Straight Outta Kandahar

What soldiers fighting the Taliban can learn from cops policing American inner cities.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

If the insurgency raging in Afghanistan seems foreign, wildly complex, and virtually impossible to defeat, consider this: Police and community groups working together in some of America’s most dangerous inner cities have successfully engaged, calmed, and sometimes reformed armed groups that have striking parallels to the Taliban.

Innovative tactics being employed in more than four dozen U.S. cities could have a place in America’s most daunting overseas conflict. As part of their counterinsurgency training, Camp Pendleton Marines are already embedding with LAPD cops, learning how to better interact with the civilian populace and respond to their security concerns.

Americans often think of the Afghan insurgents as fanatical holy warriors, hiding out in caves and reliant upon donations from ideological supporters to finance their operations. But in their day-to-day street-level activities, the Taliban are surprisingly similar to a more familiar breed: They resemble violent gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, or the Latin American network Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.

It’s not just that all these groups engage in violence and fund their activities through organized crime, including drug trafficking and extortion. There are also striking similarities in the way they are loosely structured and the narratives they use to justify their violent and criminal behavior.

The American media typically refer to the Taliban as if it were a singular, monolithic organization, which, like the Iraqi army, has a defined command structure, identifiable bases of operation, and a unified leadership. But insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are more like a loose network of armed groups and gangs. And whether they’re in South-Central LA or Marja, such violent groups generally lack identifiable hierarchies, and what hierarchies do exist don’t actually control very much.

Furthermore, most gang activity is local, personal, and capricious. There may be leaders, like the Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the allegiance of cliques or factions ostensibly under their command is often fleeting at best.

In the United States, cliques in the same gang family often fight amongst themselves — sometimes over who has the right to conduct business in a particular neighborhood, and often in "beefs" that are really about respect or the lack of it. There are similar patterns of infighting in Afghanistan between factions of the Taliban that are ostensibly allied. As with gang members in the United States, many if not most of the Taliban foot soldiers are locals in the communities where they’re based. And like in the United States, there aren’t actually that many of them relative to the population of the areas where they operate; it takes just a handful of violent actors to terrorize a whole community.

But the most critical parallel may be the similar type of narratives that violent groups use to justify their activities. In violence-wracked African American communities, it’s widely whispered that police are part of a conspiracy to destroy the black community, that the Central Intelligence Agency invented crack, and that Washington floods these neighborhoods with drugs as an excuse to put young African-American men in jail. All too often, this narrative makes community members reluctant to work with police, choosing instead to quietly suffer crime and violence.

"No one likes to say it, but the issue is soaked in race," says David Kennedy, a crime-control specialist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose innovative programs to reduce inner-city violence are being applied in about 50 American cities through the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC). "And when we discussed race in the context of a core community issue, like reducing violence, we found we could make progress because everybody wanted the same thing."

In Afghanistan, the issue is soaked in Islam. The Taliban narrative echoes the gang narrative in African-American communities: U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world as part of a conspiracy to destroy the religion; Afghan women are being turned into sex slaves at U.S. bases; CIA agents are smuggling heroin to fund U.S. military operations; and Washington uses the drug trade and al Qaeda as an excuse to incarcerate thousands of young Muslim men around the globe.

"In a very real way, we need to deal with the ideas that motivate people in these kinds of groups," Kennedy says. "We need to challenge the dumb ideas that are driving their behavior."

And, he says, we need to challenge the dumb ideas that drive official engagement with such communities. In the United States that meant breaking a misguided narrative among law enforcement: that gang members engaged in violence for no reason, that the community lacked moral backbone and didn’t really want to stop the problem, and that there really wasn’t much of a community to partner with anyway.

I often hear similar language when American leaders discuss communities in Afghanistan. But when I speak to Afghans, they say they want safe communities, jobs, and schools for their children. The key is getting security providers to work closely with the communities.

Consider how this has worked in the United States. Kennedy helped American police forces develop a strategy, known variously as "Operation Ceasefire" or in law-enforcement jargon as "focused deterrence." Members of the community — often mothers who lost sons to gang violence and, when possible, former gang members themselves — gather the gang members as a group and call for an end to violence.

Local government agencies and organizations, meanwhile, offer social services such as vocational training, while police gather offenders to spell out clearly which crimes will draw which responses from law enforcement. Focused-deterrence programs in the United States have reduced homicides on average by 30 to 50 percent, according to the NNSC, with even greater declines in gang violence in some cities.

With some adaptations, focused deterrence could help engage communities and work toward reducing violence in Afghanistan as well. Ordinary Afghans in remote parts of the country will be unlikely to stand up to the Taliban on their own, but NATO forces could provide the security they need to feel safe delivering such messages. Such a program could enhance counterinsurgency tactics that seem to be succeeding in some districts of Afghanistan, while struggling in others.

Of course, Afghanistan would present its own special challenges — chiefly, that police and local power brokers also victimize the Afghan populace, a prospect that would make it difficult to find reliable local partners in some districts. The strategy could be tested first in relatively promising areas like Nawa, where local governance is at least improving, and where there is a community already willing to engage the coalition.

Change wouldn’t happen overnight, making this kind of approach a hard sell at a time when many Americans’ biggest concern in Afghanistan is how to get out of it. The experience of police departments in American cities has shown there must be sustained engagement, and real commitment, for these tactics to work.

But we do share one clearly unified goal with the Afghans: A recent poll has shown that security remains the number one concern among the rural populace there, followed by unemployment and corruption. As U.S. casualty figures also climb, force protection must surely be a priority for coalition commanders too. Reducing violence on Afghanistan’s streets is a simple, shared objective toward which Americans and Afghans can all agree to work.

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