kilcullen served as an Australian officer in Indonesia, and in the evenings, he visited the nation's aging rebel leaders who'd been put down by the government. They resisted at first, but over time, and over tea, he pressed them for details on tactics, strategies, motivations, weaknesses.

A few years later, Kilcullen led a company of peacekeepers protecting East Timor residents from retaliatory violence as they made a break for independence. To casual observers this Christian-separatist insurgency bore little resemblance to the Darul Islam rebellion 50 years earlier. But Kilcullen realized the two movements, religion aside, shared critical tactics and motives. And if a counterinsurgent force could isolate those elements, it could break a rebellion.

He finished his disseration in 2001, just as the world started to care – deeply – about counterinsurgency.

Over the next few years, Kilcullen watched the world's finest armies spin in the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq. One night in 2006, he sat down with a pen, a notebook, and a bottle of Laphroaig scotch. Toward the end of World War I, one of Kilcullen's heroes, T.E. Lawrence, had written Twenty-seven Articles, a note to other British officers about how to lead an insurgency. So that night Kilcullen answered with Twenty-eight Articles, about how to end one.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency pivot on the same point. Lawrence included it in Article 15: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them."

Kilcullen wrote in his Article 13, "Conduct village and neighborhood surveys to identify needs in the community – then follow through to meet them, build common interests and mobilize popular support. This is your true main effort: Everything else is secondary."

The message is plain, in both cases: Don't die on someone else's soil if you can help it. Win over the locals and train them to wage their own war. If winning them over requires digging wells in the meantime, so be it. Lightbulb wiring at the local mosque? Fine. Baby formula for the orphanage? Sure.

There weren't many new ideas in Kilcullen's Articles. Other thinkers had made similar points before. A half century ago, for instance, in the midst of widespread French failure in the Algerian War, French officer David Galula used COIN tactics to smash the insurgent forces in his area. At about the same time, British envoy Sir Robert Thompson used similar means to put down a rebellion in colonial Malaya.

Those men were brilliant field commanders. But Kilcullen's gift is fermenting the ideas of past intellectuals and distilling them to their most potent, palatable essences. He thinks in terms of shapes – circles, arrows, pillars, and arches – that lend themselves to diagrams. I once saw him, over lunch, sketch the entire Afghan conflict on a scrap of paper and then solve it with one tiny arrow. "That's where we're working to break the cycle," he said. Such simplicity can be intoxicating.

Kilcullen sent out his own 'Twenty-eight Articles' by email to a few colleagues and tacticians scattered around the world, who then passed it along to their superiors and subordinates, who forwarded it further, until the Australian's note became a sort of idealogical pinup girl, stuffed in rucksacks, tacked to corkboards, scrutinized for every blemish and beauty mark. Lawrence's original Articles showed up in 1917 in a publication called the Arab Bulletin and took generations to seep into popular thinking about war. But Kilcullen's email, within months, landed on the desks of some important military thinkers.

One of them was David Petraeus, who at the time was plotting a coup of his own within the U.S. military. After years of watching America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq slowly slide toward failure, a group of young strategists – military, civilian operators, diplomats – felt their superiors were dangerously out of touch. The old guard had grown up waging a supersize, purely theoretical Cold War. They didn't know how to stop an insurgency. So that's exactly what the younger subordinates staged: an insurgency.

"It was a bottom-up rebellion, by junior officers with combat time in the field," Kilcullen says. "That's why I had to write 'Twenty-eight Articles' over a whiskey in the middle of the night – it was an underground document. Petraeus was our leader and top cover."

At the time, the Army kept Petraeus relatively marginalized, along with his ideas about counterinsurgency. He was in charge of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he oversaw several schools and training programs. But he also – critically – oversaw the assembly of a new handbook for how America wages war. The field manual is much more than a guide or collection of lessons learned; it is the rudder that steers the ship. It is doctrine. Petraeus assembled a cohort of COIN students to write it, including Kilcullen. The Australian's seemingly breezy, simple approach appealed to Petraeus; it brought order to the fur ball of ethical, political, and tactical questions Americans faced in Afghanistan. "As an insurgency ends," Kilcullen wrote, "a defection is better than a surrender, a surrender better than a capture, and a capture better than a kill." And just like that, with the publication in late 2006 of FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency, the COIN advocates overthrew the traditional U.S. military. Soon Petraeus took charge of the war in Iraq and brought Kilcullen on as a top adviser. That's how, less than a year after sending his middle-of-the-night email, Kilcullen helped shape and direct the Iraq troop surge of 2007.

The speed of Kilcullen's ascent and the adoption of his ideas says much about the flexibility of modern war, about his own clarity of thinking, and about America's desperation for a solution in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time. Along the way, though, a fissure formed in the American military bedrock. For a while, Kilcullen said, "Donald Rumsfeld actually banned us from using the words insurgency or counterinsurgency – mainly because for the guys who invaded Iraq, that would have been an admission of failure."

Now some soldiers and scholars ask: America's finest and deadliest are handing out lightbulbs? Baby formula? For crying out loud.