This graphic, which David J Kilcullin, then the Chief Strategist for the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, included in a 2006 presentation at the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Conference, isn’t one of the all-time great visual depictions of war. Francisco Goya has little to worry about here.
But his rendering of “the conflict ecosystem” perfectly captures the complexities of contemporary conflict — where the combatants are far from the only factors contributing to the outcome.
Made at a time when American politicians and policymakers were contemplating a major shift in strategy in Iraq, this graphic reflects the changing nature of conflict, as well as official attitudes towards war. According to the infographic, war isn’t fought on a battlefield, but within an ecosystem that encapsulates everyone from the enemy to traditional leaders to local and international media.
For Kilcullin, this chart emphasises that a conventional army is just one component of this environment, a fact that he believes should inspire humility in military strategists and policymakers. He writes,
It is critically important to realise that we, the intervening counterinsurgent, are not
outside this ecosystem, looking in at a Petrie dish of unsavory microbes. Rather, we are
inside the system. The theatre of operations is not a supine, inert medium on which we
practise our operational art. Rather it is a dynamic, living system that changes in response
to our actions and requires continuous balancing between competing requirements.
This changing view of warfare was reflected in the Army’s landmark 2006 update to its Counterinsurgency Handbook, and would be put into practice over the next 8 years of American combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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