American COIN in America

For a while now I’ve considered the plausibility or, perhaps, inevitability of insurgent tactics witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan making their way west and finding a new home in the violent counter culture that is the American gangland. Thankfully we have yet to see the drive by shooting evolve into a Los Angeles road side bombing. Thankfully the ethos of the modern “gangbanger” has, at it’s center, a hefty amount of narcissism and so the suicide bomber remains a very remote possibility.

In considering the possibility of native criminals entertaining the tactics of insurgents abroad, I’d also given thought to the “what if” concept of American law enforcement agencies practicing some form of counter insurgency strategy. It turns out the extreme environment of road side bombs and suicide bombers isn’t necessary. Rampant gang related crime has driven one Californian police force to adopt the methods and assistance from some Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran counter-insurgents.

<blockquote>In the space of 11 days this year, seven people were murdered in Salinas. Each killing, like the record 25 homicides the previous year, spilled from the gang warfare that this summer pushed the homicide rate in the city of 140,000 to three times that of Los Angeles. Residents retreated indoors at night, and Mayor Dennis Donohue affirmed his decision to seek help from an unlikely source: the U.S. military.

Since February, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been advising Salinas police on counterinsurgency strategy, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city.</blockquote>

I’m of two mindsets regarding this evolution of law enforcement. In one respect, I see it as a remarkably adaptive effort in domestic law enforcement’s effort to combat rampant gang related crime. On the other hand, I consider this another step toward the militarization of American law enforcement. This shift toward a more militant stance is and has been incremental in varying degrees; from the glaring example of no knock warrants to the more inconspicuous, psychological effects of police attire (specifically boots; sounds ridiculous but think about it for a moment.)

I don’t envision a near future America being dominated by a militocracy. We’re too socially dynamic and generally rebellious to allow that. But I do fear (and yes it’s an age old fear) a gradual allowance of Constitutional privilege to law enforcement for a return of the perception of safety.

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17 Responses to American COIN in America

  1. chris says:

    Isn’t a COIN strategy kind of what one would expect of law enforcement. Specifically the idea that the populace is the prize and that tantamount is providing security and opportunity for non-insurgents (or regular citizens in this case). More broadly, I find this distinction of COIN as a wholly militaristic a bit troubling. For instance, there is a concerted effort in civilian USG efforts in Afghanistan to distance themselves from “sustainable development” and focus on COIN. I’m not sure that there’s is much of a difference on a practical level between tenents of COIN strategy and sustainable development, or even community based policing on a domestic level for that matter. The real problem is whether there is really the capacity, knowledge base, or will to move away from “knocking heads” towards a smarter approach.

  2. Thomas says:

    I have to agree whole heartedly about both the erosion of constitutional prohibitions on law enforcement and on the evolution of police attire.

    While I’m sure there are a number of counter insurgency tactics that can prove very effective against gang warfare, just as there are a number of law enforcement tactics that should be adopted by US forces abroad, there are a number of key differences between an insurgency and a gang conflict.

    First, and I’m speaking of American urban gangs as they exist presently, gangs are rarely ideologically motivated. Race and territory matter much more than philosophy.

    Second, gangs are not goal oriented. While we can bicker at length about how well an insurgency may approach their goals, they’re almost never doing it just for kicks. Whether it’s to expel an invader, topple a regime or destroy a rival faith insurgents almost always have some idea of why they’re fighting, gangs generally do not.

    Finally, while there are a number of inter-insurgencies, the hallmark of such a conflict is an polyglot force battling a uniformed and organized force. American street gangs are most interested in fighting each other than in fighting the US government or the local police.

    Again, there are serious overlaps between the two, but it’s more that they resemble each other in outcome rather than in practice.

  3. tdaxp says:

    We may be returning to the social norm, with the Warren court and its legacy as a strange, unprecedented, and unrepeated outlier in American history…

  4. elambend says:

    I’m glad you brought up the issue of kit. One of my personal pet peeves is the militarized uniforms of American police. The biggest for me is not boots, but patches. I’ve noticed more and more police wearing military style clothing with FADED patches, much like our soldier wear. This makes sense in the case of a soldier for the reason of concealment, but for a civilian police office, the uniform is the sign of authority and should not be concealed.

    The only thing worse, for me, is the use of long sleave t-shirts with the word ‘Police’ emblazoned on it, often the back. Extra demerits for those officers who don’t tuck them in.

  5. Chief Wiggum says:

    “I believe that wearing military-type boots instead of shoes tends to make the wearer feel more military and therefore more aggressive.”

    That seems like a stretch. Would wearing cowboy boots make someone more inclined to lasso cattle?

    There are bona fide tactical reasons for wearing boots and tucking in one’s pants for combat soldiers, and perhaps some police as well. Boots and tucked in pants are less likely to gets snagged on things, and it keeps debris out of the boots. Lots of people wear military-style pants. The civilian versions are called cargo pants. So far, I haven’t felt like lighting anyone up while wearing my cargo pants.

  6. Eric C says:

    COIN tactics don’t need to make their way here, police tactics need to make their way to Iraq and Afghanistan.

  7. Alex says:

    I think people are making a mistake by focusing too much on the militarization of the police…the part of COIN strategy they’re focusing on is about separating insurgents/gang-members from the local population and isolating them. Like they said in the article, “changing the community dynamic” or something to that effect.

    I think it’s a great idea. The police force needs to have the trust of the people they’re serving.

  8. Alex says:

    Pardon the redundancy in my last post.

  9. Eddie says:

    In some American cities, at this point you have gangs which continually run roughshod over the law and terrorize the citizenry. Laws as defined within the limits of our Constitution mean little to them, as they kill witnesses, threaten the families of police and city officials, and violently invoke their power by making examples of people who dare to oppose their rule over the drug trade, territory and other competitive sectors.

    How do you solve this? One huge aspect of the problem is the money/funding gap cities have when faced with this matter. There is little private sector money and definitely little federal/state money to create jobs programs, bring investment into battered neighborhoods, and hire enough officers (or FBI agents to bring federal force to bear on some of the more extreme and violent gangs) to keep the peace.

    My problem with this COIN strategy is that there is not nearly enough money behind it. COIN worked in Iraq largely because we could afford to bribe tribes and individuals with money and jobs to stay out of trouble and punish violent offenders. You can’t do that in America at this point.

    What could help (and what would be the best outcome of multiple states going bankrupt or having to severely cut funding across the board) would be for non-violent crimes to cease entailing incarceration and for drug offenses in particular to be radically changed from the current system of locking up pot and crack smokers for 10-20 years a pop. With much smaller prisons and prison budgets, some of the money could be re-routed to cities to make up for 40 years of failed social policy that has utterly devastated certain poor communities by robbing them of young men, jobs and good schools. Use that money to back up COIN experiments like the one mentioned in the article and you might actually get somewhere in the long run.

  10. SJPONeill says:

    Well, first up I think some people really need to read the article in question. Where does it mention “..shift toward a more militant stance is and has been incremental in varying degrees; from the glaring example of no knock warrants to the more inconspicuous, psychological effects of police attire (specifically boots; sounds ridiculous but think about it for a moment.)”? It is disappointing when people will seize any opportunity to leap on their personal soapbox instead of actually considering the issues. I commented on this last month – it’s not a December story http://sjponeill.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/rattatattatat/) with links to some other articles on the topic.

    I say more power to those in Salinas who got out of the square and tried something new. The essence of COIN is to identify and address the core issues behind an insurgency and many of the principles are the same in law enforcement which also requires a multi-level multi-agency approach for success.

    If nothing else comes from the Monterey study that the insight into police officer recruiting, it will have been a valuable activity upon which others can build…instead of just sounding off…

  11. “On the other hand, I consider this another step toward the militarization of American law enforcement. ”

    If we had the same trauma care today as in 1960 we’d have five times the murder rate. People are TRYING to kill each other at astronomical and unprecedented rates.

    Plus, we are a diverse country now, and we do not demand assimilation. So ethnic enclaves carry on with the cultural norms of foreign cultures, yet with the constitutional safeguards meant for a homogeneous and high-trust culture that is withering away. Diversity = low trust, violent and atomized localities which don’t function as communities. All the happy-talk is a bunch of lies.

    The resulting threats are approaching military-scale, unlike in the past.

    America is an intolerant, middle class country that highly values civil peace and safe streets, and will tolerate whatever means are necessary to get them.

    As Dan notes, the Warren Court era was unusual. Before that, limitations on law enforcement were only constitutional for the Federal government. State and local law enforcement were much closer to democratic control and majority preferences.

    Nonetheless, COIN is more like the civilian-police-ization of the military. COIN methods can and should be used to attack organized gangs. So-called third generation gangs are a major menace.

  12. Oliver says:

    “Second, gangs are not goal oriented. While we can bicker at length about how well an insurgency may approach their goals, they’re almost never doing it just for kicks. ”

    Isn’t running an economic activity a goal? You are pumping too much money into illegal channels by banning too much lucrative business. Legalize narcotics and prostitution and much of the problem vanishes.

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  14. This picture shows how the criminals are equipped.

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/12/11/this_week_at_war_mexicos_narco_armies?page=0,0

    No surprise the cops are escalating in response, and that the public is tolerating that response.

    I tend to be a drug libertarian, and I think the War on Drugs should be wrapped up and shut down, though the details of how that would be done would be critically important. (As a matter of political reality, I don’t think it will ever be stopped.) However, it is not clear that legalizing drugs now, after these monsters have been created, will make them go away. In fact, it is pretty unlikely. The Mobs that grew out of Prohibition did not go away, they just got into different businesses.

    There are only bad options, which is typical of serious, real-world problems.

  15. Actually that picture illustrates how Mexican cartel’s private armies are equipped. I’d suggest your average American gangbanger is, as often as not, packing a handgun not a sub-machine gun.

    You and I have similar views on drug laws. Seems to me that Mafia syndicates had extensive avenues of criminal profit making before prohibition. Once the alcohol ban was lifted they “fell back” on their previous exploits. American gangs seem to be a bit less sophisticated on the black marketeering front, not nearly as embedded in politics, unions, etc. What avenue do you suppose they’d “fall back” on would narcotics be legalized?

  16. “What avenue do you suppose they’d “fall back” on would narcotics be legalized?”

    What the ingenuity of hardcore criminals might come up with is beyond my ken.

    Extortion and protection rackets, kidnapping …

    ” your average American gangbanger is, as often as not, packing a handgun … ”

    True, so far, most of the time, though the Chicago gangs are apparently increasingly heavily armed, sometimes with machine pistols. The trend is not good. I recall one Chicago cop who is no longer “on the job” telling me about how when he started out, the worst you ever heard was “bangbangbang” but that by the time he retired he had heard “brrrp brrrrp brrrrp” a few times and was glad to get out. I have no reason to doubt him.

  17. Oliver says:

    “Extortion and protection rackets, kidnapping”

    True, but except for trafficking people and smuggling, the victims have an incentive to cooperate with the police. Police forces have to act like occupation forces because they are imposing laws nobody among the affected people wants.