Daily Archives: November 24, 2009

COIN in cities (con’t)

Wired took up the COIN in cities theme today but argued that it had limited viability and significant dangers when applied to cities here in the U.S.  Unfortunately, I think they make the mistake of getting suckered into buying unchallenged notions of what our law enforcement problems are in cities and how COIN might be adapted to address them.

Still, it starts off on the right track:

At first glance, counterinsurgency (at least the “soft,” population-centric American version) bears a fair amount of resemblance to community policing: It’s all about changing the dynamic in the communities where insurgents operate, encouraging troops to “walk the beat” and bringing in social services. And many of the tools of the modern counterinsurgent — forensic exploitation, pattern analysis and social-network diagramming — would be familiar to any detective.

From here the article goes downhill as it makes COIN look like the target of the doctrine is the gang member (or the insurgent) when, in fact, it’s the population.

And if you look at the geographic reach and organizational sophistication of some gangs — think Mara Salvatrucha or 18 — and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with, say, a Hizbollah or a Hamas.

(Actually, no it’s not.  At least not for the vast majority of the country.  Street gangs are nowhere near the same league as Hizbollah or Hamas.)

Sullivan, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group, told Danger Room the parallels with community policing — patrolling contested areas, identifying centers of gravity — make it tempting to view counterinsurgency as a tool for containing gang violence. But domestic policing and military operations, he added, are inherently different. “It [counterinsurgency theory] is attractive, and I think that people looking at gangs should look at the literature,” he said. “But to wholesale take it in and do it is probably not a good idea.”


First, TwS readers will know Sullivan from my rant about one of his recent works.  I still don’t buy his ‘generations of gangs’ argument which really is just Lind‘s generations of warfare with the combat stuff cut out and crime stuff pasted in.  Yes policing and military operations are inherently different.  I think you could also say COIN and traditional military operations are inherently different.  So what?  The point is that both COIN and policing attempt to address similar problems through similar means.

But, in short, it ain’t about the gangs.  It’s about the fact that non-gang members don’t trust the authorities or view them as legitimate.  They don’t see the need or value to engage with a state system which has abandoned them and so will follow the rules of anyone who offers some stability or can make realistic threats.  Police?  Yeah, they’re great for the brief period they show up but they don’t offer anything like the promise of long term security (and that’s assuming they aren’t viewed as a hostile presence).

The center of gravity in COIN is the population.  I’d argue that in Iraq (pre-2007), Afghanistan (pre-2009 kinda-sorta) and in most troubled urban cities today our center of gravity remains on the terrorists (the former cases) or criminals (the latter).  Kick down doors, scoop up the bad guy (or someone whose close enough) and get the hell out of there.  Not exactly a recipe for instilling confidence, feelings of security or winning hearts and minds.

Insurgency, at its heart, is a political struggle. I don’t see drug dealers or street gangs expressing a political grievance, or trying to control of some part of the government

That’s a very true statement (the first bit).  The problem is that while gangs aren’t expressing political grievances or even thinking in overtly political terms, in many of our cities criminal networks (of which gangs are only the most visible) end up wielding informal power as we relinquish formal power.

Certainly, changes to the doctrine would be needed in our (or any country trying to apply these lessons to a crime problem) in order to keep in line with our laws and cultural sensibilities and in fact, the law enforcement community has been dancing theoretically around the issue for years with community oriented policing, intelligence led policing, etc.  The problem is that almost nobody puts such ideas in practice for any serious period of time or make the requisite institutional changes necessary for such changes to stick.  Let’s face it, COIN (or whatever the civilian equivilent might be called) is hard work.  Much easier to wrap a guy up, throw him in jail, do some paperwork and go home.

My position is that gangs are a manifestation of underlying problems in a community just as insurgency is a reflection of underlying problems in a society.  Different manifestations of similar (but not the same) problems.  Lack of confidence in existing institutions, widespread corruption, lack of security, lack of opportunity, etc.  You can lock people up all day and if you don’t address those problems you’re going to keep having no-go zones in your cities and prisons packed beyond capacity.

Suite Madame Blue…

David Frum and Andrew Bacevich discuss Afghanistan here.

And if you’re feeling a bit melancholy about our current state of affairs, may I suggest a bit of Styx who wrote this hauntingly prescient song (while continuing to work through my classic rock catalog).  The song is so good, in fact, that you can almost forgive Dennis DeYoung for his playing the ham like a high school thespian in his first play.

Time after time I sit and I wait for your call
I know I’m a fool but what can I say
Whatever the price I’ll pay for you, madame blue

Once long ago, a word from your lips
And the world turned around
But somehow you’ve changed, you’re so far away
I long for the past and dream of the days
With you, madame blue

Suite madame blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Suite madame blue, the future is all but past
Dressed in your jewels, you made your own rules
You conquered the world and more, heaven’s door, oh


Red white, and blue gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Red, white, and blue the future is all but past
So lift up your heart, and make a new start
And lead us away from here