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Army Takes Lessons From A U.S. Battle
The Boston Globe
March 24, 2005

WASHINGTON - As it struggles to control the insurgency in Iraq, the U.S. Army is looking for lessons from an unusual source: urban gangs.

After two years of steady violence, a new Army War College analysis concludes that, instead of fighting a ragtag army, American troops in Iraq are dealing with an enemy that more closely resembles sophisticated, violent street gangs, similar to powerful Central American groups spawned more than a decade ago in Los Angeles.

Challenging the conventional approach of the U.S. military and its allies of relying on firepower to defeat guerrillas, the study argues that the current anti-insurgent strategy can't succeed without tough police work and social programs addressing the root causes of street conflict -- poverty, injustice, repression, lack of opportunity.

"We traditionally think of insurgency as primarily a military activity, and we think of gangs as a simple law enforcement problem," according to the study by Max Manwaring, a professor of military strategy. "Yet insurgents and gangs are engaged in a highly complex political act: political war."

The Iraq insurgency shows signs of spiraling into a broader criminal network. Some senior officers have recently reported that criminals for hire are playing larger roles in the violence. But Manwaring's paper, which is getting attention on military websites and in internal Pentagon discussions, warns that the U.S. military still treats insurgents as largely a security problem, not a societal one -- a major reason why violence remains high in Iraq. Some specialists worry that without a more holistic approach, the instability will remain long after the troops come home.

"The U.S. military and the Iraqi security forces don't merely face a threat from the insurgency," said Phillip Carter, a former military police officer who writes extensively about military strategy. "They must also deal with the threat posed by street crime and other problems that threaten order and stability. If left unchecked, these criminal enterprises can ultimately mature into very dangerous adversaries of the sort seen in Colombia or even Somalia and Afghanistan."

More military strategists say commanders in Iraq need to engage in "cop work" to break up the insurgency, much like the FBI painstakingly took down the Mafia in the United States. Only then, they say, can the United States break up networks for moving illicit personnel, material, and money that fuel the violence and instability.

"These terrorists seem like gangs on the street who are willing to kill anybody," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, remarked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week. "In the cities of America, the best tool that the police have to stop that kind of activity is infiltrating the gang and, frankly, buying intelligence from people who are on the street, information to go after the killers."

Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, agreed. The key to successfully controlling the insurgency is "to work with the population and having the population get to sort of a tipping point where they willingly come forward" to tell what they know about insurgent activities.

Guerrilla fighters "hide in the population," added Carter. "They are the population. Military tactics aren't effective against an enemy you can't see and [that wants] to remain in the shadows."

The war college study concludes that a variety of street gangs -- from those that defend neighborhood turf to more powerful groups operating with broader criminal connections and ambitions -- have striking similarities to the Iraq guerrillas. Street gangs kill rivals in drive-by shootings, while insurgents use homemade roadside bombs against the military and quick-strike assassinations against the government. Both gangs and guerrillas use kidnapping, violence, and terror to silence witnesses.

The war college paper, published this month, singles out the evolution of Latino street gangs in California as a model of how local criminals and disaffected youth can combine, then quickly morph into vastly more organized and effective networks more difficult to control as they grow.

In the early 1990s, powerful Southern California Latino gangs, such as MS-18, Mao Mao, and Crazy Harrisons Salvatrucho, rapidly expanded into several nations in Central America. Many members were convicted felons the United States deported back to their countries of origin; those felons soon joined with larger criminal networks, such as drug cartels, and corrupt military, police, and intelligence officers. They now threaten the rule of law in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, openly battling governments for power.

In outlining the scourge of gangs in Central America, the military's top officer for Latin America earlier this month could have been talking about the Iraqi insurgents, whose relentless attacks continue to kill soldiers and civilians alike.

"Unemployment and poverty make Central America a spawning ground for gangs," Army General Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said in prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. "There are an estimated 70,000 gang members stretched across Central America. The level of sophistication and brutality of these gangs is without precedent. One gang in Guatemala requires the murder of a teenage girl as an initiation rite."

Military leaders say more and more young Iraqis, faced with unemployment and grinding poverty, have joined the ranks of the insurgency. U.S. intelligence officials believe the guerrillas pay jobless youths to execute some of their operations. The insurgents -- a lethal association of highly-trained former military and intelligence officers, foreign terrorists, and common criminals -- are also believed to have a network of informants inside the new Iraqi government.

"The challenge, then, is to come to terms with the fact that contemporary security and stability, at whatever level, is at base a holistic political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and military police effort," Manwaring writes.

"Even if the insurgency is eventually neutralized, the average Iraqi will continue to live in fear if these criminal elements are not dealt with," said Carter. "Soldiers and military force cannot deal with this threat alone; it must be eliminated using a combination of military, law enforcement, intelligence, and legal capabilities."

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Copyright 2004 The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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